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Information on the History of Cotter, Arkansas

Cotter, Arkansas, is an Ozark mountain town of 900 on a horseshoe bend in the White River in north central Arkansas (Baxter County).

Because of the river's rich resources and the town's aptly named Big Spring, various and numerous indigenous peoples thrived on this spot for thousands of years. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft spent the night of January 14, 1819, on the bend that is now home to Cotter, and in the late 1838-39, the Trail of Tears crossed the river in what is now Cotter. The settlement was first called Lake's Ferry and/or Lake's Landing. A ferry crossed the river just downstream from Big Spring, and a major steamboat landing was just upstream. Last known as McBee's Landing, it included a large warehouse and a 16-room home. It has disappeared.

In 1892, Herbert Hoover spent the summer helping State Geologist John C. Branner with a mineralogical survey the area. That was during a mining boom in Baxter and surrounding counties that began in the 1880s. In 1901 more than 20 mining companies were active in Baxter County with a total capitalization of over $21 million. The mining boom faded quickly after the end of World War I.

After lengthy public debate, a Missouri-Pacific Railroad official announced Nov. 21, 1902, that the White River Line would meet the main Missouri-Pacific line at Lake's Landing. A railroad division point, it had a roundhouse where steam engines were serviced. Construction for the railroad yard, a tunnel, and a railroad bridge swelled the population of Lake's Landing to at least 600, and it was served by at least 43 businesses. Its first post office was established in 1903 and located at McBee's Landing, and its first school opened in 1904 with 40 pupils. It was finally incorporated in 1905, the year the railroad bridge across the White River was completed, and was named in honor of popular railroad manager, William Cotter. The first passenger train arrived on a snowy day in January 1906.

Cotter was a regional hub of commerce -- with all that implies -- because of the railroad boom. As the century progressed and automotive traffic increased, so did the need for a highway bridge across the White River from north central Arkansas into Oklahoma and points west. Baxter County Judge R.M. Ruthven, a resident of Cotter, played a key role in acquiring state approval to locate the bridge at Cotter.

Thus, in 1930, a Marsh Rainbow Arch bridge -- among the world's largest -- was built across the White River at Cotter. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places and the Historic American Engineering Record and has been designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The bridge opened what is now U.S. Highway 62 for traffic west to Oklahoma and beyond. Because of the aesthetic appeal of its sweeping arches, it is said to be the most-photographed bridge in Arkansas.

Two dams to generate electricity and control flooding were built on the White River after World War II, Bull Shoals upstream and Norfork downstream from Cotter. Corps of Engineers employees lived in Mountain Home, about 10 miles from Cotter and between the two dam sites. A short railroad line was built above Cotter to take materials for Bull Shoals dam to its site about 15 miles upstream from Cotter. After the dams were complete, Mountain Home became a popular resort area, and tourists who came to visit the Lake Bull Shoals and Lake Norfork later would return there in the first wave of retirees. About one-third of the county's population is over 65, the highest proportion in the state.

In the meantime, Cotter began to decline. On March 21, 1960, the last passenger train pulled out of Cotter. The engineer was A.C. Schultz, son of Charles Schultz, who reportedly was engineer on the first passenger train in to Cotter. Population had diminished as jobs were lost over time, and some of the city's assets began to decay. Few of the buildings in the once-bustling downtown were occupied, except for a sewing factory, as time and transportation bypassed the now quiet little city.

In 1992, long-time residents formed the all-volunteer Cotter Care Crews to undo some of the deterioration that had taken place over the years. Among their accomplishments are city beautification and the development of parks and walking trails along the river. A team from the University of Arkansas Center for Community Design spent the summer of 1999, in Cotter and proposed a plan that would focus on our natural beauty and our rich history.

As of this writing in November 2000, three antique stores and a pottery studio have opened downtown, and two restaurants are in the works. What was once the Methodist Church is now home to a concert series that attracts nationally known singer-songwriters from all over the country. The city aspires to listings on the National Register of Historic Places for the commercial and residential properties that lend to the city's historic ambience.


Most of the historical information above was compiled primarily from McClelland's History of Baxter County; Adams' The White River Railway; Lawry's Cotter, Arkansas, The Story of a Small Town; and Steamboats and Ferries on the White River by Huddleston, Rose, and Wood.


I am working on an oral history of Cotter for my dissertation in adult education. If you have information, a photograph, or an artifact she may photograph to include, please contact her at P.O. Box 308, Cotter, AR 72626 or aramey@comp.uark.edu.