Compiled and Written by Mrs. Hilliard Stroud and Judge Jim Merritt
(From "1981 Programs of the Desha County (AR) Historical Society," Vol. 8, No. 1, pp 67-72)
The origin of the City of McGehee, Arkansas resulted by the merging of three major factors: the construction of the Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas Railroad, the surface of features and geographical location of the site and the presence of Abner McGehee in the vicinity.
The assets of the bankrupt Texas, Mississippi and Northwestern Railroad Company were acquired on December 18, 1875 by the newly chartered Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas Railroad Company. This company abandoned the tracks from Varner (Lincoln County) to Watson (Desha County) to Chicot City and Arkansas City (Desha County). The line to Eunice (Chicot County) and Halley (Bowie Station in Desha County) was also abandoned. The reason for this action was the great damage and destruction of the roadbed and bridges of the railroad caused by the floods on the Mississippi River and the overflow of the Cypress Creek and its tributaries.
The right of way for the new railroad was to begin south of Varner and proceed south to what is now Dumas (Desha County), then along the high bank or the east side of Crooked Bayou to what is now McGehee and continuing on to the Trippe Community area. This was to form a junction with the new railroad to be constructed from Arkansas City and south to the present town of Halley. Here the railroad would join with the old Mississippi, Ouachita and Red River railroad to Dermott and points west. There was to be an extension line from the present sight of McGehee to Dermott and points south through the state of Louisiana.
The surface features of the site and the geographical location for what is now the town of McGehee fitted well into the plans of the new railroad company.
The site was on the east bank of Crooked Bayou and was level with a natural drainage. It was three miles north of what was later Trippe Junction. Three miles further south at what is now Halley this railroad would join the old Mississippi, Ouachita and Red River railroad to Dermott and points west. The site for the town of McGehee was about equal distance from Little Rock, Arkansas and Monroe and Lake Providence, Louisiana and formed a division terminal, which was used for the changing of the train crews. The location was perfect for the southern terminal of the Memphis, Helena and Louisiana company to Watson, Arkansas and points north across the Arkansas and White Rivers and on to Memphis, Tennessee.
The plan of the company was to have access to a Mississippi River port and two Arkansas River ports. The long-range plan was to connect with the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. Such connections would tap the natural resources of the area such as timber, agricultural products, and industry.
Some historians recorded the location of the route of the relocated railroad in the now McGehee area as "run south through Judge Humphrey's plantation". The land on which was to be located the original town of McGehee was owned by Abner McGehee. It was not in cultivation at the time of the survey of the railroad route.
The plantation named in this record was owned by Judge James Humphrey who was married to Ella Bowling of the famous Bowling family in Kentucky. It was located in the southern part of what is now the town of McGehee in about the general vicinity of the lands of the late Judge Hugh L. Williams, later acquired by the late Earnest Gill. The new railroad did pass over a portion of this land. The only remaining memorial to the Humphrey's ownership of the land is the railroad right of way, the McGehee Cemetery and the Evening Star Baptist Church. This African-American church is located on the east side of state highway four on south First Street at the north end of railroad highway overpass.
Other owners of the land in the immediate area were Benjamin McGehee, Abner McGehee and the J. W. Maulding family.
The third factor in the creation of the city of McGehee was the presence of Abner McGehee. He was a direct descendent of James MacGregor of the McGregor Scottish Highland Clan of Scotland in the British Isles who came to Virginia in the American Colonies about 1652. He changed his name later to Thomas Mack Gehee because of an act of Parliament of England. Abner McGehee's bloodline has been traced to the royalty of the nations along the western seaboards of Europe.
The Arkansas branch of the McGehee brothers, of which Abner was a member located in what is now the town of McGehee from Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1957. The first official residence of this family in this state appears in the 1860 Federal Census, listing the family in Railroad Township in Chicot County. Railroad township is best known as the location of Eunice which was the eastern terminal of the Mississippi, Ouachita and Red River Railroad with the post office at Gaines Landing.
The family at the time of this enumeration consisted of Benjamin McGehee, age 33 years, (born November 20, 1827 in Alabama).
He is listed as a farm overseer and surveyor. He was the son of T.B.S. (Thomas Baytop Scott) McGehee. His wife, Sarah A. McGehee, age 35 (who was Sarah Ann Vanhoose Noble, a widow). Others listed were a son, (A) Abner McGehee age 9 years, born in Alabama, April 12, 1851, a daughter, (B) Laura A. McGehee, age 3 years, born in Alabama January 25, 1857 and died February 15, 1873. (C) A daughter, Mary E. McGehee, age 8 months, born in Chicot County. She was married to J.C. Whitehill and lived in Meadville, Pennsylvania. (D) Also living with this family was Martha Noble, age 15 years, of Alabama, the daughter of the deceased first husband of Mrs. McGehee and his first wife.
Edmund McGehee, a close relative of the family who lived in Memphis, Tennessee had acquired thousands of acres of land from the government and from other sources by 1850. A part of this land was in the present area of Halley and Trippe Junction. He learned of the proposed plans for the construction of a railroad across Southern Arkansas into Texas beginning at the Mississippi River running west to Texarkana, Arkansas. Edmond offered to sell part of this land to William Fletcher Trippe who was married to Mary Evelyn McGehee Mitchell, a daughter of T.B.S. McGehee and a sister to Benjamin McGehee. Mr. Trippe purchased 1500 acres in the present Halley Trippe Junction area. The Trippe family along with the Benjamin McGehee family came from Alabama to Gaines Landing in Chicot County Arkansas in covered wagons in 1857 and settled on the Trippe lands. Mrs. Maude Bowden, who today resides near the old Trippe home is a granddaughter of William Fletcher Trippe.
Benjamin McGehee and his family settled on land, a part of which is now the town of McGehee, and constructed a log house near the present intersection of U.S. Highway 65 and State Highway 4. The house stood in the grove of pecan trees on land now owned by the Potlatch Corporation. Later, Mr. McGehee constructed a larger home on this same location, which stood for many years after his death.
Mrs. (Sarah) McGehee died, and Mr. McGehee married Fannie Halley, a widow related to the Halley family. Benjamin McGehee died February 11, 1900. He was buried in the Holly Grove Church Cemetery February 14, 1900. He was a charter member of the Holly Grove Methodist, which was organized in 1861. He served as County Surveyor from 1882 to 1884.
Abner McGehee, son of Benjamin McGehee, attended such schools as were available including one session at the Holly Grove Methodist Church. The greater part of his education was gained from the tutoring of his mother and father. It is reported that he had a keen perceptive mind and grasped subjects easily especially mathematics. At an early age he began assisting his father in the family farming and livestock operations. Later, he rented land from his father and began farming for himself. Abner purchased 240 acres of woodlands north and east of his father's from Sterling R. Cockrill on July 15, 1876 on which was later to be located the town of McGehee. He paid $2.00 per acre for the land with one third being paid in cash and the balance to be yearly payments at ten per cent interest.
Abner married in the fall of 1876 and built a log house as a residence on his land on the west side of Crooked Bayou in a grove of beautiful oak trees facing the bayou. In the 1880's and prior to 1890 he constructed a large frame house on the site of the log house. This home had a porch running the length of the front of the house with an opening known as a dog trot through the center. There were brick chimneys on both sides of the house, which was just north of the (former) post office building and on the west side of Second Street. The house stood until about forty years ago.
Crooked Bayou was a natural drain flowing south and was almost always filled with water. A footbridge was built to cross from one side to the other but when the stream overflowed with surface water, boats had to be used to cross over. There was a path from the McGehee Store now near Railroad Street to the bayou and Abner constructed a footbridge to cross the bayou to his house.
The survey of the right of way for the railroad to be built was completed soon after Abner purchased the land and when construction began, he sold the railroad company bridge timber and cross ties from his woodlands. This money helped him in clearing additional acres of his land for farming north of what is now the town of McGehee.
The railroad line came into McGehee Station in 1878 and continued south and southwest. People began to move into the area. There were numbers of construction workers, contractors, farmers, timber workers and some businessmen. Soon Abner constructed a large frame commissary building and entered the mercantile moving business to supply the needs of the people moving in. The business was enlarged from time to time to further take care of the trade. By 1890 the building measured some 75 feet by 50 feet. A large warehouse was built at the rear with a shipping platform on the east side adjacent to the railroad tracks. This business was located facing south on what is now Oak Street.
A saw mill located in the area to cut timber from the Abner McGehee land which he used in building shotgun type rent houses. He was employed as station agent by the railroad company. Later, on March 8, 1879 Abner was appointed as postmaster with the post office being located in his commissary. He served as postmaster until July 10, 1905.
There is an interesting sidelight to the naming and location of the post office. Abner made application for the establishment of a post office on February 21, 1879 and submitted the name of the proposed office to be Holly Glade because of the prevalence of holly trees in the area. He stated that the location was to be in Chicot County at McGehee Station on the Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas Railroad. He apparently was not aware that the location submitted on the application had been removed from Chicot County and annexed to Desha County on February 10, 1879. When the application was received and investigated by the post office department this error was noted and the word Chicot stricken from the form and the word Desha substituted and with further revisions — the name Holly Glade was stricken and the name McGehee was substituted. The names of the nearest post offices were listed as Arkansas City, Dermott, Bowie and Varner. The application stated that the population to be served by this new office was from 400 to 500. A topographer's report showed that the post office would be located 150 to 200 yards from the railroad station and 50 yards east of Crooked Bayou thus placing it in the Abner McGehee commissary.
Abner began to finance the area farmers including his tenants on his farm with what was commonly called "furnishings" from his commissary. He built a cotton gin north of the commissary and ginned the cotton, bought sold and stored cotton and cottonseed. He later constructed a sawmill near the gin and used a steam plant for both the mill and gin. The year 1878 saw his enterprises beginning to prosper and by 1900 Abner had accumulated some 2000 acres of land.
The residence on the west side of Crooked Bayou became too small for his growing family and too inconvenient to reach from his business. He built a two-story frame house on Railroad Street facing the railroad. The home was south of his commissary and north of the railroad station between what is now First Street and Railroad Street. The site was south of the present Smith Hardware building. Later on a part of this site was the stone or concrete building erected as the first office building in McGehee and which housed the telephone exchange.
In the new residence Mr. McGehee opened a boarding house to accommodate the train crews, passengers going north or south on the train. Mrs. McGehee served meals to the people when the train made stops to service their equipment. The family lived here until they moved to Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas Railroad Company was foreclosed by its creditors and sold at auction on January 28, 1887 to Jay Gould, the famed New York financier. Mr. Gould owned at that time the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Pacific Railroad Company and on February 1,1887 conveyed the newly acquired system to his railroad company. The former Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas system now became a division of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad Company. It seems that Abner had a very close association with the officials of the old railroad company and soon was acquainted with the men working the new railroad line including the president, Jay Gould.
Abner contracted with the Memphis, Helena and Louisiana Railroad Company to provide cross ties and bridge timber for the roadway and also had this same agreement with the Houston, Central Arkansas, and Northern Railroad Company that built the railroad from Halley south into Louisiana.
The Memphis, Helena and Louisiana Railroad Company was chartered November 7, 1901 with capital stock owned by the Iron Mountain Railroad system. This railroad was to start at McGehee Station and run north along the eastern boundary of Desha County to McArthur, Rohwer, Kelso and Watson. It was to cross the Arkansas and White Rivers and Yancopin and extend on to Snow Lake. From here the line would continue and connect with the Memphis branch of the Iron Mountain line. Construction began on this road in 1902 and was completed on March 4, 1906. The plan of the company was to develop the eastern part of Desha County and to connect with the river ports of Helena and Memphis. It was further planned that a part of the Iron Mountain system would serve as a direct line for these ports and also for the area of the present town of McGehee. The railroad would go south through the state of Louisiana on to the Gulf of Mexico for contact with overseas trade.
On May 12, 1904 Abner McGehee conveyed some 51 acres of land located east of the mainline of the Iron Mountain Railroad, at what is now McGehee, to the company for the construction of switchyards and shops and for the southern terminal of the Memphis, Helena and Louisiana Railroad Company. The shops began moving in about 1905. Mr. McGehee was now certain that by the acquisition of these lands and the construction of the railroad that the site of what is now the town of McGehee would be a major part of the railroad system and would develop into a city. He then had the lands now known as the "original town of McGehee" surveyed and platted into lots, blocks, streets and alleys. The exact date of the survey and the first plat is now known but it was made sometime prior to December 12, 1903. On this date Abner sold to B.A. Kimball lot 6 block 58 which is the corner of Pine and Railroad Street. His Bill of Assurance dated October 4,1904 was filed for record April 20, 1905. In this writing, which dedicated the streets and alleys to the public, he named the town in these words — "Shall be known as McGehee (Arkansas)". This was the first formal move to establish a city — the city of McGehee. Mr. McGehee named the streets running east and west for trees except one called North Street. Streets going north and south were numbered such as first, second, third and fourth streets. First Street was the location of an old Indian Trace known as Crooked Bayou Road running along the east bank of the bayou.
The plat, which was a part of the Bill of Assurance, was filed on November 12, 1904 and is the one being used in this writing. This plat appears in plat Book 1, Page 12 and was drafted by James A. Martin, Civil Engineer. It shows all blocks to be 300 feet square by 300 feet square except where otherwise noted. All lots were noted to be 50 feet by 140 feet except where shown to be otherwise. All the streets to be 60 feet wide except as marked differently. The plat was drawn to a scale. There is shown on the plat two tracts on the east side of the railroad right of way with streets being an extension of the streets on the west side except they are shown as East First Street, Second and Third. The northern most tract is easily distinguishable as we know it to be called Rankle Town. The tracts south from here were east of the switchyards and were never fully developed. Another plat recorded in plat Book 1, page 45 is a retracement made by S.W. Whitthorne, Civil Engineer of the plat made by James A. Martin and dated April 3, 1916. There is a notation on the retracement as Frank A. Allen, Civil Engineer.
After Bill of Assurance had been executed and before the filing and incorporation of the site into a town a bank, known as the McGehee Bank was organized by Abner McGehee and several prominent business men of Little Rock and McGehee. It was organized November 15, 1904 with the president named as Mr. McGehee.
The possibilities of the development of the proposed town of McGehee now became evident to other businessmen in the area. Henry Thane of Arkansas City, president of the Desha Bank and Trust Company of Arkansas City organized the Valley Bank in 1905 here, which later became the McGehee Valley Bank in 1908. The first newspaper in McGehee appeared in 1909.
A petition for the incorporation of the town of McGehee as a municipality was filed in the county court of Desha County on January 15, 1906. The petition was signed by Abner McGehee, J.M. Stuart, F (J) C. Chennault, A.S. Immerman and sixteen other qualified persons. Attached to the petition was a plat of the land to be incorporated. (This petition or plat cannot be located). The petitioners were represented by Austin and Danaher, Attorneys at Law. A hearing on the petition was set by the court for March 5, 1906 and notice was given in the New Enterprise, a weekly newspaper published in Arkansas City. On March 5, 1906 the petition for incorporation was heard by the court. An order dated March 5, 1906, Judge W.F. Besselieu presiding, was entered incorporating the town of McGehee, Arkansas. The land included parts of section 27 and 34 in township 12 south, range 3 west and described by metes and bounds, but with reference to north, Third, Holly, Fourth and Gum Streets, this indicates of record that this area had been previously platted into blocks and streets.
The first meeting of the town council convened on July 21,1906. There were present the mayor, J.E. Erwin, Recorder, A.S. Immerman and the five council members who were Abner McGehee Sr., Sam Walchansky, W.A. McKennon, Dr. J.C. Chennault and R.H. Randle. The only business transacted was the introducing of an ordinance to adopt the laws of the State of Arkansas.
Abner McGehee, at the age of 25 years, married Miss Jennie Dickenson, age 19 years, of Monticello, Arkansas, on October 25, 1876 in a double wedding ceremony. This was reported to have been the first such wedding to take place in the state. The other couple was Jenny Hearn, a cousin of Miss Dickenson, and H.C. Watson. The ceremony was performed by Reverend James R. Harvey, a Methodist minister.
Mrs. McGehee was the daughter of Wiley and Polly (Downey) Dickenson. She was born on the Dickenson plantation near Bastrop, Louisiana. Her parents died when she was quite young, and she was reared by her uncle and aunt, Reverend and Mrs. J. (James) R. Harvey of Monticello and Hamburg. Reverend Harvey was a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and later served as Superintendent of the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mrs. McGehee was educated in a private school operated by Woodville E. Thompson of Monticello, Arkansas who later served as Superintendent of Public Instruction of Arkansas from 1882 to 1890.
Mrs. Abner McGehee was known as a good cook and homemaker, a loving wife and mother and had a keen sense of humor. She and Abner were both active members of the Methodist Church and after the family moved to Little Rock. Mrs. McGehee continued to be active as a member of the First Methodist Church in that city.
There was born to this marriage eight children as listed:
James Dickenson McGehee (Jimmy Dick) an employee of the railroad company. He died in Louisiana April 21, 1931 and left surviving his wife, Elizabeth Lynn McGehee and one daughter, Elizabeth Ann, who later married a Mr. Perez.
Abner McGehee Jr., Circuit Judge of Pulaski (Little Rock) who died June 10, 1938 and was survived by his wife, Margie Ellis McGehee, two sons, Abner McGehee III, a lawyer in Little Rock, who provided the background information for this story and Frank Ellis McGehee of Little Rock.
Benjamin Collins McGehee (Ben C. or B.C.) built the Ben McGehee Hotel, later the Grady Manning Hotel in Little Rock. He died December 25, 1933 leaving his wife Rose Dickenson McGehee and a daughter Fannie Rose McGehee who later married a Mr. Ogden.
Jeannette McGehee (Mrs. George S. Harvey) died in 1937 and left surviving a son, Abner McGehee Harvey.
Elizabeth McGehee (Mrs. Thomas B. Jacobs) born September 5, 1889 and died January 16, 1938 leaving no survivors.
Scott McGehee who served as Desha County Representative and later as senator from Drew and Desha Counties. He was the local manager for the McGehee Estate. He was born February 7, 1887 and died in 1941 leaving no children.
Wiley A. McGehee was born in 1892 and died April 3, 1947. Wiley was a brilliant student in chemistry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. After his graduation from the University he served as a member of the faculty there. He was married to Marnette Wolfe, daughter of R.F. (Bob) Wolfe of Tillar on September 11, 1921. Wiley A. later was local manager of the McGehee Estate. He died April 3, 1947 and left surviving his wife Marnette and one son Wiley McGehee Jr., born August 31, 1924 now deceased. Wiley Jr. is survived by his wife, Ouida Riley McGehee.
T.B. McGehee (Thomas Baytop) was born July 14, 1894 and died December 5, 1938 leaving no survivors. He was never married.
When the children were young Abner purchased a home in Little Rock Arkansas at 1315 Scott Street and moved the family there about 1905. The purpose of the move was to educate the children. He spent most of his time in McGehee supervising his many business operations.
Mr. McGehee died in Little Rock on April 9, 1908 at the age of 57 years. His body was interred in Oakland Cemetery in Little Rock. At his passing the destiny of the town of McGehee was left to his widow, children and the leaders of the town.
The sons and daughters of Abner McGehee had installed in the sanctuary of the newly constructed First Methodist Church of McGehee two large Memorial Windows. The inscription on one "In Memory of our Grandfather Reverend Benjamin McGehee" and on the other "In Memory of our Father, Abner
McGehee" years later when the present First United Methodist Church was constructed these memorials were preserved and are again in the windows of the new sanctuary.