Located west of Pike Avenue in North Little Rock — across from the shops now under the Union Pacific banner — Baring Cross was a prosperous town primarily of middle-class railroad workers that took its name from the first steel bridge to span the Arkansas River in 1873. From 1896 to early 1905, Baring Cross was a municipality that encompassed a smaller area than today. North Little Rock annexed the town, which became the city’s 5th Ward and home to several mayors and aldermen. Following national trends, Baring Cross decayed economically in the 1960s and ‘70s as homeowners moved to newer neighborhoods in suburbia. Urban Renewal had little long-term effect on the decline, but a combination of federal and local money through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program in 2010 as well as private investment is spurring revitalization.
The name of Baring Cross comes from the Baring and Company bankers of the United Kingdom, who financed construction of the Baring Cross Bridgein 1872-73. Historians disagree over the origin of “Cross.” Prior to the bridge, which opened in late 1873, farmsteads of pioneer families of Josiah M. Giles and Emanuel Boone, ruled the fertile bottomlands near the river west of Argenta. In March 1873, the Arkansas Gazette described Baring Cross as “not very populous” with room to grow. “It has one or two small wooden dwellings, and two large railway buildings,” the newspaper wrote. “The ground is covered with main and side tracks, which run in every direction.” A freight depot stood at the end of the track at the water’s edge, but it was “full to the ceiling” because of the difficulty of crossing the river without a railroad bridge, then under construction. Freight had to be loaded into wagons for the trip via ferry.
As the railroad flourished, so did the community that sprang up west of Pike. The St. Louis, IronMountainand Southern Railway, which acquired the Cairoand Fultonin May 1874, first built a 12-stall frame roundhouse and machine shop along Pike Avenuethat replaced a smaller building. Then, in 1888, the IronMountain, which was acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railway, built a 28-stall brick roundhouse. Later expansion was possible after drainage of the Baring Cross swamp in 1890. The site has served continuously to this day as a railroad hub and the area’s largest employer. The $40 million Downing B. Jenks Shop, dedicated in 1984, is a major diesel engine repair shop in the Union Pacific system. Pike Avenuewas the main street of Baring Cross life from the 1870s onward. By 1900, three hotels, a community hall, stores and restaurants drove residential and commercial activities in a town of 389 people. Thriving businesses included the Vestal Florist Company, established in 1880, and the Arkansas Industrial Company, a brick and tile manufacturer that occupied a four-block square north of 11th Street known as the brick yard.
In the 1890s Baring Cross cast a wary eye toward Little Rock, which had annexed Argenta and attempted to annex the Iron Mountain and Vestal properties. A petition for municipal incorporation, signed by 44 prominent residents, was approved in April 1896 and Baring Cross elected its first mayor, Mord Roberts, and five councilmen. Roberts, a master mechanic for the railroad, also developed housing between Seventh and 11th Streets. The town expanded twice, annexing the Vestal Addition to the west in 1898 and the Baring Cross Addition up to 15th Street in 1903. The North Little Rock Times noted in 1899 that 75 pupils were enrolled at the Baring Cross school. Many a community leader also found guidance from theBaringCrossBaptistChurch founded in 1905. The late Walter B. Metz, a historian and folklorist who grew up in Baring Cross, wrote of a hardscrabble life, explaining that “families were large, money was scarce and three square meals a day was actually a luxury.” In October 1905, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt paraded through Baring Cross on his way from a visit at Fort Roots to Little Rock.
The flood and torrential rain in 1927 inundated the Vestal nurseries after the dyke broke during the community’s worst natural disaster. The late Evelyn K. Eubank, a local historian, recounted the plight of a Baring Cross family whose home and new furniture were ruined by the rising river. “All of the dwellings under water were left with deep mud and had to be hosed out,” she wrote. The economic shift that began in the 1960s, exacerbated by middle-class flight to suburbia, the interstate highway and Urban Renewal, was the next disaster from which baring Cross has not recovered. The loss of owner-occupied homes and businesses devastated the neighborhood.
The area known as Baring Cross expanded to include neighborhoods east of Pike and north up to Pershing Boulevard. Pike Plaza opened in 1959 and Memorial Hospital occupied the top of the Giles family’s Blackberry Hill from 1962 until moving to Springhill in 1999. The North Little Rock Housing Authority with federal funding constructed the $2.4 million Heritage House high-rise at 22nd and Division for elderly and disabled people in 1967. In the 1970s, Urban Renewal and the city poured about $4.5 million into the neighborhood between 15th and 27th streets. The work rehabilitated 600 houses, built curbs and gutters, paved new streets, improved drainage and offered loans and grants to property owners. But the downturn continued. Pike Avenue at 18th Street, the heart of the business district with grocery stores, a movie theater and numerous businesses by the 1960s, was a shell of itself by the 1980s and ‘90s. Poverty and crime took a toll.
In 2010, the city partnered with the Argenta Community Development Corp. and the federal government to provide $8.4 million through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program for home construction and public works projects in lower Baring Cross. Private investment has also restored older homes and holds out the potential of future commercial and residential development. The city and federal government built a $1.9 million roundabout at Pike, Broadway and Riverfront Drive.Third Street was extended as Rockwater Boulevard to link with the $3.8 million RockwaterMarina and the Riverside at Rockwater Apartments that opened this year on the former Vestal grounds. A smokestack of the Vestal firm was preserved as part of the new roadway.
North Little Rock History Commission
For additional information:
Adams, Walter M. North Little Rock: A History: The Unique City: August House,Little Rock, 1986.
Adams, Walter M. The Railroads of North Little Rock: Unpublished manuscript, 1980.North Little Rock History Commission.
Baring Cross reference file. North Little Rock History Commission.
Baring Cross roundabout: http://mcclelland-engrs.com/projects/north-little-rock-roundabout/
Bradburn, Cary. On the Opposite Shore: The Making of North Little Rock: North Little Rock History Commission, 2004.
Walter B. Metz Collection. Articles published in The Times of North Little Rock from Nov. 10, 1977, toMay 1, 1980.North Little Rock History Commission.
Neighborhood Stabilization Program: http://www.1888pressrelease.com/north-little-rock-s-8-4-million-neighborhood-stabilization-pr-240385.html
Neighborhood Stabilization Program: Marketing Plan for the Baring Cross Neighborhood and NSP Home Sales, Fall Creek Consultants,wwwfallcreekconsultants.com
Pulaski County Historical Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Fall 2001): “The Luther Burbank of Arkansas: Joseph W. Vestal and the Company He Created,” pgs. 50-55. Tom W. Dillard.
Riverside at Rockwater Apartments: http://www.riversideatrockwaterapartments.com/
The Times of North Little Rock Collection: Urban Renewal newspaper clippings file. North Little Rock History Commission.
Urban Renewal Annual Reports: 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1973-74. North Little Rock History Commission.
Joseph W. Vestal reference file. North Little Rock History Commission.
Adams, Walter M., North Little Rock: A History: The Unique City, 1986, p. 258.
Adams, Walter M., “The Railroads of North Little Rock,”April 1, 1980, pgs. 9-11, 15.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “Baring Cross looks for comeback,”Jan. 4, 2010, p. 1.
Democrat-Gazette, “NLR marina project gets $1 million grant,”Jan. 26, 2012, p. 1.
Arkansas Gazette, “Baring Cross,” March 7, 1873, p. 4.
Gazette, “Railroad Kings,”Oct. 22, 1874, p. 4.
Gazette, “City News,” certificate of incorporation for new town of Baring Cross, April 9, 1896, p.3.
Gazette, “Mayor of Baring Cross,” with illustration of Mord Roberts, April 15, 1897, p.6.
Gazette, “Real boundaries of Baring Cross bungled lately,” John Woodruff, Sept. 9, 1990, p. 4B.
North Little Rock Times, “RainsFlood City; Demand for Help,”April 20, 1927, p.1.
Times, “Martial Law Almost Here,”April 20, 1927, p.1.
Times, “North Little Rock Will Be No Worse Off As Result of Flood Water From River,”April 27, 1927, p. 1.
Times, Industrial Recovery Number: “Orchids to Vestals:North Little Rock Has Largest Plant In South,”Nov. 27, 1936, p. 39.
Times, Industrial Recovery Number: “The First Baring Cross Bridge,”Nov. 27, 1936, p. 52.
Petition for Incorporation of the Town of Baring Cross, Dec.21, 1895, Secretary of State’s Office.
Petition for Annexation of Vestal’s Addition. Granted April 15, 1899, Secretary of State’s Office.
Petition for Annexation of Baring Cross Addition, andIron MountainShops. GrantedJune 18, 1903, Secretary of State’s Office.
The Times (North Little Rock), “Thousands Listen as Ministers Dedicate Memorial Hospital,”Feb. 1, 1962, p. 1.
Times, “First of 201 Families Move Into Apartments for Elderly,”Feb. 16, 1967, p. 1.
Times, “Old Issue of Times Offers Look Into City’s Past,” reprint of Sept. 24, 1898, issue, May 4, 1967, p. 6B.
Times, “Funds Approved for Pike Avenue Renewal Project,”Dec. 3, 1970, p. 12A.
Times, “Pike Avenue Application Okayed,”March 18, 1971, p. 1A.
Times, “Project Gives Settled Area A New Look,” Sept. 28, 1972, p. 1A.
Times, “Indelible Footprints,” Evelyn K. Eubank,April 7, 1977, p. 10A.
Times, “BaringCrossBridge,” Walter B. Metz,Jan. 5, 1978, p. 8B.
Times, “The Shops,” Walter B. Metz,Jan. 19, 1878, 8B.
Times, “The Bridge That Created Baring Cross,” Walter B. Metz, Jan. 19, 1978, p. 8B.
Times, “Baring Cross: Mord Roberts: Developer.” Walter B. Metz,Feb. 16, 1978, p. 10B.
Times, “The Founding Fathers, Walter B. Metz,March 2, 1978, p. 10B.
Times, “Baring Cross I: The Town and the Businesses,” Walter B. Metz, June 15, 1978, p. 10B.
Times, “Baring Cross II: The People & Their Customs,” Walter B. Metz, June 29, 1978, p. 6B.
Times, “TheOld Swamp,” Walter B. Metz, Oct. 26, 1978, p. 14B.
Times, “TR Comes to Town,” Walter B. Metz, Nov. 9, 1978, 10B.
Times, “Railroad History,” Walter B. Metz, Jan. 11, 1979, 8B.
Times, “Emanuel Boone,” Walter B. Metz, May 10, 1979, 10B.
Times, “Pioneer Families,” Walter B. Metz, Aug. 2, 1979, 10B.
Times, “Neighborhoods in Transition: Frustration keys comments in Baring Cross,”Sept. 8, 1994, p. 1A.