St. Francis

Laid out by the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in 1882, it picked up the bypassed population and post office of Chalk Bluff, naming itself St. Francis after the river. The city of St. Francis in northeastern Arkansas was a prosperous community relying on the timber industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since that time, it has remained a quiet community adjacent to the Missouri bootheel.

North of St. Francis lies Chalk Bluff, the name of the white clay outcroppings that constitute the northern face of Crowley’s Ridge. A military road crossed the St. Francis River at this location, and a ferry served travelers using the road. Around 1840, the first permanent settlers arrived. They included Abraham, Jacob, David, and George Seitz, who raised horses and cattle, operated the ferry, and ran a small store to provision travelers. In 1850, a post office with the name of Chalk Bluff was established in the Seitz store, and by 1860, the community had three churches, three merchants, two doctors, a brick mason, a gunsmith, a blacksmith, a cabinet maker, and a surveyor.

The bluff was a strategic point for controlling transportation between Missouri and Arkansas, so it saw considerable military action during the course of the Civil War. In May 1862, Federal forces attacked the community, successfully destroying Confederate supplies. In March 1863, Federal forces struck again, destroying the ferry and burning several buildings. Confederate forces attacked a Federal force in Missouri from Chalk Bluff in April 1863. The largest skirmish, though, was fought on May 1 and 2, 1863, when General John S. Marmaduke attempted to capture Federal supplies in Missouri. The Confederate raid failed because of the strength of Federal forces, and Marmaduke’s retreat from Missouri led him to cross the river at Chalk Bluff, using a floating log bridge, while resisting pursuers. The number of soldiers wounded and killed during this skirmish is unknown.

A Masonic lodge was organized in the area with thirty charter members in 1867. They met first in a Presbyterian church and later in a one-room schoolhouse. However, in 1868, the post office at Chalk Bluff closed. In 1882, the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad (commonly called the Cotton Belt) constructed a narrow gauge railway across southern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas with a wooden bridge spanning the St. Francis River less than two miles from the community of Chalk Bluff. Residents and businesses of Chalk Bluff relocated to a spot adjacent to the tracks, and the new community took the name St. Francis from the river. A post office was opened at St. Francis in 1882.

The railroad gave life to the timber industry of northeastern Arkansas, and the timber industry gave life to the city of St. Francis. Methodist and Baptist churches were organized, along with the older Presbyterian congregation, which completed its new building in St. Francis in 1890. By 1892, the city had five two-story hotels, a bank, and a school, as well as a dozen mills and factories. Hunting and fishing also drew travelers into the area, and a group of wealthy men from St. Louis, Missouri, established a sportsmen’s clubhouse in St. Francis. A saloon was built on the Missouri end of the bridge. Called “Last Chance,” it was frequented by the workers of St. Francis every Saturday night after they had received their week’s wages.

By 1915, much of the timber had been removed, and the cleared land was being farmed by local landowners. As a result, the population of St. Francis declined from its reported peak population of 1,500. Empty homes and businesses often were destroyed by fire. In 1928, the railroad bridge was replaced by a steel draw span.