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Madison & Widener, AR

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Madison, named for President James Madison, is located on the western bank of the St. Francis River at the foot of Crowley’s Ridge in eastern Arkansas. It is 38 miles southwest of West Memphis and is on the St. Francis County Loop of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. 

Reconstructing the history of Madison is difficult because multiple floods and fires destroyed local records of this once bustling river town. Madison, which was mostly an agricultural community by the twentieth century, was home to the first African-American millionaire in Arkansas, Scott Bond.

In the early 1800s, Madison was a busy shipping point for steamboats and ferries. It flourished because of its location on the St. Francis River, which at the time was large enough to accommodate riverboats. Some of the larger steamboats had ballrooms and orchestras, and when the boats were anchored overnight, people came from miles around to attend balls on board. 

In 1869, Madison Free Press was the local newspaper for the township until it moved to Forrest City the next year. By 1870, Madison served as the post office for seven townships. After the completion of the bridge spanning the St. Francis River, the Rock Island Railroad was completed from Madison to Little Rock in 1871. 

The St. Francis River Bridge on Highway 70 was part of a 1930s highway and development project. Opening on September 4, 1933, it is one of three swinging road bridges in Arkansas. It was the main bridge for east-west traffic until Interstate 40 was built in the 1950s. The St. Francis River Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 9, 1990.

The county suffered during the Floods of 1927 and 1937. The St. Francis River was so high that it flooded the railroad tracks in some places in Madison.

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Widener is a town in St. Francis County between Crowley’s Ridge and the St. Francis River. It is on State Highways 38 and 50 and is crossed by the Union Pacific Railroad. Widener was the birthplace of blues legend Luther Allison.

A railroad depot and post office were established in 1888 at the current location of Widener; at first, they were named Mead for postmaster Robert T. Mead. The name was changed to Widener in 1895, probably in honor of John M. Widener, who was involved in farming and in the timber industry along the St. Francis River. 

Around 1900, the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad became part of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The town of Widener was incorporated in 1909. A national highway, known first as the Lee Highway and later as U.S. Highway 70, was established in the 1920s, connecting some local roads with new construction to cross the United States. In Arkansas, the highway paralleled the railroad track of the Rock Island, bringing the highway north of Widener.

The town had six stores, including two combination grocery and automobile service stores, a general merchandise store that also housed the post office, and a radio and television repair shop. Agriculture in the area largely consisted of cotton and soybeans, and Widener had a cotton gin. The town was also regarded as a center for hunting and fishing.

Interstate 40 was completed north of Widener, creating some business opportunities in the area. Twenty-first-century Widener has at least two churches as well as several businesses and stores. A heavy-equipment company, Robbie’s Equipment, was founded in 2007. In 2010, the population of Widener was 273.

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