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The rich history of Riverdale



Northwest of downtown and adjacent to the Arkansas River lies Little Rock's Riverdale neighborhood, an area that has been an important part of my life and my family's history.

This morning, as I played with my granddaughter at our home in Sherrill Heights, a Riverdale neighborhood, I counted back and was able to recall six generations of Wilbourns that have lived and worked in Little Rock's Riverdale area over the last 112 years. It was around the year 1910 when my great-grandfather, William Wilbourn, began managing farms that comprised most of what is now Riverdale. That farmland began near the intersection of today's Riverfront Drive and Cantrell Road, continued through the areas that are now Rebsamen Park Golf Course and Murray Park and ended beyond the Big Dam Bridge by the mouth of the Little Maumelle River, where I-430 now crosses the Arkansas River. Before 1927, short levees existed that gave some protection to the farmland along the southern bank of the river.

At one point in the early '70s, my grandfather, father and I all worked together in The Mart Building (now known as the T.J. Rainey Building) for Allied Telephone Company. Allied had its first offices on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Hillcrest. Allied became Alltel and eventually merged with Verizon, so the company has a long history in the Riverdale area. My grandfather, father and I all lived in the Riverdale and Hillcrest neighborhoods, commuting down the hill to work just as William Wilbourn had done in the early 1900s.

Today my office in the Morgan Keegan building on Riverfront Drive in Riverdale sits on the same land William Wilbourn managed, in sight of the Big Rock bluffs and the calm-one-week, raging-the-next Arkansas River. To me, Riverdale is more than a place to go to work on the Verizon campus, stop and eat at Buffalo Grill, or buy a flower for the table from About Vase and a bottle of wine from Bullard's. I am deeply rooted here. It is home.

Riverdale has changed since my great-grandfather's time. On his daily commute, William rode his horse through a neighborhood of laborers that worked on nearby farms, at the quarries and mills that grew up along the river bottomland, for the Rock Island Railroad, or in the fast-growing Hillcrest and Prospect Terrace developments along the Kavanaugh street car line that connected the new "west" Little Rock to downtown. Today that area is the Allsopp Park softball diamond, tennis courts and children's playground.

Wrape Lumber Co. had a large sawmill where the Episcopal Collegiate School now resides. There was a large quarry where Rivercliff apartments now stand, and another at the foot of what is now Scenic Drive, served by a rail spur that connected to the rail line in the valley below. The area was home to cotton gins, a boarding house, commissary offices, grain and cotton warehouses, horse and mule barns, another sawmill, lumberyards, rail sidings and a small rail depot.

Riverdale was decimated in 1927 when the receding waters of the great flood ripped the farmland apart. The flood destroyed the levees that had held the river in check, leaving only a narrow strip of sandy land along the base of the south river bluffs. After the disaster, the rail line was rebuilt, but the farms never recovered. They lay fallow for years and were eventually converted to golf courses for the city of Little Rock and Riverdale Country Club. William Wilbourn did not see the long-term effects of the devastation. He died shortly after the floodwaters receded.

Riverdale recovered from the flood and continued to move forward and develop. After the completion of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation project, Murray Park was founded in the north part of the neighborhood.

A major change occurred in the early 1960s when developer Wythe Walker, working with the city and Winthrop Rockefeller, used urban renewal funds to transform the area. Cantrell Road was rerouted to its present course and expanded to four lanes, and Cantrell Hill was widened. Westriver Tower and the Mart building, Riviera Apartments and the all-night diner the Toddle House were added to the area. Riverdale Country Club became Pleasant Valley Country Club and moved west, and the Riverdale Business Park opened. The office park, housing and apartment centers we see in the area today followed.

Modern Riverdale is bordered on the east by the MacDonald-Wait-Newton House (commonly known as the Packet House), an architectural landmark in Little Rock. Constructed in 1869, it is the last remaining of the large houses that were built on the north side of Cantrell Road in the 19th century. Plans are underway to open a Southern-fusion restaurant, the Packet House Grill, in the historic building.

West of the Packet House is the corporate headquarters of Dillard's Department Stores, followed by a section of warehouses and businesses including Discovery nightclub and landmark restaurant and bar Cajun's Wharf.

Farther west, the neighborhood progresses toward shopping areas, office complexes, upscale residential communities, and a popular mix of restaurants. In recent years Riverdale has experienced an increase in design-oriented businesses, with retailers offering antiques, ceramics, fine fabrics, plants and specialty lighting fixtures. Beyond these venues are soccer fields, corporate towers and apartments, then Rebsamen Park Golf Course, the city's largest public golf course, and Murray Park to the far west along Riverfront Drive.

The Arkansas River carved out the valley in which most of Riverdale rests; it defines the physical shape of the neighborhood and its steady presence recalls the area's long history; but the charm, character and work ethic that defines Riverdale rises from the businesses that call it home, the good people who live here and everyone else who comes to the neighborhood to work, eat and play each day.

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