Pine Bluff is the largest city and county seat of Jefferson County, Arkansas, United States. It is also the principal city of the Pine Bluff Metropolitan Statistical Area and part of the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Pine Bluff Combined Statistical Area. The population of the city was 49,083 in the 2010 Census, however 2011 estimates show the population has since declined to 48,339. Pine Bluff is the ninth largest city in the state of Arkansas.
The city is situated in the southeast section of the state in the Arkansas Delta with the Arkansas Timberlands region to its immediate west. Its topography is flat with wide expanses of farmland. Pine Bluff is home to a number of creeks, streams, bayous (Bayou Bartholomew is the longest bayou in the world and is the second most diverse stream in the United States), and larger bodies of water such as Lake Saracen, Lake Langhofer (Slack Water Harbor) and the Arkansas River.
Pine Bluff is home to over three-quarters of the National Register of Historic Places listings in Jefferson County, Arkansas.
Pine Bluff's beginnings
The area along the Arkansas River had been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples of various cultures. They used the river for transportation like settlers after them, and for fishing. By the time of encounter with Europeans, the historical Quapaw were the chief people in the area, having migrated from the Ohio River valley centuries before.
The city of Pine Bluff was founded by Europeans on a high bank of the Arkansas River heavily forested with tall pine trees. The high ground furnished settlers a safe haven from annual flooding. Joseph Bonne, a fur trader and trapper of French and Quapaw ancestry, settled on this bluff in 1819.
After the Quapaws signed a treaty with the United States in 1824 relinquishing their title to all the lands which they claimed in Arkansas, many other American settlers began to join Bonne on the bluff. In 1829 Thomas Phillips claimed a half section of land where Pine Bluff is located. Jefferson County was established by the Territorial Legislature, November 2, 1829 and began functioning as a county April 19, 1830.
At the August 13, 1832 county election, the pine bluff was chosen as the county seat. The Quorum Court voted to name the village "Pine Bluff Town" on October 16, 1832. Pine Bluff was incorporated January 8, 1839, by the order of County Judge Taylor. At the time, the village had about 50 residents. Improved transportation facilities aided in the growth of Pine Bluff during the 1840s and 1850s.
The Arkansas River's proximity to Pine Bluff allowed the small town to serve as a port for travel and shipping. Steamships provided the primary mode of transport from areas as far away as New Orleans. From 1832-1838, Pine Bluff was situated on the Trail of Tears waterway as thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed from the southeast United States to the state of Oklahoma. From 1832-1858, Pine Bluff also served as a waterway route for hundreds of Indian Seminoles and Black Seminoles who were forcibly removed, including the legendary John Horse who landed in the city on the Steamboat Swan in 1842.
Civil War and reconstruction (1861-1900)
Pine Bluff was prospering by the outbreak of the Civil War with wealth built on the commodity crop of cotton cultivated on large plantations by enslaved African-American laborers. The city had one of the largest slave populations in the state by 1860 and Jefferson County, Arkansas was second in cotton production in the state. However, when Union forces occupied Little Rock, a group of Pine Bluff citizens requested Major General Frederick Steele send Union forces to occupy their town for their protection from bands of confederate bushwhackers who were terrorizing them. Union troops under Colonel Powell Clayton arrived September 17, 1863 and stayed until the war was over. Confederate General J.S. Marmaduke tried to expel the Union Army in the Battle of Pine Bluff October 25, 1863, but was repulsed by a combined effort of soldiers and former slaves. In the final year of the war, the first African American regiment in the civil war to experience combat, the 1st Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry (Colored) (composed primarily of runaway slaves from Arkansas and Missouri) was dispatched to guard Pine Bluff and was eventually mustered out there.
Because of Union forces, Pine Bluff attracted many refugees and freedmen after the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, Pine Bluff was the site of one of several Union contraband camps around the country which provided for the protection of runaway slaves and refugees behind Confederate lines. After the war, freed slaves worked with the American Missionary Society to start schools for the education of blacks who had been prohibited from learning to read and write by southern laws. By September 1872, Professor Joseph C. Corbin opened the Branch Normal School of the Arkansas Industrial University, a historically black college. Founded as Arkansas's first black public college, today it is the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
As with many small and large towns in the South, Pine Bluff suffered lasting effects of defeat in the aftermath of the war. Recovery was slow at first. Construction of railroads improved access to markets, and with increased production of cotton as more plantations were reactivated, the economy began to recover. The first railroad reached Pine Bluff in December 1873. This same year Pine Bluff's first utility was formed when Pine Bluff Gas Company began furnishing manufactured gas from coke for lighting purposes.
As personal fortunes increased from the 1870s onward, community leaders constructed large Victorian-style homes west of Main Street. Meanwhile, the reconstruction era of the 1870s brought a stark mix of progress and challenge for African Americans. Blacks were elected to county offices and the state legislature for the first time in history as the heavily black Pine Bluff/Jefferson County electorate stretched its political muscles. Several black business were also opened including banks, bars, barbershops, and other establishments. Conversely, in 1866, after an altercation in a refugee camp in Pine Bluff between blacks and whites, 24 black men, women and children were found hanging from trees in one of the worst mass lynchings in U.S. history. With the lynchings of Armistad Johnson in 1889, John Kelly and Gulbert Harris in 1892 in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse, along with the formal adoption of Jim Crow laws by the state of Arkansas, the atmosphere was grim toward the end of the 19th century for many African Americans . This made the appeal of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner's "Back to Africa" movement attractive to numbers of local African American residents who purchased tickets and/or sought information on emigration (Arkansas had 650 emigrants depart to the African nation of Liberia; more than any other state in the United States. The majority of these emigrants came from Jefferson, St. Francis, Pulaski, Pope, and Conway counties.).
According to historian James Leslie, Pine Bluff entered its “Golden Era” in the 1880s, with cotton production and river commerce helping the city draw industries and public institutions to the area, making it by 1890 the state’s third-largest city. The first telephone system was placed in service March 31, 1883. Wiley Jones, a freedman who achieved wealth by his own business, built the first mule-drawn, street-car line in October 1886. The first light, power and water plant was completed in 1887; a more dependable light and water system was put in place in 1912. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, economic expansion was also fueled by the growing lumber industry in the region.
Early 1900s and the Great Depression (1900-1941)
Situated on the Arkansas River, Pine Bluff depended on river traffic and trade. Community leaders were concerned that the main channel would leave the city. The United States Army Corps of Engineers built a levee opposite Pine Bluff to try to keep the river flowing by the city. During a later flood, the main channel of the river moved away from the city and formed what is now Lake Langhofer (Slackwater Harbor). River traffic diminished, even as the river was a barrier separating one part of the county from the other. After many years of regional haggling, because the bond issue involved raised taxes, the county built the Free Bridge, which opened in 1914. For the first time, it united the county on a permanent basis.
Development in the city's business district grew rapidly. The Masonic Lodge, built by and for African Americans, was the tallest building in Pine Bluff when completed in 1904. The Hotel Pines, constructed in 1912 with its intricate marble interior and classical design, was considered one of Arkansas' showcase hotels. The 1,500 seat Saenger Theater, built in 1924, was one of the largest such facilities in the state and maintained the state's largest pipe organ. Meanwhile, when Dollarway Road was completed in 1914, it was the longest continuous stretch of concrete road in the United States. The first radio station (WOK) broadcast in Arkansas occurred in Pine Bluff on February 18, 1922.
Two natural disasters had devastating effects on the area's economy. The first of these was the Great Flood of 1927, a 100-year flood. Due to levee breaks, most of northern and southeastern Jefferson County were flooded. The severe drought of 1930 caused failure of crops, adding to the problems of economic conditions of The Great Depression. Pine Bluff residents scrambled to survive. In 1930, two of the larger banks failed.
The state's highway construction program in the later 1920s and early 1930s, facilitating trade between Pine Bluff and other communities throughout southeast Arkansas was of importance to Jefferson County, too. After the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, he launched many government programs to benefit local communities. Through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and public works funding, Pine Bluff built new schools and a football stadium, and developed Oakland Park as its first major recreation facility. To encourage diversification in agriculture, the county built a stockyard in 1936 to serve as a sales outlet for farmers' livestock.
From 1936-1938, the WPA through the Federal Writers Project initiated an effort whose results distinguished Pine Bluff. Writers were sent throughout the south to capture oral histories of former slaves still alive at the time. When the project was complete, Arkansas residents had contributed more oral slave histories (approximately 780) than any other state even though Arkansas' slave population was generally smaller than most southern states. Further, African American citizens of Pine Bluff/Jefferson County contributed more oral interviews of Arkansas born slaves than any other city/county in the state. Hence, the city is one of the nation's valuable storehouses of oral slave narrative material.
World War II & economic diversification (1941-1960)
World War II brought profound changes to Pine Bluff and its agriculture, timber and railroad-oriented economy. The Army built Grider Field Airport which housed the Pine Bluff School of Aviation and furnished flight training for air cadets for the Army Air Corps. At one time 275 aircraft were being used to train 758 pilots. All totaled approximately 9,000 pilots had been trained by the time the school closed in October 1944.
The Army broke ground for the Pine Bluff Arsenal December 2, 1941, on bought north of the city. The arsenal and Grider Field changed Pine Bluff to a more diversified economy with a mixture of industry and agriculture. The addition of small companies to the industrial base helped the economy remain steady in the late 1940s. Defense spending in association with the Korean War was a stabilizing factor after 1950.
In December 1953, KATV television station, then based in Pine Bluff, transmitted Arkansas' first VHF broadcast (though the first UHF broadcast had occurred a few months prior). In 1957, Richard Anderson announced the construction of a kraft paper mill north of the city. International Paper Co. shortly afterward bought a plant site five miles east of Pine Bluff. Residential developments followed for expected workers. The next year a young minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed students at the commencement program for Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff).
The modern era (1960–present)
The decade of the 1960s brought with it boycotts and demonstrations demanding an end to segregated public facilities. Violence directed at such social protests resulted in the fire bombing of one church and the shootings of civil rights demonstrators. Local leaders worked tirelessly, at times, enlisting the support of national figures such as Dick Gregory and Stokely Carmichael to help bring about change over the period. Voter registration drives increasing black political participation, selective buying campaigns, student protests, and a desire among white local business leaders to avoid indelible negative media portrayals of the community eventually led to reforms in public accommodations.
Major construction projects during the 1960s and 1970s were Jefferson Hospital (now Jefferson Regional Medical Center), the dams of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System on the Arkansas River, a Federal Building, the Pine Bluff Convention Center complex including The Royal Arkansas Hotel & Suites, Pine Bluff Regional Park, two industrial parks and several large churches. One project that had a tremendous effect on trade patterns in the city was the construction of Jefferson Square, the community's first major shopping center.
The 1980s and 1990s brought a number of significant construction projects. Benny Scallion Park was created, named for the alderman who brought a Japanese garden to the Pine Bluff Civic Center. Sadly, the city has not maintained the garden, but a small plaque remains. In the late 1980s, The Pines, the first large, enclosed shopping center, was constructed on the east side of the city. The mall attracted increased shopping traffic from southeast Arkansas.
The most important construction project of the 1990s was completion of a southern bypass, designated part of Interstate 530. In addition, a highway and bridge across Lock and Dam #4 were completed, providing another link between farm areas in northeastern Jefferson County and the transportation system radiating from Pine Bluff. Through a private matching grant, a multi-million dollar Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas was completed downtown in 1994. Pine Bluff Downtown Development began an on-going historical mural project, which has attracted increased tourism.
In 2000, construction was completed on the Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center. Carl Redus became the first African American mayor in the city's history in 2005. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff recently opened a $3 million business incubator in downtown Pine Bluff. Also, a new $2 million farmers market pavilion was recently opened on Lake Saracen in downtown Pine Bluff.
On November 6, 2012, Debe Hollingsworth was elected to be the next mayor of Pine Bluff, winning 49% of the vote. Mayor-elect Hollingsworth assumed office January 2, 2013. She has said her administration plans to lead using a five-point plan; combating crime in the city, economic development and job creation, city government reform, improving education, and enhancing the image of Pine Bluff.