By Trey Youngdahl
It is well-known that there is an old train station at the heart of Mena. Both long-time citizens and visitors see it while passing through on Highway 71. What many don’t know is that without that train station, and of course a little help from otherworldly spirits, Mena might not exist today-at least not at the capacity that it does now. Our story starts with a young and ambitious businessman named Arthur Stilwell.
Arthur Stilwell was a man in New York who owned a printing business, where he would travel the country selling business and legal forms. His company found its biggest success when he started selling railway timetables that carried commercial advertising. Through his business endeavors he gained an interest in railroading and the railroad industry. In 1885, he moved to Kansas City, where he acquired railroads that eventually became the Kansas City Southern Railroad. His ultimate dream was to expand this railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico, but unfortunately in 1893 an economic depression known as “The Panic of 1893” dried up his funds. Stilwell was not stifled by this however; he then made his famous journey to the Netherlands, where he met a coffee merchant named Jan DeGoeijen, who agreed to invest in Stilwell’s dream. Unbeknownst to his peers, however, this dream had supernatural influence.
Arthur Stillwell believed himself to be a medium of sorts, seeing visions and talking to spirits. These spirits, whom he affectionately called “brownies”, gave him directions on how to merge development in real estate with construction in the railroad industry to make him rich. He stated in an interview with The New York Times, “Every part of every route had been determined by spirits who have come to me in my dreams and told me what to do…They have never given me a false message.” These spirits guided him to around 40 towns that he would found, including Port Arthur, Texas, Stilwell, Oklahoma, and eventually to our very own Mena, Arkansas, Mena getting its name from the wife of the previously mentioned Dutch coffee merchant Folmina Margaretha Janssen DeGeoijen.
Mena’s railroad boom-town era began when the original train station was built in the summer of 1896. This provided hundreds of jobs to people who moved to Mena for the opportunities that the railroad afforded. Many Mena residents today can trace their roots back to their relatives coming here for the work. Because of our position, Mena was the central division point on the Kansas City-Port Arthur route. But the boom-town era died out when the division point was moved from Mena to Heavner, Oklahoma. It was also around this time that freight traffic would cease at the depot in Mena. Hundreds of people lost their jobs because of this. After the division relocation, conditions of the former train station declined, causing complaints of poor accommodations and safety concerns. This led to the construction of the current depot in the fall of 1920. The depot stayed functional as a passenger station for just under 50 years, taking its last passenger on November 9th, 1969.
After the depot closed its doors, the old building fell into a state of disrepair. That is until around 1985 when a group of volunteer business owners and citizens started discussion of restoring the building. Kansas City Southern then deeded the building to the city of Mena, a commission was formed in 1986 and the station was rebuilt and reopened to the public in 1987. Now the depot serves as both the visitor’s center for Mena, as well as a museum for Mena history. Here, visitors can tour the old depot where the museum displays photos from throughout the decades, a Lum and Abner exhibit, and even a collection of art from Monta Black Philpot. Today, visitors near and far are welcome to visit the historic KCS Depot in – the heart of Mena, Arkansas.