A Brief History of West Helena, Arkansas

Ironclad gunboat, Eastport, a Union warship anchored in the Mississippi River at Helena in 1864. Photo courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives.

Helena–West Helena is the county seat of and the largest city within Phillips County, Arkansas. Helena was incorporated in 1833 and prospered as a river port, while West Helena began as a railroad town, incorporated in 1917. The lands surrounding Helena were well suited for the production of cotton, but the periodic flooding and poor drainage initially limited large-scale operations to the high ground west of the city. Agriculture slowly expanded southward, but only as farmers built small levees and drained the land. Meanwhile, the vast stands of lowland trees such as cypress and tupelo and the hardwoods along Crowley’s Ridge were soon being exploited. In 1826, a sawmill began operations in Helena, and the timber industry continued to grow until well into the twentieth century. Cotton and timber eventually dominated the local economy, but much of Helena’s early growth was associated with the steamboat age. The twin cities continued to grow steadily until the 1960s, when the mechanization of farming operations, the decline of the timber industry, and union trouble in several plants eventually cost the two communities thousands of jobs. By the 1970s, the chronic economic distress forced a few leaders to suggest that the two cities might better address their common problems by governmental consolidation. The two cities merged into one city, preserving both names, on January 1, 2006 (Teske, 2019).


Teske, Steven. (2019, Jan. 18). Helena-West Helena (Phillips County). Retrieved from encyclopediaofarkansas.net.

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