The North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce tried to kill it in 1965 with a mock funeral and burial. Others tried to deny it or ignore it. Many laughed about it. The nickname “Dogtown,” it seems, has always been a part of North Little Rock. From working-class origins and determined developers, North Little Rock grew into the vibrant city it is today. Our history includes the Trail of Tears, desegregation of schools, an appearance in a famous Hollywood film and a submarine arriving on the Arkansas River all the way from the country of Turkey.
Its origin, interestingly, has vanished. Here are the four common theories.
1. The football chant. The earliest known use of it in print came in an Arkansas Gazette column on September 11, 1960. The writer credited Little Rock High School students with inventing the insult, “Beat Dogtown,” as a new cheer in 1941 when the basketball series between the two cities’ white high schools had reached peak intensity. Mary Munns Williams, the late city clerk and a 1942 graduate of North Little Rock High School, recalled in a 1995 interview that Little Rock High students taunted their northside counterparts in the early 1940s by chanting “dogtown” and calling them “dogs.”
2. The round-up of strays. Munns Williams, like others of her generation, knew the story dating back to the early 1900s. According to this version, saloon patrons in Little Rock rounded up strays, crossed the Main Street Bridge and dumped them on the north side. Their motive, the story goes, was revenge after North Little Rock separated from Little Rock in 1904.
“The citizens of North Little Rock fed [the dogs that were dumped] and adopted them, and the name ‘dogtown’ was bestowed on North Little Rock,” the late Argenta Drug Company owner John Cook wrote in the 1985 winter edition of the Pulaski County Historical Quarterly.
3. The…other round-up of strays. The late Walter Metz of Baring Cross, who wrote of local history and folklore in The Times of North Little Rock in the 1970s and 1980s, said that prior to construction of the Main Street Bridge in 1897, Little Rock residents dumped dogs on a heavily wooded slope called Dogtown Hill.
How the dog-dumpers got across the river with their strays before construction of the bridge is problematic.
The Junction Bridge, which opened in November 1884, did have some foot traffic, though it was primarily a railroad bridge. During dry spells, the river could be crossed by wading; yet towing a stray would have challenged the most determined dog-dumper.
Although Metz’s dogtown tale likely contains more folklore than history, he absorbed many stories while growing up in the early 1900s and may have heard one of the earliest
explanations for the origin of the derogatory name for the north side.
4. The outlaw. North Little Rock, then known as Argenta, grew economically with the emergence of three major railroad companies and related industries. But lacking a municipal government in the 1870s and 1880s, Argenta developed a wild reputation as a town of drinkers, gamblers and vagrants. Such “lawlessness” caught the moral wrath of editorial writers in Little Rock. “Each train brings a number of tramps and disreputable characters to the place, who should not be tolerated in any community, but unless some means are taken to police the town they can carry things with a high head and go unpunished,” the Gazette editorialist griped on November 25, 1880.
German, Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants and African Americans, many of them former slaves, started businesses or found jobs with the railroads, stockyards, cottonseed oil mills, cotton compresses, lumber yards, grain elevators, ice plants and service providers. From this working-class origin, Argenta likely gained the unwanted nickname of Dogtown, perhaps as early as the 1870s. At the very least, it would have given Little Rock someone or something to look down on.
Argenta’s business leaders worried about their town’s reputation, too, and worked to improve it but resented whatever Little Rock had to say about it. The Gazette noted in a news brief on September 1, 1885, that Argenta residents had come up with a name of their own for Little Rock – “South Argenta.”
These stories were researched and written by Cary Bradburn, Historian for the North Little Rock History Commission.