Follow the scenic byway through Arkansas’s Delta and discover noteworthy towns, festivals and history.
Indians first called it “Missi Sipi,” meaning Great River. Designated highways, collectively called the Great River Road and marked with a green steamboat pilot’s wheel, meander along the Mississippi River through 10 states and lead travelers on a journey that showcases how great the riverand the corridor that traces ittruly are.
Discover the Delta
Begin an Arkansas adventure at the Missouri-Arkansas border on U.S. Highway 61. This leads to Blytheville, which boasts an interesting shop downtown called That Bookstore at 316 W. Main.
Speaking of bookshops and writers, make a side trip to Piggott, and tour the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center. Ernest Hemingway was married to Pauline Pfeiffer from 192740. Her family lived in the home and the couple stayed there frequently. His studio is furnished with trophies from his African safaris, as well as his portable typewriter on which he wrote portions of “A Farewell to Arms.”
Soil and soul
At Marion, Highway 61 connects to state Highway 77, which leads to West Memphis. Racing fans will want to check out Riverside International Speedway, the oldest (1949) continuously operating auto racetrack in the country. Watch sprint cars and street stocks running around a 1/4-mile track. For more excitement, Southland Park Racing and Gaming features the greyhounds plus electronic gaming, simulcast horse racing, live entertainment, a nightclub and a bountiful buffet. While in West Memphis, try Memphis-style barbecue at Ray’s BBQ, 4114 E. Service Road, or Willie Mae’s Rib Haus, 312 W. Broadway.
Follow Great River Road signs south to Helena-West Helena, known as Main Street of the Blues. The free Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival draws more than 120,000 visitors each October. The Delta Cultural Visitors Center, 141 Cherry St., traces the history of blues performers through audio and visual exhibits. The center also is home to King Biscuit Time, a blues radio show that’s been on the air since 1941. Sunshine Sonny Payne has opened the live show since 1951 with, “Pass the biscuits. It’s King Biscuit Time.” He often invites audience members to be on-air guests of the show that can be heard weekdays at noon.
One block away, the Delta Cultural Center, housed in a 1912 restored train depot, details life on the Mississippi from the 1800s through 1940 with 2,000 square feet of exhibits. Children and adults enjoy piloting miniature steamboats in The Great Boat Race. Find exhibits upstairs that recount the Civil War Battle of Helena that occurred July 4, 1863.
Civil War enthusiasts will want to visit a Confederate burial ground located in Maple Hill Cemetery at 1801 Holly St., where some of Helena’s soldiers and officersincluding Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburneare buried.
Stop for down-home dining at Granny Dee’s Home-style Cooking at 426 Cherry St., for sumptuous Southern fare that includes fried chicken, catfish, collard greens, black-eyed peas, pecan pie and sweet tea. Afterward, stroll along the Mississippi River Levee Walk where riverboats still are seen landing at Helena Harbor.
Hiking and history
Six miles west of Helena on U.S. Highway 49 near Walnut Corner is Lexa and the trailhead of the Delta Heritage Trail State Park, a rails-to-trails pathway for hiking, biking and birding. Fourteen miles of the crushed rock trail is finished. Matt O’Neal, park ranger, says it will stretch 73 miles from Lexa to Cyprus Bend when completed.
Continue west on Highway 49 to state Highway 362 that leads to the Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park. A survey in 1815 marked the point from which land surveys of the Louisiana Territory began. A 950-foot-long elevated walkway has interpretive panels that tell the history leading up to the Louisiana Purchase. The walkway ends at a granite monument. Located in the largest headwater swamp in the Mississippi River Valley, the 37-acre park features flora, fauna and native wildlife.
Follow Highway 49 north to Brinkley where the Central Delta Depot Museum and Visitors Center at 100 W. Cypress St. has a wall mural of the Louisiana Purchase survey site. An array of items celebrating the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase that were exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis are on display, including a silk handkerchief of President Theodore Roosevelt, postage stamps, a cream pitcher and souvenir book.
Go south on Highway 49 and west on U.S. Highway 79 to Stuttgart, the self-proclaimed rice and duck capital of the world. The Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie, 921 E. Fourth, tells the history of rice cultivation in the area. Antique agricultural equipment and murals show farming methods on the prairie during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Period buildings and artifacts illustrate how pioneers lived and worked.
Deep in the Delta
Nine miles south of Gillette and two miles off U.S. Highway 165 is the Arkansas Post National Memorial on state Highway 169. The site can be traced back to Quapaw Indians who lived there. This location also was a Revolutionary War site, a major port city until the 1830s, the first capital of the Arkansas Territory and a Civil War battle site. Exhibits and markers explain these events.
Near the south end of the Great River Road is Lake Chicot, one of the largest oxbow lakes in the country and the largest natural lake in Arkansas. Lake Chicot State Park offers cabins and camping, picnic and fishing sites.
South of the lake is Lake Village and Arkansas State University’s Lakeport Project. The 17-room authentically restored two-story mansion is the only remaining antebellum home on the Mississippi River in Arkansas.
Whether you take a day’s drive or an extended excursion, you’re sure to have an adventure along the Arkansas Great River Road.
Diana West is a contributor from Joplin, Mo.
|May/June 2008 Issue
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