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Mar/Apr 2010 Issue
Shoreside Sanctuary

Arkansas’s second-largest city is enlivened
by its vibrant past and natural treasures.
Story and photos by Gayle Harper

The desk clerk chuckled at my entrance into his Fort Smith hotel. An unexpected storm had rolled into town just behind me and a rowdy gust of wind blew me in the door, sweeping a pot of dried flowers off the table and making the draperies stand horizontal for a moment. “Welcome to Fort Smith,” he said with a grin. “Our weather is as interesting as our history.”

Cannon

Above: The Fort Smith National Historic Site was a frontier fort and the site of a federal court.

Below: A boy crawling out of a giant bluebird house at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center.

Kid at Bluebird House

What followed was, as the old saying goes, a “real toad strangler” with torrents of rain turning the streets into rivers for an hour or so before giving way to deep blue sky and gilt-edged clouds.

The past remembered

Fort Smith, Ark., presents its history without apology or sugar coating, but with respect for the challenges of life in the past. Fort Smith was founded in 1817 as a U.S. Army stockade on the Arkansas River at the border between the United States and Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. Today, the Fort Smith National Historic Site shares its dramatic story with about 77,000 visitors each year.

In the 1830s, the tragedy known as the Trail of Tears passed here, when many thousands of American Indians were forced from their homelands and moved into Indian Territory. Later, in the years between 1875 and 1896, Judge Isaac Parker, known as the hanging judge, presided here. The courtroom and jail cells have been restored and the gallows have been reconstructed, allowing guests to see how justice was served in this wild frontier land.

Nancy Stimson, chief ranger at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, says that some visitors have traced their ancestry to a courtroom worker or a Civil War soldier. Stimson’s ancestors were members of the Choctaw Tribe who were moved from Mississippi.

“We cannot change history, but we can learn from it,” says Stimson. “People want to understand how and why these events occurred.”

More history will be revealed when the U.S. Marshals Museum opens. Fort Smith was selected as the future site for the museum, an educational and entertaining experience that honors the nation’s oldest law enforcement agency. Construction will begin after the national fundraising campaign currently underway is completed.

Another way to imagine life in the past is to stroll through the 22 square blocks that comprise the Belle Grove Historic District. An array of impressive homes spans 130 years of architectural styles from Victorian to Craftsman. Some are open for tours, such as the elegant Bonneville House on North Seventh Street and the baroque Clayton House on North Sixth Street. The Fort Smith Art Center is housed in a gracious home on North Sixth Street that was built in 1857. Soldiers were housed here during the Civil War.

If architecture is your interest, don’t miss seeing the Immaculate Conception Church at 13th Street and Garrison Avenue, which was completed in 1898. With luck, you may catch the resonant sound of the church bells ringing from the tower.

Tourist information and a peek into the bawdy side of Fort Smith’s history can be found at Miss Laura’s Social Club, the first former bordello to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This Victorian structure is now home to the city’s visitors’ center (2 North B Street).

Catch the restored 1926 streetcar and ride to the quiet of the U.S. National Cemetery. The rows of white headstones under huge old oak and maple trees speak of yesteryear in hushed tones and a walk among them is a tranquil experience.

The natural side

Take an invigorating walk around Wells Lake at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center, just south of town on Wells Lake Road. Keep an eye out for some of the 140 species of birds that visit or live there. Kids will be enthralled by the chance to virtually navigate a barge through a lock and dam on the Arkansas River. They also can crawl inside a giant bluebird house or watch a snake being fed. The beautiful facility has indoor bird watching through huge windows and a deck that overlooks the lake. It’s a great relaxation spot in fair weather.

If all that fresh air and exercise made you hungry, check out the one and only Ed Walker’s Drive-In at 1500 Towson Ave. They’ve been serving five-pound burgers in this renovated gas station since 1943. For a more exotic experience, try Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restaurante. Josefina’s chicken tamales were fresh, authentic and delicious.

Suzi and Mike Smith will welcome you to the Beland Manor Inn Bed-and-Breakfast, a AAA three Diamond property located at 1320 S. Albert Pike. Although built in 1950, its turn-of-the-century design features 12-foot ceilings and a winding staircase. They are known for their gourmet meals prepared with all fresh ingredients. One well-traveled guest claimed the Eggs Benedict prepared here were “the best in the world.”

The Courtyard by Marriott, another AAA three Diamond hotel, is conveniently located downtown at 900 Rogers Ave. and offers large rooms with all the amenities.

With history all around you in Fort Smith, along with the beautiful Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, you’ll be surrounded by fascinating sights and sensations. The palette of experiences is rich indeed.

Gayle Harper is a new contributor from Springfield, Mo.

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 637-1477 or www.fortsmith.org.

To visit Fort Smith, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Arkansas through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


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