More Everything Has To
story and photos by Hardy Peacock
Of course everything has to start somewhere. In Arkansas History it all started with the Indians, then De Soto, and permanent settlement began with the Post of Arkansas.
In Desha County it all starts with Arkansas City. Well, really it starts with Napoleon, which was the first county seat of Desha County, but Napoleon fell in the river. Since it was located at the confluence of the Arkansas and the Mississippi there is some debate as to which river it actually fell into, but wherever it began after the swimming lessons it all wound up in the Father of Waters. According to no less an authority than Mark Twain it happened in one night and the only structure left standing was a lean-to that had been the kitchen of a residence.
These days if you have a good boat and can prevail upon Desha County Circuit Clerk Skippy Leek you can visit the site. I believe there are still a few traces of the cemetery that can be located. I believe this represents the only remaining trace of Napoleon, Arkansas.
In the book Life On The Mississippi Mr. Twain tells of a buried treasure that he was pursuing that washed downstream when Old Man River came to visit. All of this occurred around 1874 and since the river was the thoroughfare of the day the county records were moved to the next settlement downstream. Arkansas City was declared the County Seat and in 1879 the new Courthouse was opened. Arkansas City thrived and in 1900 was home to more than 15,000 people, had more than 100 square blocks developed and boasted churches, schools, banks, newspapers, warehouses, stores, hotels, and saloons…lots of saloons. Mark Twain wrote about Arkansas City, too; one of the stops that Huck and Jim make with the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn is set in Arkansas City. A number of famous people, including Mr. Twain and World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, John L. Sullivan, signed the hotel register. The hotel register is available for viewing in the city museum.
The city continued to do well despite being bypassed by the mainline of the St Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad. A spur line was built from McGehee and since most freight moved on the river it was still a vital trade center.
Then in 1927 the Mississippi River reached an all-time record flood stage. The Corps of Engineers Levee held and people were hopeful. Then the Arkansas River Levee broke just above Pendleton Bend and flooded most of Southeast Arkansas, including Arkansas City. Especially Arkansas City! Some area inhabitants maintain to this day that residents of Bolivar County Mississippi dynamited the Arkansas River Levee to relieve pressure and prevent flooding on the East side of the river. Records and photographs show that the water was at least a foot deeper on the town side of the levee than is was on the riverside.
When the river receded the disaster wasn’t over. The Mississippi cut a new channel and instead of being a bustling river port, Arkansas City was suddenly located over three miles from its main artery. First the water left, then the river left, then the town left.
The Courthouse didn’t leave. Arkansas City is still the County Seat of Desha County and the beautiful (really) 1879 Courthouse with its clock tower intact still stands guard over quiet, tree-lined streets with names like Kate Adams, Morning Star, and Sprague. All the streets in town were named after riverboats.
The Courthouse is currently undergoing massive refurbishing. First of all the “new” school (built in 1910) was declared the Courthouse Annex and completely restored outside and inside. Now the even bigger job of restoring the Courthouse is underway. Since both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places every effort is being made to maintain the integrity of the original construction and to still make them serviceable for the twenty-first century. The Twin Rivers Architecture firm of Arkadelphia is overseeing both projects.
Despite all this activity even the most biased observer is forced to admit that the roads in Desha County no longer begin in Arkansas City; Arkansas City is the end of the road. This comes into play each and every Election Day. County elections cannot be certified or declared closed until all of the ballot boxes and the official returns for each polling place are physically delivered to the Circuit Clerks Office. Arkansas City is the County Seat of Desha County. Snow Lake is in Desha County. They are only a few miles apart.
There is no road between the two. Both Arkansas City and Snow Lake are small towns located slightly west of the Mississippi River. Between the two small towns are the Arkansas River, the White River, Big Island, the Trusten Holder Wildlife Management Area and the White River National Wildlife Refuge. The nearest overland route involves Dumas, DeWitt, Marvell, Elaine, and several other towns. Believe it or not, this is a vast improvement! Thirty years ago before the construction of the Pendleton Bridge and the St. Charles Bridge the journey involved two ferries. This meant that if the river levels were up (as they nearly always are in November) the trip involved Pine Bluff and Clarendon. One rainy, November night in 1973 I drove almost 600 miles to collect the ballot boxes in Snow Lake and deliver them to the Courthouse in Arkansas City. On a direct line the two communities are separated by about 25 miles.
This is not a complaint, we’re glad that there are no longer any residents at Beulah Lake. A trip to Beulah Lake involves Benoit and Greenville, Mississippi.
Depending on road conditions it can be a longer drive from Snow Lake to Arkansas City than it is from Lake Village to Texarkana.
If the 1927 flood was the beginning of the end the coup de grace came nearly 50 years later. The town had managed to hang on and show occasional sparks of vitality. There were a number of homes and buildings with both historical and architectural interest. There was an article in Life Magazine in the 1950’s. The Historical Society founded a museum. The Potlatch Corporation built a paper mill nearby. Desha County and Chicot County got together and established Yellow Bend Port. There was talk of a housing development. There were several restoration efforts ongoing. Then, in the early 1970’s the business district burned. A number of buildings, three and four story, red brick edifices with wrought iron porches, elevated sidewalks on two levels, towers, and cupolas plus all the hopes and dreams of revitalization literally went up in a puff of smoke.
There are a few period buildings left besides the Courthouse and the school. The Methodist and Episcopal Churches, the Captain Ben Desha Auditorium, a law office used as a museum, and the Home of Mr. Henry Thane all date from the heyday of the area and are still hanging in there. The view from the levee is nice and looking at the river is always a good way to pass the time. The Potlatch Mill is worth a drive by and the Yellow Bend Port is interesting. Old cemeteries, cotton fields, and country roads complete the picture. I could tell you about the Rohwer Relocation Center, but I’ll probably write about it next time. Maybe in a couple of years when the Courthouse restoration is complete there will be a little more life in the old town. Somehow it has survived floods, fires, and tornadoes and is still kicking.
If you want to take a tour, just come on down.