Jacksonport Courthouse, Boat Survive to Offer Glimpse of Past

Article follows the photos:
Mary Woods No. 2 at Jacksonport State Park
Mary Woods No. 2 at Jacksonport State Park
The restored 1872 courthouse at Jacksonport State Park
The restored 1872 courthouse at Jacksonport State Park
Jacksonport State Park Courthouse
Jacksonport State Park Courthouse
Mary Woods No. 2 at Jacksonport State Park
Mary Woods No. 2 at Jacksonport State Park
Interpreting the past at Jacksonport.
Interpreting the past at Jacksonport.
June 11, 2002


Jacksonport Courthouse, Boat
Survive to Offer Glimpse of Past

*****
By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Arkansas's 22nd state park, Jacksonport, preserves the history of one of the state's earliest and most bustling trading centers, which, as is true with many towns, faced rapid decline when rail lines bypassed the river port. Once Jackson County's capital, the park is today home to the restored 1872 courthouse that features interpretive exhibits and a restored sternwheel paddleboat, as well as 20 campsites, a swimming beach on the White River, picnic sites and playground. The park is located three miles north of Newport, off Ark. 69. For more information, call (870) 523-2143 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

A tornado wreaked havoc on Jacksonport State Park on March 1, 1997 and heavily damaged most of the homes in the small historic town, northwest of Newport. It was the worst of many catastrophes the riverside village has survived during its 170 years of recorded history.

Only recently, the park's 1872 Courthouse Museum and the Mary Woods No. 2 riverboat reopened for tours. Visitors are commenting the park now has two of the most exciting restorations in Arkansas history. The careful planning, historical details and craftsmanship are noticeable at every turn.

"Putting the pieces back together has been a slow and tedious process," said Park Superintendent Mark Ballard. "But the wait has been worth it, because we have a fine museum facility for the region and our visitors. It will be here to benefit educational groups and others, featuring a unique method of exploring the past."

Captain Thomas T. Tunstall is credited with starting the town in the 1830s, as a port for his steamboats plying the White and Black rivers. In 1854, the citizens of Jackson County voted to move their seat of justice to Jacksonport, but it would be after the Civil War before any concerted effort would be made to build a courthouse.

In early 1869, a contract was awarded for the new brick and limestone building. Before work started, engineer Col. J.A. Schnabel suggested raising the stone foundation four feet. This action saved the building several times, as floodwaters have repeatedly risen within inches of the courthouse floor, but have never entered the building. The two-story building with its transitional Georgian architecture was finished in 1872 at a cost of about $65,000.

In addition to numerous floods, the courthouse escaped a fire in 1888 that virtually wiped out the business district of Jacksonport.

Even as clerks and officials occupied the new structure, the Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad was busy building track through Jackson County. The rail bridge over the White River was constructed at Newport, three miles downstream from Jacksonport. The railroad boosted Newport's economy and Jacksonport declined. After only 20 years, the seat of justice was moved to Newport. Many residents moved out before and after the loss of the county seat.

In the 1890s, the old courthouse became Jacksonport's public school. But, by 1905, it was being used as a cotton gin and then as public housing for the homeless and elderly. During the 1950s, it stood vacant except for periods when it was used to store rice.

By 1961, when it was offered for sale, the once-handsome building was in shambles. Mrs. Lady Elizabeth Luker, a preservationist and charter president of the newly formed Jackson County Historical Society, headed an eleventh-hour effort to purchase and save the old building. Some $12,000 was donated to the drive and the Society hired a caretaker to live on the property.

In a 1963 article, Mrs. Luker stated, "The attachment to this early landmark is hard to explain. It is not just the 20 years that it served as the county seat; it is not the fact that it is the oldest remaining building of its time in the county; it is more than that. It is the stream of life that passed through its walls. It has meant so much to so many people."

Mrs. Luker supervised the early restoration and preservation of the building, and in 1964 the historical society purchased additional land including the old steamboat landing. Jacksonport Courthouse became a state park in 1965. The historical group partnered with the park to improve the exhibits and property.

In 1967, Potlatch Forests donated the Mary Woods No. 2 riverboat to the park. The last sternwheeler to ply the White River was brought upstream from Clarendon with festive flair and statewide media attention. The boat, although built in the early 1930s, had the profile of a 19th century upriver packet. It was a coal-burning steamboat (converted to diesel) with twin smokestacks, a big paddlewheel and traditional pilothouse.

Again the park and historical society worked together to turn the vessel into a "floating museum." Victorian trim was added to the upper deck and pilot house, and the workers' quarters were transformed into small state rooms, gambling area, formal dining hall and steamboat exhibit areas. Authentic riverboat furnishings were purchased in New Orleans for display on the boat and, in May 1976, the Mary Woods No. 2 was opened for public tours.

"In my opinion," Supt. Ballard noted, "if Lady Elizabeth Luker and the Jackson County Historical Society had not stepped forward, this park would not be here today." Portraits of the late Mrs. Luker occupy a place of honor in the museum.

The 1997 storm pushed the boat out of its port and damaged the upper deck extensively. It was decided the boat would remain a floating museum, but instead of portraying a packet boat, the Mary Woods No. 2 was restored to its original condition and purpose. It once again became a working riverboat with the same appearance it had while pushing logs to mills along the lower White.

Notable changes at the Courthouse restoration include a new mansard roof; complete with decorative cupola similar to the dome-like structure that originally housed the courthouse bell, and floors of re-milled aged lumber. A 19th century Jacksonport street scene is incorporated into the park's new hand-carved entrance sign. Inside, handsomely fashioned twin spiral staircases take visitors from the entry to the partially furnished courtroom on the second floor. "If These Walls Could Talk" is the theme of the courthouse museum.

The state-of-the-art exhibitory uses first-person dialogue audio, court records and vintage photos to explain Jacksonport's climb from a small riverport in the 1830s, to a center of commerce during the mid-19th century, and its decline after nearby Newport became Jackson County’s capital city.

The first room on the guided tour tells the story of Jacksonport's "boom days," during the middle to late 19th century. Wall-sized enlargements of photographs and other exhibits show the town's "hustle 'n' bustle" commerce, which produced the need for a new courthouse shortly after the Civil War.

The county clerk's office exhibit includes period business furnishings, plus interactive displays on the use of official records to trace family history. Another display studies the people who conducted business at the courthouse.

Across the hall, a volume of memorabilia from the region is displayed in restored cases from the original museum. Items include Civil War papers, Victorian furnishings, maps, books, household items and other pioneer wares. This area will be updated yearly with artifacts from the museum's permanent collection.

The remaining first-floor room is a place for memories, as photos and sounds recall the many stages the building…from its glory days as a social and political center to the 1950s when it was used as a storage barn. A large colorful drawing of the building reveals its unique architectural features with a fun game for all ages.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"