Arkansas State Parks: From Vision to Reality

Article follows the photos:
Cedar Falls at Petit Jean State Park
Cedar Falls at Petit Jean State Park
Boardwalk at Petit Jean State Park
Boardwalk at Petit Jean State Park
Hangliding from Mt. Nebo
Hangliding from Mt. Nebo
December 26, 2001


Arkansas State Parks: From Vision to Reality

(Editor's Note: The following is the first of a four-part series on the history of Arkansas's state parks. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1927 legislation that gave rise to The Natural State's parks system.)

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

The waters of Cedar Falls on Petit Jean Mountain plunge almost a hundred feet to splash noisily on the floor of a natural amphitheater, where towering layers of sedimentary rock give silent witness to a history of time incomprehensible. A scene that inspires awe aplenty, it also helped inspire Arkansas's system of state parks.

Among the 51 state parks now spread across Arkansas are sites atop the state's most prominent mountains, on the shores of her largest manmade and natural lakes, and on lands where Civil War battles were fought and Native Americans thrived. While preserving the state's natural and historical heritage and offering recreational opportunities for Arkansans and state visitors alike, the parks themselves have become a legacy being passed from generation to generation.

The year 2002 marks the 75th anniversary of the 1927 legislation that heralded an official beginning for The Natural State's parks system. The origins of the system can, however, be traced to 1907 and to a country doctor's simple dream: to preserve as a park a portion of the scenic mountain near Morrilton he called home.

Dr. Thomas William Hardison's desire to convince the National Park Service (NPS) to create a national park on Petit Jean evolved for himself and others who would join him into a larger commitment: securing modern state parks for Arkansas.

A native of Ouachita County in southern Arkansas, Hardison was just out of medical school when he accepted in 1906 a position with the Fort Smith Lumber Company as a contract physician at its lumber mill in Adona, a town just south of the mountain. The mill closed in 1910 and Hardison moved the next year to a home he'd built on a 68-acre tract of Petit Jean's south brow. He continued to provide medical care for area residents.

Even before his move, the idea of a park on the mountain had been planted in Hardison's mind. In April 1907, officials of the lumber company -- from Kansas City and Fort Smith -- came to the area to inspect its operations and timber holdings. As Hardison later recalled, the visit turned into "a weeklong holiday filled with riding horseback and log trains through the valley and over the mountains." Hardison accompanied the group when his work didn't interfere.

During an outing to the Seven Hollows region of Petit Jean, the officials decided it would be cost prohibitive to log that area. The company's superintendent was instructed to leave Seven Hollows in its natural state, and, Hardison would recall, one member of the party suggested it be deeded to the government.

Fourteen years later, the superintendent wrote to Hardison that the firm was ready to deed the land "whenever the government would accept it."

Hardison approached his congressman regarding the possibility of federal legislation to establish a Petit Jean park. He also traveled to Washington and met for two hours with Stephen T. Mather, director of the NPS, making his case for the proposed park.

Mather, a conservationist who had been instrumental in the 1916 creation of the NPS and who served as its first director until 1929, decided the area was, in Hardison's words, "too small to justify the cost of development and administration" and "probably not unique in the nation, beautiful as it was." Mather did share Hardison's belief that the mountain should have a park and suggested the doctor take his proposal to Arkansas's legislature.

(Mather also advised Hardison to become active in the fledgling National Conference of State Parks, which Mather had helped found. Hardison did. In 1926, he brought the conference to Hot Springs and took some 200 of the nation's leading state parks advocates to Petit Jean.)

Hardison pursued Mather's state park suggestion, and in March 1923, after unanimous approval in both legislative houses, Governor Thomas C. McRae signed into law Act 276, which authorized the state land commissioner to accept land donations for Petit Jean's park.

The first land accepted was 80 acres on the mountain's west end. Donated by six Morrilton residents and two Pine Bluff men, the tract included Cedar Falls and part of its canyon. The lumber company's gift came after its board had approved donation to the state rather than the federal government. Arkansas's first state park had been born.

Since no state parks agency then existed, Hardison convinced the state highway commissioner to "accept custody of the park until such time as a properly constituted state authority could be established."

Four years later, in 1927, the legislature approved Act 172, establishing a seven-member State Parks Commission. The legislature indicated its intent to create a system of parks by authorizing the panel to acquire any areas of natural beauty and historical interest that provided "educational, recreational, health, camping and other outdoor life advantages."

The new law instructed the commission to use its lands "to protect and preserve in its original habitat and native beauty the flora, fauna and wildlife therein and preserve the same for all future generations, ...and to attract visitors, home seekers and tourists to the State" in order to "increase the wealth and revenue of our State by means of such parks."

Acreage for Arkansas's second park was obtained later in 1927 by way of Act 39 of 1881, which provided that ownership of tax-delinquent lands would revert to the state. Located on a 1,750-foot peak overlooking the Arkansas River Valley near Dardanelle, the initial land for Mount Nebo State Park was simply transferred by the state to the parks commission.

Next came the state's first historical park. In 1929, the legislature established by Act 57 the Arkansas Post State Park Commission, directing it to acquire the site of Arkansas Post. The Post had been the first permanent European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley and Arkansas's first territorial capital. Sixty-two acres were purchased. (In 1964, the site was transferred to the NPS and became the Arkansas Post National Memorial.)

Two more park sites were established in 1933. Donations and purchases created Crowley's Ridge State Park west of Paragould, while donations and the transfer of tax-delinquent land made available acreage for Devil's Den State Park in a steep Boston Mountains valley of Lee Creek south of Fayetteville.

In 1935, Harvey Couch, founder of the Arkansas Power and Light Company, donated for the creation of Lake Catherine State Park more than 2,000 acres along the lake formed south of Hot Springs by Remmel Dam, the state's first major hydroelectric project. Lake Catherine was first in a significant line of Arkansas parks that would be located on large lakes made by dams.

Added to the system in 1937 by a combination of donated, purchased and tax-forfeited land was the site of Buffalo River State Park in southern Marion County. (The park was closed and its land transferred to the NPS in 1973 to become part of the Buffalo National River.)

Though land acquisition was proceeding apace, it would be 1937 before the State Parks Commission had control of funds for anything more than its own operating expenses; it had no money to develop the parks. After the Flood of 1927 had inundated one-fifth of Arkansas, the stock market collapsed in 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s ensued.

Yet, largely because of the severest economic disaster in U.S. history, the stone-and-mortar phase of the parks system began in 1933. Into Arkansas's park-development void stepped the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public employment program created by the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

(NEXT – Arkansas State Parks: The Legacy of the CCC)

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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"