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Torrential and Bubbling Waters Led to Creation of Lake Ouachita

Article follows the photos:
  • Lake Ouachita

  • Lake Ouachita

  • Lake Ouachita State Park

  • Lake Ouachita

  • Lake Ouachita State Park

February 26, 2002

Torrential and Bubbling Waters
Led to Creation of Lake Ouachita

By Jay Harrod
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Arkansas's ninth state park, Lake Ouachita, is located about 12 miles north of Hot Springs. Known for its clarity, 40,100-acre Lake Ouachita is a water-sports mecca surrounded by undeveloped shorelines and unspoiled mountains. The park offers campsites, cabins, a restaurant, interpretive programs, lakeshore hiking, a marina and more. For additional information, call (501) 767-9366, or visit

The events leading to the creation of Lake Ouachita were both trying and mystical.

For years settlers around the upper regions of the Ouachita River endured flooding because of the stream's steep drop in elevation followed by a slight ascent. As early as 1870, the federal government was conducting surveys to determine what could be done to stop the floods. In the 1890s, subsequent studies brought recommendations for a series of dams, while a survey completed in 1909 first pointed out the added benefit of power production. Congress, however, determined the project didn't warrant taxpayer support, and it was shelved until the 1920s when Arkansas Power and Light became interested in harnessing the river's potential power.

As a result, Arkansas Power and Light built two dams downstream. Nearly 2,000 acres, Lake Catherine filled when Remmell Dam was completed in the early 1920s, and Carpenter Dam, when finished in 1932, created 7,200-acre Lake Hamilton. Still needed upstream, though, was a larger dam with a much higher price tag. Arkansas Power and Light originally planned to begin constructing this dam with federal funding as early as the late 1930s. But the Depression and problems with details eventually caused the government to terminate the company's permit in 1941.

The future of the project brightened with the passing of the Senate's flood control bill in 1944, which contained approval for building the dam. Funds were appropriated in 1946, and Army engineers began showing up a year later. Between 1947 and 1952, farms, residences and even gravesites in the Ouachita River Valley were moved. Timber was cleared, and legal battles concerning land acquisition were settled as cost estimates for the project soared to $31 million.

In 1952, a year ahead of schedule, Blakely Mountain Dam, rising 231 feet above the streambed, was completed and the floodgates closed. Hydroelectric power was first produced and sold under contract to Arkansas Power and Light on July 17, 1955, the same year Arkansas acquired 360 acres of land near the dam for a state park.

Ouachita's Lure Before the Lake

Long before the Ouachita's waters were tamed, people were drawn to the beauty of surrounding mountains and to mystical, bubbling water believed to have had healing powers. Soon after the first hotels and bathhouses were built in the late 1820s, tourists began to view Hot Springs as a premier destination, and the city continued to grow in popularity throughout the 19th century. In 1907, businessman W.M. Cecil hoped to cash in on some of the magic. He purchased land surrounding natural springs, which is now part of Lake Ouachita State Park. Originally, the land was homesteaded by John McFadden, who discovered the springs in 1875. McFadden failed to meet federal homesteading laws, and the land passed ownership twice before ending up in Cecil's possession.

Drawing from its history, Cecil developed the area as McFadden's Three Sisters Springs Resort. (It is said the springs were named for McFadden's three daughters). By the 1930s, Cecil had built several tourist facilities including summer cottages and the "World's Wonder Waters" bottling plant. In marketing his bottled water and the resort, Cecil claimed the spring water could cure a variety of ailments. In 1939, Cecil sold his popular resort, and the land was eventually acquired by the Corps of Engineers in 1951.

Ouachita Becomes a State Park

"The Corps -- not knowing what to do with the area and its historical value -- decided the state park system would be the best stewards of the spring area," James Wilborn, interpreter at Lake Ouachita State Park, said. "So when the lake was formed, they carved off this 360-acre area on the east end and decided to let the state parks lease the land. So we got a lease for a hundred years for a dollar. It was a pretty good deal."

Lake Ouachita officially became a state park in 1955. "The park really existed only on paper, though," Wilborn said. "There were some buildings and structures here, but the park didn't become established or manned until 1965. That's when they actually started putting personnel and resources into camping and so on along the lake."

According to Wilborn, some of the 1930s-circa buildings remain -- in renovated states -- but most structures at the park were built during the early 1970s. Major improvements in the early 1990s changed the look of the park with the addition of a new visitors center, restaurant, cabins and more campsites. "But you can still see the springs today," Wilborn said. "You can drive right up to them, and there's a nice educational exhibit there."

So what about the healing powers of the water today? The springs, of course, still flow, but because of federal regulations are no longer open pools, and mandatory signs indicate the water is not potable. However, one visit to the park will quickly confirm there's still healing power in the once-torrential waters of the river that now form peaceful Lake Ouachita and in the natural beauty and serenity of the hillsides surrounding Three Sisters.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

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