A 19th-century belief held that there was “no God west of Fort Smith.” Now the second largest city in Arkansas, Fort Smith began as a military post in 1817, when violence between the Cherokee and Osage tribes just across the Arkansas River in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) made the establishment of the fort a necessity.
Today, a visit to the Fort Smith National Historic Site is equally a necessity for any Arkansas traveler. This site is no stodgy museum shrouded in the cobwebs of time — it offers a sense of history that is palpable, and visitors can feel it in every nook and cranny.
They feel it in the frontier jail, once dubbed Hell on the Border, whose most famous inmate was the notorious outlaw Cherokee Bill. They also feel it in the restored courtroom of Judge Isaac Parker. Known as “the hanging judge,” Parker sentenced Cherokee Bill to death and once dispatched six miscreants in a single day, making Texas’ Judge Roy Bean seem a pacifist by comparison.
Other colorful characters with a connection to the fort were outlaw queen Belle Starr and Bass Reeves, a fugitive slave who became a lawman credited with more than 3,000 arrests. Letting nothing interfere with his duty, Reeves’ arrests included the pastor who baptized him and, even more astoundingly, his own son, whom he arrested for murder.
For a lighter side of Fort Smith, spend an evening at Miss Laura’s Social Club. By day, it is home to the city’s visitors bureau; by night, it morphs into its 19th-century role as the town’s toniest bawdy house.
Miss Laura’s is the sole survivor among the nine Victorian mansions that once made up the Row, the raucous red-light district, and is the only bordello ever to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A 21st-century version of Miss Laura greets visitors at the front door offering a sarsaparilla, and the Miss Laura’s Players provide an entertaining peek into Fort Smith’s naughty past.
The town has much to offer the visitor, including its two major annual events. The two-day Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Fest, held every June on the bank of the Arkansas River, brings in big names in blues and jazz.
The Arkansas/Oklahoma State Fair, one of the largest bistate fairs in the country, takes place every September.
If Fort Smith is evocative of Arkansas’s Wild West past, Eureka Springs is its polar opposite. Often referred to as the Switzerland of the South, this Ozarks resort town has a definite alpine feel.
Honored as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the town’s charming Victorian chalets house bed-and-breakfast inns, and downtown Main Street has a cornucopia of one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants.
Additionally, the surrounding area features some 60 natural springs, Beaver and Table Rock lakes, and the White, Kings and Buffalo rivers. The natural beauty of the Ozarks sets the stage for a town that has grown to include numerous attractions and become a favorite tourism destination.
Open-air trams take visitors on tours of the historic district; animal-lovers can visit Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a shelter for many of the big cats — lions, tigers and leopards — seldom seen in a natural habitat outside of Africa and Asia; and nearly everyone is awestruck by their first sight of the Christ of the Ozarks Statue.
Rising majestically from the hills at 67 feet high (the equivalent of a seven-storey building), it is the largest statue of Christ in North America and the second largest in the world, after Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer.
Groups find another Eureka Springs superlative at the “Great Passion Play.” Featuring more than 200 actors and animals, it is America’s most attended outdoor religious drama.
The passion play isn’t the only otherworldly experience in Eureka Springs. The mists rising from the depths of the Ozark valleys give the town its eerily haunting quality, making ghost tours a popular evening activity. Nightly ghost tours depart from several locations, including the Basin Park Hotel and the historic Crescent Hotel.
At the Basin Park, you can commune with the spirit of a young bride forever doomed to wander the corridors in a long white dress in search of her groom, a cowboy who roams the halls and a woman who tries to evict guests from “her” room.
The Crescent, built in 1886 and often referred to as America’s Most Haunted Hotel, counters with its own spectral parade: Michael, the Irish stonemason who fell to his death while building the hotel; a mysterious man in a white suit and a lavender shirt; and even Morris, a ghostly cat.
Just outside of town in the Ozark foothills, the beautiful Thorncrown Chapel caps off a Eureka Springs visit on a brighter note. Nestled among the trees, with 425 windows and 6,000 square feet of glass, the nondenominational chapel is the perfect spot for quiet meditation.
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
— 501-682-7777 —