In the mid-1920s, a man whose name appears lost to posterity decided to travel from St. Louis to New Orleans by way of the Mississippi River. By walking the Mississippi, that is, courtesy of custom-made pontoons attached to his feet.
A little more than halfway through the 1,278 river-mile excursion, our pontoon paladin strode by the Desha County seat of Arkansas City. In the old jail which now serves as the town museum, there sits a photo of the man, mid-stride, Arkansas City’s then-prominent riverfront standing a tight guard on the old levee.
The late, great Bobby Charles probably didn’t have him in mind when he wrote the classic R&B hit, “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” for Fats Domino in 1960.
That prominent riverfront no longer exists; the infamous flood of 1927 sent river water as far west as McGehee, 10 miles away, and almost two stories high in Arkansas City proper. Once the flood and its aftermath diverted the main river channel about a mile to the east, it was impossible for Arkansas City to simply dry out and get back to business.
A city that had served as one of the primary port-of-calls on the middle Mississippi and one teeming with business — two railroads to service an active steamboat port, three sawmills, banks, churches, 14 saloons and even an opera house — would never be the same. No longer situated on the river, the steamboats had nowhere, and the railroads no reason, to stop. The thriving port town, whose population some estimates say peaked at more than 10,000, began to fade into the Delta dirt.
By the mid-20th century, of course, mechanization had driven workers into larger towns and cities seeking work, the county’s fertile soil requiring fewer hands to farm. And like much of the rest of the Delta, Arkansas City and Desha County experienced decades of declining population. The county is home now to a little more than 11,000 residents; its seat roughly 400.
But it’s not necessarily an influx of permanent new residents that local leaders are counting on to spark an Arkansas City revival. Like the man bearing those podiatric pontoons, visitors are the key to the future, they say. And Arkansas City has something special to offer, they believe, something especially appealing in this pandemic-altered new frontier.
Americans post-2020 are getting back outside — in particular, off the beaten path — to discover those “getaways” that offer actual connections, whether to a physical place, landscape or even the past. Given its history and location, Arkansas City can offer those connections in droves, and one native son is determined to see his hometown rise again from that Delta dust.
The old levee road at Arkansas City delivers the much heralded Delta Heritage Trail to its conclusion. Now designated State Highway 600 to recognize its inclusion in a state park, the narrow strip of asphalt runs atop the old levee and affords some majestic views of the surrounding Desha County landscape, pockets of trees floating like islands amid a calm, green surface of soybean, rice and cotton.
Robert S. Moore Jr., third-generation operator of Moore Farms in Arkansas City, is on his way to visit what soon will be a scenic overlook and boat launch on the Mississippi River just north of town. It will be dedicated to former Gov. Mike Beebe, a friend and political ally who emphasized conservation when Moore was representing District 12 in the Arkansas House for three terms and serving as Speaker from 2011-13.
Since his days in the legislature, Moore has promoted his hometown as a bona fide tourist destination. And his name maintains some political heft — he currently chairs the Arkansas State Highway Commission and is a past chairman of the Arkansas Transportation Commission and former director of the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. For most of his adult life, Moore has been one of the region’s biggest advocates, his efforts to develop and enhance tourism opportunities in the southeast corner of the state earning him induction into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame in 2019.
The overlook is being built right off the trail, a major tourism investment by the state and private interests from which officials anticipate a major economic boon to southeast Arkansas — up to 600 new jobs and $7 million in new money each year. Earlier this year, a $20 million federal grant was matched by the Walton Family Foundation to fund completion of the final 44 miles of the trail, which by 2025 will connect Lexa northwest of Helena with Kate Adams Landing at Arkansas City, where the riverboats would come in.
The finished trail will run for roughly 85 miles and provide a continuous two-lane, paved and crushed-gravel surface for bikers, hikers and sightseers. It will hug the Mississippi on the east and skirt the White River National Wildlife Refuge on the west. But most importantly, it’ll open up a veritable primordial wilderness of bottomland forest, straight out of Jurassic Park, that most Arkansans — much less potential out-of-state visitors — likely never even knew existed.
Surveying the work being done on the river, Moore contemplates just what a place like Arkansas City has to offer and how it could benefit from the trail. Maybe a half mile down river, the bend from which the planned Great River Bridge will launch itself across the river as part of the future Interstate 69 delivers a setting straight out of Mark Twain. From this vantage point, it’s not hard to imagine a sunny spring day from, say, the 1880s, local kids waving from the riverbank as steamboats churn by on that big muddy interstate of its day, the original “NAFTA superhighway.”
Moore is optimistic the iconic old riverport town can become a destination once again. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If I have anything to do about it, it will.”
Not much is left of Arkansas City’s historic downtown riverfront. But what remains harkens back to a different era, as if the weathered old buildings refuse to let go — the gambling and carousing of a port-of-call past, the echoes of Civil War cannon fire from the river, the dewy residue of floodwater, each imprinted on the town’s soul.
And all of which seems as it should be. After all, Moore insists the city’s past is its future. He and his wife, Beverly, bought five historic buildings in town, rehabilitated them and worked to get them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They even donated the land on which the Delta Heritage Trail State Park trailhead sits and a portion of the land for a downtown park on which will sit a planned memorial to one of the state’s most prominent native African Americans, John Johnson.
Born in Arkansas City to parents who were once slaves, Johnson was the founder of Ebony (1945) and Jet (1951) magazines. In 1982, he became the first Black man listed on the Forbes 400. His childhood home in Arkansas City is now a museum. (Johnson ended up in Chicago for high school, and that’s where he launched his media empire and lived out an extraordinary life. Classmates at DuSable High on the south side included Nathaniel Coles, otherwise known as Nat King Cole, and John Sanford, better known by his stage name, Redd Foxx.)
Other attractions in town include the 8,000-acre Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area, which sits on the other side of the old levee, steps from downtown where the river channel once flowed; eight properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the former law office of Arkansas City lawyer X. O. Pindall, who served as governor from 1907 to 1909; and then there’s the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum at McGehee and nearby, two former internment camps in rural Desha County.
The southern Delta in Arkansas may sometimes feel like the state’s forgotten corner, but almost $100 million in state and federal grants has been invested in and around Arkansas City alone in the past decade, counting the recent $40 million commitment from the state and Walton foundation to fund completion of the Delta Heritage Trail. Moore had a hand in securing much of it.
There’s $20 million for improvements to Arkansas Highway 4 between McGehee and Arkansas City and another $7.8 million for work on 4 between Arkansas City and Rohwer; more than $5 million for improvements at Choctaw Island (the state’s only major public land mass located inside the levee); $3.5 million for restoration work at the Desha County Courthouse; $3 million for a new municipal water system; $1.2 million for the overlook and boat launch that will be dedicated to Beebe; $1 million for restrooms and an interpretive exhibit at the Delta Heritage Trail’s Arkansas City trailhead; $500,000 for a spur running from the trail to Lake Kate Adams inside the WMA and a new pier; $300,000 for new ramps and parking off the levee; and $150,000 for the John Johnson Museum.
“If Arkansas City happens, you can’t get here without coming through Lake Village, McGehee, Dumas and Dermott,” Moore said. “Everybody is going to benefit.”
And then there’s Mayor Rick Hales, a Monticello native who’s adopted Arkansas City as his own. A licensed real estate agent and experienced developer in southeast Arkansas, he runs the historic Furr House bed and breakfast and is working to restore other properties in town including the old Cotham Drug and Red Star Grocery buildings.
And he just happens to oversee community outreach for Little Rock-based Aristotle Unified Communications, launched in 1995 and one of the first firms in Arkansas to work with the internet. Part of its mission is serving underserved communities and thanks to Hales, wi-fi flows free throughout the city, just as Tesla intended.
Moore calls Hale a visionary. “He’s a smart guy, and we’re lucky to have him. The clock is ticking while we have people in place who can make something happen here.”
Hale has his eye on the old opera house in town. On Saturday nights in Arkansas City’s heyday, it was, to borrow a line from Frank Costanza, “the place to be.” It hosted the opera, of course, but also wrestling matches and much carousing. The Methodist church a block away used to face it, and the story goes that God used the great flood to shift its foundation to the north so His house wouldn’t have to gaze upon such a den of iniquity.
Hale envisions a restaurant (fried catfish and rib joint) with live blues music as well as a coffee shop, internet café and venue for weddings and special events. Both Hale and Moore hope to develop Arkansas City into a music destination as well. Moore is a singer/songwriter who records as JR Grace.
Like Moore, Hale sees Arkansas City as a legitimate potential getaway spot — he calls it “Levee Life.”
And it’s not like Arkansas City is starting from scratch. The nonprofit Moore Family Foundation, established in 2002 to honor Moore’s late mother, Dorothy Price Moore (known locally as “Miss Dorothy”), supports local civic, business and educational causes. It has a retail foundation from which to grow. On any given day, locals come and go from Mama Carol’s Family Restaurant; Nu-Bee’s, a convenience store and functional bodega next door; and Cat’s Corner Liquor, which is planning to open a specialty sandwich shop soon.
“We’re blessed to have a great restaurant and convenience store, and even a liquor store, all open seven days a week,” Moore said. “Visitors can enjoy a great meal from Jennifer and her staff at Mama Carol’s, and Wayne Lyson will take care of you like family over at Nu-Bee’s. We just need a broader retail structure to support a more diverse clientele and greater demand.”
Moore said there are several commercial properties in town being offered, essentially launching pads on hold. He plans to convert his old family home in town to a bed and breakfast, enabling Arkansas City to accommodate more overnight visitors.
“There’s so much to see and do while you reconnect with nature in Arkansas City,” Hale said.
That part about reconnecting with nature is key. The growing popularity of outdoor recreation, spurred by the quarantining and social distancing of the pandemic, bodes well for Arkansas City. The Outdoor Foundation’s 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report revealed a 3 percent annual increase in outdoor rec activities over each of the last three years. The five most popular activities, its survey found, were running, hiking, fishing, biking and backpacking/camping.
More than 16.7 million Americans ages 6 and up participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2020, up 7.1 million from 2019. And the outdoor participation rate rose to 52.9 percent in 2020, up from 50.7 percent in 2019 and the largest one-year jump on record, the organization reported.
And though the outdoor rec industry has concerns about maintaining this pandemic-fueled momentum, the work being done in and around Arkansas City is designed to attract and promote outdoor rec-based tourism for years to come. State leaders are serious about developing tourism into one of Arkansas’ biggest industries. Tourism tax collections in Arkansas were up 14.6 percent from 2019, and jobs associated with tourism and hospitality accounted for 6.6 percent of the state’s private industry jobs pre-pandemic.
State lawmakers this past spring passed several measures to enhance tourism including the doubling of historic rehabilitation income-tax credits from the Division of Heritage to $8 million annually. While he was still serving in the state legislature, Moore saw a story in National Geographic that introduced him to the idea of geotourism — capitalizing on an area’s history, culture and natural resources. He went on to sponsor and see passed legislation enacting 25 percent tax credits for geotourism and historic buildings renovation.
“I read about geotourism and had never heard of it. And I said, ‘That’s Arkansas City.’ You’ve got the culture of the old Delta and natural resources and the history.”
Moore is convinced Arkansas City and the surrounding area have something people will travel to experience. He and his wife, Beverly, have made road trips across the continental United States, and they took notes.
“Beverly and I realized going on vacation through so many states that the uniqueness of small towns with interesting assets are a bigger attraction to a great segment of the traveling public than just going back to Disneyland,” he said. “People want to see what they haven’t seen before. And over the years, meeting with officials from Colorado or California, they came here, and they were wowed. If you grew up in the mountains and the only thing you ever saw was mountains, you want to experience something new. And they don’t have anything like we have here with the river and the people.”
Desha County Judge Richard Tindall thinks the completion of the Delta Heritage Trail and the establishment of Arkansas City as a hub destination for all the surrounding outdoor activities represent the county’s best shots to develop tourism and grow its economy.
“For a county that doesn’t have a huge workforce to attract industry, you have to have some type of different view on how to get people to visit,” he said. “This is the very best shot that Desha County has of creating new business that will not negatively affect our infrastructure, our woods or our water. There’s no negative to it.”
Moore believes that realizing his vision is a matter of making private investors aware of the area’s potential.
“There’s not a possibility of somebody coming in here and doing something if they don’t know about it,” he said. “But if folks are going to come and visit, you gotta have your restaurants and bars and your places to spend money, or it’s all for naught. And that is going to take an entrepreneurial, a visionary, venture.
“We certainly have plenty to offer to the outdoor enthusiasts, the bike riders, hikers, bird watchers, river explorers, history buffs. But we’ve also got to have the amenities you’d need, the types of retail businesses for them to come and stay and spend money.”
The planned I-69 which one day may pass just north of town certainly could help make more people aware of Arkansas City, but Moore sees the town’s future as totally independent of it.
“If Arkansas City reaches the potential that I hope it will, hopefully in my lifetime, we’ve got to have some entrepreneurs with vision come down and began to put the basic retail infrastructure that people not only expect but demand.”
Arkansas City refuses to slip away into the Mississippi River mud, much like Napoleon, the county’s original seat situated just upstream at the confluence of the Arkansas River. By the 1860s, Napoleon was a budding major river port and home to one of just a few federal “marine hospitals” operated by the U.S. government. But its fate was sealed in 1863 when a Union expeditionary force diverted the Mississippi River channel at a big bend in the river to avoid a Confederate ambush point. The resulting rerouting turned Beulah Bend into an oxbow lake and within a decade, Napoleon was under water.
It’s said that when the river runs unusually low, some of Napoleon’s old ruins are visible, embedded in the sandbar.
The current Desha County seat avoided that fate. Two referendums have been placed before Desha County voters to move the seat officially to McGehee, much larger and more centrally located and where Arkansas City kids now graduate high school. Both times, the move was defeated (county voters, one could argue, being stubborn like Razorback fans clinging to Little Rock games.)
Pontoon man eventually made it to New Orleans, again, the story goes, where he was hospitalized and ultimately died. Arkansas City refuses to follow suit. Moore, for one, won’t let it. Hale calls him the “PR guy” for southeast Arkansas, Desha County and specifically, Arkansas City.
“And the PR is not just PR — it’s his passion; he’s passionate and relentless,” he said.
Moore noted a passage from Proverbs, one his mother would often cite: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
“That admonition in the Bible is true, but it needs an additional component,” he said. “And that is perseverance. You can’t just have a vision, and it happens; you’ve got to want it to happen, and you have to persevere. There is no throwing in the towel. You just have to keep coming.”
Moore has been pitching Arkansas City for more than 25 years. People always asked him why he did it. “A big, long stretch limousine is gonna pull up to the four-way stop one day. Somebody will roll down the window, look around, and say, ‘I think I want to buy this town,’” was always his whimsy-soaked reply.
“And I’m still looking for that limo,” he said. “I believe, in some fashion, it’s gonna happen.”