Fort Smith — More Than Just Hangings

Day 95, Staying at Home

Friday, June 26, 2020; Fort Smith, Arkansas

With no home of my own (remember, my plan for two years was to live mostly on cruise ships), I retreated to my sister Eloise’s home in Fort Smith in mid May.

Fort Smith is the second largest city in Arkansas, after Little Rock, but its neighbors to the north are better known: Bentonville as the home of Walmart and Fayetteville for “the University.” There’s no need to add “of Arkansas,” as no one in this state is left confused. My parents came from different corners of Arkansas to meet there. Decades earlier Dad’s father earned agriculture and law degrees from the University.

I never thought much about Fort Smith until Eloise, (the middle Johnston sister) made it her home in the 1990s. It is centrally located between what was then our parent’s home in southwest Missouri and those of my youngest sister Elaine and me in Dallas. It was our meeting spot.

Fort Smith also was a good home base for the frequent Ozark weekends I organized for Audi, Porsche and MINI Cooper sports car clubs. The area is well known for the Talimena National Scenic Byway, the Pig Trail and Highway 7. The latter frequently ranks among the top 10 scenic drives in the county. Our maternal grandfather built the original road in the 1920s.

During World War II, he moved his wife and daughter (our mother) to Fort Smith to help build Camp Chaffee, which would house German prisoners of war. It would later become Fort Chaffee. You can still visit the barbershop where, upon entering the army in 1958, Elvis Presley famously lost his sideburns to a GI buzz cut. In recent years we sometimes would drive by the old two-story house where Mom’s family lived in an apartment during the war.

Like many small cities, downtown Fort Smith has suffered through the loss of traffic to the interstate and the loss of businesses to strip malls in the suburbs. But history abounds along the banks of the Arkansas River near downtown.

Despite all my previous trips to Fort Smith, I hadn’t taken the time to really explore. What better time than during a pandemic? I set off with my smartphone camera and a facemask.

If you saw the 1969 movie True Grit, you might not have noticed that U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne’s only Oscar-winning role) crossed the river from Fort Smith right into a mountain range. It’s not true. Eastern Oklahoma on the far bank features rolling hills with nary a mountain peak in sight. But it is true that U.S. Marshals frequently were the face of justice in the frontier west of Fort Smith, commonly known as Indian Territory.

Later this year the new U.S. Marshals Museum is set to open on the banks of the river near downtown Fort Smith. I couldn’t explore beyond the striking exterior.

Judge Isaac C. Parker handed out frontier justice in the late 19th Century. He sat on the federal bench of western Arkansas in Fort Smith. He may be best known as a hanging judge for sentencing 160 people to death, but he also advocated for the rights of the Indian nations. The Fort Smith National Historic Site tells his story, along with that of the first fort and the Trail of Tears. Right now the buildings are closed due to the pandemic, including the visitor’s center and courtroom. But park rangers are available outside – socially distanced, of course – and you can visit the reconstruction of the original gallows where 86 men were hanged.

Downtown Fort Smith along Garrison Avenue stretches for a dozen blocks east from the riverbank. In 1996 an F3 tornado destroyed a number of buildings, and today the façade of the Reynolds Davis Building stands as a reminder of the storm. The nearby Trolley Museum continues to add track, and you can ride the trolley by the façade left by the tornado. Restaurants, sports bars and other entertainment venues now dot the downtown area, which includes some buildings reconstructed in the tornado’s wake.

Few events are taking place during the pandemic at the Riverfront Park Amphitheater at the foot of Garrison, but youngsters are taking advantage of the extensive skate and bike park there. You can rent a bike and helmet to ride along the 7 miles of paved path along the Arkansas River. Check out Miss Laura’s Visitor Center, in the only remaining house of ill repute from the Old West red light district.

That might be about all there was to see in downtown Fort Smith if it weren’t for an unexpected transition that started in 2015. But I’ll leave that part of the story for the next blog post.