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Fort Smith proudly perpetuates city’s wild past

By JACK SCHNEDLER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published December 12, 2013 at 2:56 a.m.

at-fort-smith-national-historic-site-stands-a-replica-of-the-gallows-where-hangings-were-carried-out-in-the-federal-western-district-of-arkansas-in-the-late-19th-century

At Fort Smith National Historic Site stands a replica of the gallows where hangings were carried out in the federal Western District of Arkansas in the late 19th century.

FORT SMITH - It takes a dash of civic swagger to tout a bordello and a gallows as visitor attractions.

Fort Smith is brash enough to do just that, as part of making the most from its rough and tumble past.

What is now Arkansas’ second largest city served in the late 19th century as the region’s Western-most outpost of what passed for law and order. Across the Arkansas River stretched the cutthroat wilds of Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma), harboring a host of nasty desperadoes.

The onetime house of ill repute might be a tourist’s first stop, because it functions as Fort Smith’s visitor center under the name Miss Laura’s. Restored in plush Victorian style at 2 N. B St. after heavy tornado damage in 1996, it boasts of being the first ex-bordello listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The gallows, a replica of the structure where hangings took place between 1873 and 1896, stands near another visitor center, at 301 Parker Ave. Serving Fort Smith National Historic Site, this information spot occupies a former military barracks and federal district court building.

Parker Avenue is named for Judge Isaac C. Parker, who presided for 23 years over the widely lawless 74,000 square miles of Indian Territory. Known to history as “the Hanging Judge,” he pronounced the death sentence on 160 miscreants, 79 of whom were actually strung up.

Surrounding the wooden gallows is a tall white fence, like the original erected in 1876 after authorities decided that the hangings had become too much of a public attraction. The curiosity factor persists, as proved by a souvenir T-shirt emblazoned with a hangman’s noose and the message: “Hang Around Fort Smith Awhile.”

The onetime barracks, where future U.S. President Zachary Taylor served as commander of the military garrison from 1841 to 1844, houses two frontier-era jails. One is “Hell on the Border”hoosegow, where inmates suffered in “the dim squalor of a dingy basement.” Upstairs, along with a more commodious later lockup, is a replica of Judge Parker’s courtroom.

Another copy of a Parker courtroom can be found at the Fort Smith Museum of History, which covers a wider range of the city’s past at 320 Rogers Ave. The judge’s chair is supposedly an original.

A hint of life’s precarious nature in early Fort Smith is found in a display noting that the first taxes assessed here, amounting to $90 in the 1840s, went “to pay for the burial of corpses found murdered or dead in the streets.”

Exhibits go into considerable detail about the mechanics of hanging. “The Drop Distance Formula” was calculated so that the neck would be broken for a quicker and more humane death. The heavier the convicted killer, the shorter was the needed drop: just over 8 feet for a 120-pound man, 5 feet for a220-pounder.

Daily life was more genteel by the 20th century, as suggested by a bygone-days menu from the former Goldman Hotel. One touted dish was “Imported Spaghetti - A Yard Long,” served with meatballs and priced at 55 cents. There’s no display of the pot that was large enough to boil that pasta.

Rope-length spaghetti is missing from the museum’s current bill of fare. But an antique soda fountain does dish up ice-cream treats. A hot-fudge sundae can provide chilly-day energy to tackle other notable local attractions, including the Fort Smith Trolley Museum and Belle Grove Historic District.

For details on attractions, including hours and admission prices, call Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 637-1477 or (479) 783-8888, or visit fortsmith.org.

Information on Fort Smith National Historic site is available at (479) 783-3961 or nps.gov/fosm.

Fort Smith is 160 miles west of Little Rock via Interstate 40. On a recent visit, commendable meals were enjoyed at Rolando’s, 223 Garrison Ave., and Pho Vietnam, 2214 Rogers Ave.

Weekend, Pages 37 on 12/12/2013

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