JACKSONPORT - Having weathered a tornado that ravaged its roof in 1997 and a flood that lapped at its doorstep in 2011, the onetime Jackson County courthouse is well worth a visit. It’s a handsome and hardy survivor with a long if checkered history.
The centerpiece of Jacksonport State Park, a few miles northwest of Newport and 90 miles northeast of Little Rock, the courthouse had its grand opening in 1872. As a steamboat port near the confluence of the White and Black rivers, Jacksonport was then recovering briskly from the Civil War’s depredations.
But, as reported in the park’s artfully arranged museum, the town never recovered from a decision made by civic leaders about the time the courthouse opened. The Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad was coming to Jackson County, so the line’s management sought a land grant to be used for tracks and a depot.
The grant would have cost Jacksonport $25,000. Perhaps guilty of greed, town fathers voted against the proposal, figuring that the railroad would have to come through the county seat anyway. Not so. The tracks were laid several miles away at Newport, which became the county seat in 1892 while Jacksonport withered. Its population today is about 200.
All that remains of the bustling 19th-century river port is the courthouse. Built at a cost of nearly $70,000, the structure lost its original purpose with the shifting of the county seat. It next became a public school, before conversion to a cotton gin around 1905.
Later it served as what was then called a poorhouse to lodge indigent locals. By the 1950s, it stood abandoned except for occasional use to store harvested rice. Youngsters would climb through open or broken windows to play inside.
Stripped of its hand-fitted doors and other architectural flourishes, the derelict building seemed destined for demolition by the time the newly formed Jackson County Historical Society bought it in 1962.Donations of money, labor and 19th-century artifacts from the area restored its splendor for dedication in 1965 as a state park facility.
Particularly impressive is the old courtroom upstairs, entered through 9-foot-tall double doorways that match the two doors opening onto wrought-iron balconies at each end of the structure. Gorgeous fanlight windows sit above the end doors.
Among the five exhibit rooms on the ground floor, a good starting spot is the Jacksonport gallery. Displays there convey the town’s prosperous riverboat era, along with the hard times during its Civil War occupation by Union troops and the efforts to rebuild after 1865.
The park will bring a fresh twist Sunday to Arkansas’ bevy of Civil War events marking the 150th anniversary of that sanguinary conflict. At 3:30 p.m., visitors can hear a park interpreter talk about the war’s artillery and military formations.Then youngsters in the crowd can cool off by joining a mock battle with water guns and water balloons.
Also offering water-focused fun is the park’s swimming beach on the White River. There are picnic sites with a view, as well as a playground and a hiking trail along the river.
Missing from Jacksonport’s attractions for now - and perhaps permanently - is the stern-wheel towboat Mary Woods No. 2. Donated to the park in 1967 after 36 years of service pushing log barges to a sawmill on the White River, the vessel sank in 1984. Raised and repaired for exhibit, it went to the bottom again in 2010.
There are hopes of finding the resources for another restoration of the towboat, but nothing definite is in the works. On the other hand, Jacksonport does have a history of bouncing back from travails.
The museum in the 19th-century courthouse at Jacksonport State Park is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. The park sits along Arkansas 69, a few miles northwest of Newport. For more information, call (870) 523-2143 or visit arkansasstateparks.com.
Weekend, Pages 37 on 09/05/2013
Print Headline: Loss of railroad started Jacksonport’s decline