LOUISIANA PURCHASE STATE PARK - History and nature, prime categories when it comes to visitor attractions, are neatly combined in a middle-of-nowhere spot where three county lines meet in the swampland of eastern Arkansas.
The site is sufficiently notable because it boasts an Arkansas imprimatur (as Louisiana Purchase State Park) and a federal honorific (a National Historic Site). It sits at the dead end of a very short highway: Arkansas 362, just two miles long.
The history highlighted at the junction of Lee, Monroe and Phillips counties took place when present-day Arkansas was still mainly wilderness.
Back in 1815, four years before the future Natural State was declared a U.S. territory, surveyors singled out the location, which they used as the initial point for plotting much of the 830,000 square miles that America had acquired from France in 1803 for $15 million.
Two g um trees were marked as so-called witness trees at the site, which one surveyor described as “low and containing cypress and briers and thickets in abundance.”
The park’s natural setting is distinctive because it preserves one of the few remaining headwater swamps, which were common in the Arkansas Delta before the era of wholesale drainage and clearing by farmers.
Headwater swamps, usually found in the upper reaches of rivers or streams, seldom see deep flooding but rarely dry up. That’s in contrast to the more familiar backwater swamps that come and go in flood plains.
The original surveyors reached their starting point 26 miles west of the Mississippi River mostly by canoe. A boat would still be needed much of the year, but for the wide 950-foot boardwalk, which itself has been designated as a National Recreational Trail.
Along the boardwalk, 11 interpretive signs help even city slickers appreciate the special nature of the setting. One message board urges visitors to “take a moment to look at the unusual plants and listen to the sounds of life in the swamp.”
The plants include a forest of slender water tupelo and bald cypress trees, along with swamp cottonwoods and swamp chestnut oaks. A sign notes that these eastern Arkansas wetlands still shelter beaver, mink, raccoons, swamp rabbits, opossums, gray squirrels and deer.
On the reptile front, poisonous cottonmouths as well as harmless diamondback water snakes inhabit the murky waters. Bird-focused visitors may see wood ducks and prothonotary warblers. But the sharp, birdlike whistle from above is most likely the sound of male bird-voiced frogs rather than any flying creature.
Set amid trees near the end of the boardwalk is an engraved stone monument placed after 20th century surveyors came across the marked witness trees. The L’Anguille chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution from nearby Marianna dedicated the monument in 1926 in the presence of the state’s U.S. senators, Joseph T. Robinson and Thaddeus H. Caraway.
If 90 miles from Little Rock seems too far to drive merely to view a historic site in a swamp, consider stopping by the park next month on your way to a major musical event.
The annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, Oct. 10-12, is in Helena-West Helena, only 35 miles east of the state park. This year’s lineup will include Gregg Allman, Robert Cray and Marcia Ball.
Louisiana Purchase State Park is open daily. Admission is free. Serving as the park’s visitor center is the Central Delta Depot & Museum, 100 W. Cypress St., Brinkley. To reach the park from Brinkley, drive about 20 miles south on U.S. 49 before turning left on Arkansas 362. For more information, call (870) 589-2124.
For information on the King Biscuit Blues Festival, call (870) 572-5223 or visit kingbiscuitfestival.com.
Weekend, Pages 38 on 09/26/2013
Print Headline: Swamp boasts honor of wearing state, U.S. labels