Memorial's unveiling today

Hot Springs honors slain park ranger

His Prohibition-era killing was a first

National Park Service Ranger James Alexander Cary was shot to death on March 12, 1927, at Hot Springs National Park.
National Park Service Ranger James Alexander Cary was shot to death on March 12, 1927, at Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs was a rollicking town in 1927.

Gambling prevailed in the Bath City, and, although it was during Prohibition, alcohol was easy to obtain thanks to bootleggers and their hidden stills.

National Park Service Ranger James Alexander Cary was staunchly opposed to bootleggers, especially those who hid alcohol in the wilds of West Mountain at Hot Springs National Park.

His opposition led to his death March 12, 1927. As Cary hid, staking out a suspected area used by bootleggers, he was shot and killed. Six men were tried in the killing, but none were convicted. Cary was the first National Park Service ranger slain while on duty.

Hot Springs National Park will unveil a memorial honoring Cary at Central Avenue and Reserve Street in Hot Springs at 1 p.m. today. The unveiling will follow the annual Memorial Day service at 11 a.m. at the Garland County Veterans Memorial and Military Park.

Cary's memorial consists of a bronze plaque and a park ranger hat mounted atop a 3½-foot-tall Novaculite boulder.

"In keeping with his life and service and sacrifice, we felt that Memorial Day would be a fitting time to pay tribute to his legacy," said park superintendent Josie Fernandez. "This is an appropriate and solemn thing to do.

"We want to recognize that Ranger Cary is not forgotten."

Cary was 31 at the time of his slaying. He was a World War I veteran who served on the USS Orient while in the Navy. He joined the National Park Service in October 1923. He earned $1,000 a year while at Hot Springs National Park, and he and his family lived on the park grounds.

Cary often scoured West Mountain, looking for bootleggers and caches of alcohol. On Dec. 7, 1926, he arrested three men who had 5 gallons of alcohol, according to a March 13, 1927, Arkansas Gazette article about Cary's slaying.

One of the three men was not tried. The other two were indicted, accused of violating the liquor law.

Cary told other park rangers that he would not be surprised if he "had trouble with those he had arrested," the article said.

Cary was killed within 50 feet of where he made the previous arrest, police said. Officers speculated that he was gunned down when he attempted to arrest bootleggers.

"There was so much of that going on then," said Tom Hill, curator for the Hot Springs National Park museum. "There were nightclubs, gambling, gangsters all in Hot Springs.

"These guys were hiding their stash on federal property, and Ranger Cary was trying to stop that."

Hill said Cary probably went to West Mountain on the afternoon of March 12, 1927, to keep an eye on crates of liquor he had spotted there earlier so he could arrest anyone who returned to get it. When Park Superintendent Joseph Bolten noticed that the U.S. flag had not been taken down for the evening at the park's headquarters, he sent officers to look for Cary.

A search party returned at dawn, and officials found Cary's Ford touring car on Gem Street near the mountain. A few moments later, two men discovered Cary's body.

Cary had two wounds, according to the Arkansas Gazette article. Medical personnel found a large bullet hole in his right shoulder just below his neck. A second hole was in his left shoulder and could have been made by the bullet exiting his body.

Cary was not armed when he was killed, Hill said. Rangers had to pay for their uniforms and weapons back then, and Cary used a service revolver he had purchased when taking the job in Hot Springs. Police didn't find the weapon on Cary's body, giving them cause to believe that those who shot him may have taken it.

Later, however, Cary's father, a former trolley car driver, said he had Cary's weapon that day, Hill said.

Police found a bloody fingerprint on the lining of Cary's pants pocket and suspected that his killers rifled his pockets. They also found Cary's watch some distance from his body.

A woman who lived near where Cary's body was found told police that she heard a shot on the mountain between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. March 12. A coroner later said Cary had been killed late in the afternoon, the Arkansas Gazette reported.

Officers found a Winchester rifle at the home of a suspect in the case. The suspect, Roy Wilson, lived in rural Garland County. He told authorities that he and another man had shot the weapon in the woods the day Cary was killed. The other man, also of Garland County, told police that Wilson lied and the two never fired the weapon.

Six people were eventually arrested and tried in the slaying, Hill said. None were convicted.

Cary's son, James Orvis Cary, was 5 years old when his father was slain. Now 94, he doesn't remember that day, but he does recall the struggle the family went through after Cary was killed.

"We had a hard time," said James Orvis Cary, who lives in Dallas. "My mother spent a lot of time and money trying to figure out who killed him."

He remembered the trial and has kept newspaper clippings from the proceedings.

"I remember it was a bootlegging kind of town," he said.

He and his family moved to Texas, where he joined the Army when he was 22, and later he served as a volunteer deputy sheriff for 30 years. He said he did both to honor his father.

He broke his hip recently and will be unable to attend the ceremony for his father.

"We wanted to pay respects for his service," Fernandez said of the fallen ranger.

The stone monument will face West Mountain and the area where Cary was killed, the park superintendent said.

"With this memorial, Ranger Cary will continue to ever watch over us," Fernandez said.

State Desk on 05/30/2016