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The rural Ouachita Mountains area west of Hot Springs was poor for for much of the 20th century, as I note in the story on the cover of today's Perspective section.

What was known as the Big Cut from the 1880s until the 1930s brought jobs to the area. Out-of-state interests established sawmills and company towns to remove the virgin timber. By the 1930s, the best timber had been cut and most of the mills were closed. The population of the region dropped dramatically. Montgomery County, for instance, had a population of 12,455 people in 1910. By the 1960 census, that had fallen to 5,370.

The construction of Lake Ouachita changed everything.

Take Mount Ida, the Montgomery County seat. The population there was 566 in the 1950 census. Construction of Lake Ouachita brought new residents. By the 2010 census, Mount Ida's population had almost doubled to 1,076.

Lake Ouachita is the largest lake completely within the borders of Arkansas, at more than 40,000 acres. Congress had authorized surveys of the Ouachita River as early as 1870 to see if there were ways to prevent floods and improve navigability.

"Nothing was done until the 1920s when Harvey Couch and his company, Arkansas Power & Light Co., began searching for sites for hydroelectric dams along the Ouachita River," Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "AP&L built Remmel Dam and Carpenter Dam, which were in place by the early 1930s. Plans for a third larger dam were announced in 1938 for the Blakely Mountain area. It was to be a joint project of AP&L and the federal government, which would fund $6 million and $2 million of the costs respectively. The following year, AP&L sought federal permission to delay the dam's construction, but the Federal Power Commission terminated the utility's permit and proceeded by itself.

"Preliminary core drilling was soon carried out, financed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, Congress didn't appropriate any funds until 1946 when $1 million was appropriated to begin construction. Residents of the area that was slated to be inundated had been leaving since the 1930s, and the exodus accelerated as work began. The relocation of graves was completed in 1952, and the clearing of the area for the reservoir took place in 1951-52."

The dam was largely complete by 1952. The power plant generated its first electricity on July 17, 1955. The official dedication of Blakely Mountain Dam occurred on July 4, 1956. Construction workers had removed almost 4 million cubic yards of earth from the surrounding area to build the dam at a final cost of $31 million.

The creation of Lake Ouachita State Park as a legal entity occurred in 1955, but the park wasn't officially established or staffed until 1965. Many of the park structures were built in the 1970s. Improvements since the 1990s have included a visitors' center, cabins and additional campsites. The park's location once was known as Three Sisters Springs.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism: "In 1875, homesteader John McFadden claimed that three springs on his property north of Hot Springs possessed healing properties. The spring's collective name, Three Sisters, reputedly was derived from the fact that McFadden had three daughters. In 1907, W. M. Cecil and his partners bought the property. Cecil later bought out his partners and began developing McFadden's Three Sisters Springs Resort.

"By the mid-1930s, its facilities included cottages, a springhouse and a bottling plant. Claiming each spring could cure a different set of diseases, Cecil distributed his bottled World's Wonder Waters across the country. Analyses have since shown waters from all three springs contain the same elements--such as iron, potassium and sodium--in slightly different proportions. After the site underwent another ownership change in 1939, the Corps acquired it in 1951 in conjunction with the Lake Ouachita construction project."

The state leased 360 acres, including the springs, for park development after being approached by Corps officials. There are also several commercial resorts along the south side of the lake with access roads off U.S. 270. Some are modern; others still have a 1960s fish-camp feel. There's Lake Ouachita Shores, the closest of the private ventures to Mount Ida. It once was known as Denby Point Lodge & Marina. It offers motel rooms, cabins and a marina. There's Crystal Springs Resort. It has a marina with a snack bar and gift shop, a restaurant open during the summer months, a motel, cabins overlooking the marina and a 14-bedroom lodge with meeting facilities.

There's Brady Mountain Resort, which has a marina with more than 650 slips, a store, lakeside lodging and seasonal dining. There's Echo Canyon Resort, once known as the Spillway Resort & Marina. It has a marina, lodging and a restaurant.

The fanciest of the private developments along the lake is Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa. It has been owned and operated by the Barnes family since 1955 when Hal Barnes discovered a harbor he liked near Hickory Nut Mountain. Son Bill Barnes, who earlier this year was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, later took over the operation. Bill Barnes is still active. There's also a third generation of the family involved in a resort that offers not only what the other establishments have (marina, lodging, restaurant) but also a full spa, three swimming pools, the most upscale condos on the lake and a modern conference center.

The business on Lake Ouachita that really takes me back in time is Shangri-La Resort, where I would stay with my family when I was young. My father loved to fish. DeGray Lake, near my hometown of Arkadelphia, had yet to fill up. We would spend weekends at Shangri-La so my dad could fish and I could swim while my mother watched. Shangri-La started with just six motel rooms and two cabins. Expansions took place through the years. I'm often asked who has the best homemade pie in Arkansas. The restaurant at Shangri-La still gets my vote.

"If it wasn't for the modern vehicles here and there, it would be hard to discern it from photos long ago," says longtime Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson. "Postcards from years past show the same idyllic scene--a series of small cabins and a long single-story motor court hotel spread along a peninsula into Lake Ouachita. . . . It's a nostalgic wander down an asphalt lane to a different time when heading to the lake meant losing complete contact with civilization."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 04/14/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: When everything changed

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