I've always liked river towns. I'm not talking about towns with a small stream flowing through the city limits. No, I'm talking about places with rivers large enough so a steamboat could dock, towns that owe their existence to the river, towns with ornate old houses whose original owners had the furnishings shipped up from New Orleans or down from St. Louis.
Helena on the Mississippi River, with its rich history and cultural mix, has always fascinated me despite decades of economic decline. Like Helena, Arkansas City once was on the banks of the Mississippi, but Old Man River moved, as rivers are wont to do.
Other cities on the eastern edge of the state--Blytheville, Osceola, West Memphis, Lake Village-- tend to sit back a bit from its banks to avoid the floods.
My mother hailed from a river town, Des Arc on the White River. I was raised in a river town, Arkadelphia on the Ouachita River. Though railroads replaced rivers as the major transportation corridors beginning in the late 1880s, there remains a certain vibe to a river town that can't be found elsewhere.
In the cover story for today's Perspective section, I write about the Ouachita. The two major towns that sprang up along its banks are Camden and Arkadelphia, both of which were among the 10 largest cities in Arkansas at the time of the Civil War.
"It's believed that Clark County pioneer Jacob Barkman was the first to bring a steamboat up the river past what's now Arkadelphia," writes noted Arkansas historian Wendy Richter. "Barkman lived near the confluence of the Caddo and Ouachita rivers and used the river for trips to New Orleans.
"Barkman first traded with merchants to the south by means of pirogues, or large dugout canoes, but when his business began to grow, he needed larger and faster boats. So be built a boat he called The Dime. The Dime was said to be a nice boat, and it made regular trips up and down the river before it eventually sank."
In later years, much bigger boats could be found on the Ouachita with names such as Arkadelphia City, Susie B. and Jo Jacques.
"The Rock City once met with difficulties a few miles below Arkadelphia," Richter writes. "The boat was apparently long and large for the river, and it lacked the power to successfully navigate the rapid and winding current of the upper Ouachita. Loaded with cotton and passengers, the boat failed to make a turn and ended up broadside to an island, in danger of being broken to pieces. Several men drowned attempting to free the trapped vessel. It is believed the boat finally made it to safety.
"Steamboats continued to travel the river even after the Civil War. In 1873, a man who lived between Arkadelphia and Rockport built a boat and took it down the river. Because of contruction on a railroad bridge at Arkadelphia, he could go no further. So he sued the railroad for obstruction of navigation on the river, claiming damages in the amount of $10,000. Indeed, the railroad's construction in the 1870s marked the beginning of a new era in transportation in Arkansas and the gradual demise of the steamboat."
A Native American trail known as the Caddo Trace had crossed the Ouachita at what's now Camden. The trace connected Quapaw villages on the Arkansas River with Caddo villages on the Red River. French trappers established a small settlement on a bluff at this point that was known as Ecore a Fabri. France ceded the area to Spain in late 1762.
In 1782, the Spanish governor sent a French explorer named Jean Baptiste Filhiol to establish a post at Ecore a Fabri, later known as Ecore Fabre. Two years later, he moved downriver to the site of what's now Monroe, La.
In 1819, the Tate brothers--Andrew, George and Richard--came up the Ouachita on keelboats and settled in the area. Another prominent settler was John Nunn, who moved to Ecore Fabre in 1824.
"Steamboats arrived in the 1820s and provided a direct link to the cotton and commercial markets in New Orleans," Daniel Milam writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Ecore Fabre became a commercial center and began to grow. Residents of the county began petitioning for a new road in 1821, and by 1828 the Camden to Washington Road was having additional maintenance done. By 1829, a large portion of what was then Hempstead County, including Ecore Fabre, was broken off by the Legislature to form an expanded Union County.
"In 1842, Ouachita County, named for the river, was formed from the northwest portion of Union County. Ecore Fabre was chosen as the county seat, and its name was changed to Camden at the suggestion of one of the commissioners, Gen. Thomas Woodward. During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles. During this time as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat port, Camden had the accommodations and transportation to service the planter provisioning trade to New Orleans."
By 1860, the city had a population of 2,219. By 1890, there were 2,571 residents of Camden and 2,455 residents of Arkadelphia.
To get a feel for what a going place Camden was in those days, visit the McCollum-Chidester House, built in 1847 by Peter McCollum, a North Carolina native who came to Arkansas and began buying property. McCollum had the building materials for the house shipped upriver from New Orleans by steamboat. There were plastered walls, wallpaper and carpeting.
A stagecoach owner and mail contractor named John Chidester purchased the house for $10,000 in gold in 1858 and moved his family to Camden from Tuscumbia, Ala. The furniture that Chidester purchased in New Orleans is still in the home, now a museum operated by the Ouachita County Historical Society.
A visitor to Camden should also stop by the 20-acre Oakland Cemetery. Land for the cemetery was donated by William Bradley in the early 1830s. One of the earliest graves is that of a girl who died on a flat-bottom boat on the Ouachita. The chain around the grave came from an anchor on the boat.
An early tombstone is that of Thomas Stone, a slave owner who moved to Camden from Alabama in 1843 and died two years later. The obelisk at his grave was shipped by steamboat from New Orleans. The Forrest Hill section of the cemetery includes the graves of Confederate solders killed at Poison Spring and Marks' Mills.
The Washington Street Historic District, a residential area that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 and expanded in 2018, includes the 1858 Graham-Gaughan-Betts House, the 1859 Elliott-Meek House, the 1888 Watts-Watson House, the 1896 J.W. Holleman House and the 1900 Reed-Mason House.
Upriver at Arkadelphia, visit the James E.M. Barkman House, completed in 1860 by the son of Jacob Barkman. The house, a landmark that's now owned by Henderson State University, was a family home for more than a century. It was sold to Henderson in 1968 for $65,000.
A few blocks away, drive by the Greek Revival-style Habicht-Cohn-Crow House, constructed by Anthony Habicht in 1870. Habicht was born in New York, the son of German immigrants. He came to Arkadelphia after the Civil War to work for the Freedmen's Bureau and had a house built based on one he had seen in Natchez, Miss.
Habicht sold the home to Mark Matthias Cohn, the founder of what would become the M.M. Cohn chain of department stories. The Polish immigrant later moved his store to Little Rock. Some stories say it was because Arkadelphia civic leaders wouldn't let him sell liquor in the mercantile store. The house was sold to real estate agent A.M. Crow and remained in the Crow family until 1932.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.