Archive for March, 2015

The Sunken Lands

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

One of the great feats in Arkansas history was the decades-long effort to drain the swamps in the northeast part of the state so row-crop agriculture (cotton in those days; mostly soybeans and rice now) could flourish.

I began thinking about that effort earlier this month when I noticed on the newspaper obituary page that Wayne Hinds of Trumann had died. Hinds was the longtime general manager and executive secretary of what’s known as Drainage District No. 7. He also was a member of the Lower Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association. Hinds probably knew more than anyone about the Marked Tree Siphons, which were considered to be among the nation’s outstanding engineering feats when they were dedicated in 1939. Hinds worked for the drainage district for almost 48 years.

The drainage district was established by the Arkansas Legislature in 1917 to help reclaim the Sunken Lands, the area created by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. The drainage district oversees 310 miles of ditches and 62 miles of levees that initially were constructed from 1917-26. At the point where a major levee crosses the St. Francis River just north of Marked Tree, the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a sluiceway, lock and floodway to allow river traffic to continue. Work on that project was completed in 1926.

The levee was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1927. It was repaired, but a 1933 flood caused the sluiceway to break and a portion of the levee to collapse. Temporary repairs were made, but a 1938 flood created a 90-foot gap in the levee and destroyed the sluiceway. Engineers determined that the fine sands in the area became quicksand when saturated.

To get around that problem, the Corps of Engineers designed what became known as the Marked Tree Siphons. The district engineer at Memphis had seen a siphon in New Orleans that give him the idea. The three Marked Tree Siphons are each nine feet across and more than 200 feet long. The siphons lift the water of the river over the levee instead of under or through it. The cost of constructing the siphons was $215,0000. At the dedication ceremony in June 1939, people from all over northeast Arkansas showed up in their finest clothes. It was a big day.

The district engineer for the Corps called the siphons “unique in the annals of engineering.” The story about this marvel of modern engineering ran in newspapers across the country. In 1988, the Marked Tree Siphons and the old lock on the St. Francis River, which is no longer used, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1990s, the siphons were improved so that they will continue to function through the 21st century. Hinds told the Poinsett County Democrat Tribune last year: “The whole system is in the best shape it has ever been, even better than when it was first built.”

Northeast Arkansas was slow to be settled because it was covered with swamps and almost impenetrable bottomland hardwood forests. Donna Brewer Jackson wrote in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Without drainage, the land was useless for farming. Early residents realized that once the land was cleared of the timber and drained, the rich alluvial soil would be productive for a variety of crops, especially cotton. Initially, early settlers had attempted to build makeshift barriers to halt the powerful floodwaters, but these attempts were ultimately useless. Although the line of levees along the Mississippi River expanded during the 19th century, the water always found a weak spot and inundated the region.

“In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to establish a unified flood-control plan. In cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the commission’s goal was to build higher levees based on previous flood heights and improve their quality. Between 1905 and 1915, the Arkansas General Assembly passed laws to create a program of flood control. … Organization of drainage districts required landowners to petition the county courts to place a lien on the lands through a court order. The court order ensured that improvement taxes would be paid. Money collected from the taxes paid the principle; it and interest on bonds issued by the drainage districts, along with proceeds from the bond sales, were used to build the levees and drainage canals. The drainage districts also had the power to hire deputies to patrol levees to keep sabotage and vandalism at a minimum. Often, the drainage districts received matching funds from the federal government.”

Jackson pointed out that there was frequent opposition to the work of the levee and drainage districts in the eastern part of the state.

“Some people believed that building levees interfered with the natural development of the land,” she wrote. “Hunters, in particular, resented being told to vacate land they had hunted and fished for years and feared that drainage canals would destroy the habitat for animals and fish. Those who lived or ran livestock on the islands in the Mississippi River feared that levees would raise the level of the river and flood them out. There were attempts in some areas to cut the levees and sabotage the plans of the drainage districts. However, the majority of the people of the state benefited from the levee-building efforts. … After the lands were drained, that swampland was turned into tillable soil, and instances of malaria dropped dramatically.”

The Sunken Lands consist of the parts of Poinsett, Mississippi and Craighead counties that sank during the New Madrid earthquakes, which began in December 1811 and caused large tracts of land to sink as much as 50 feet. The earthquakes continued through March 1812.

“Those surveying the damage in canoes recorded their shock at seeing forests of tall trees submerged in the murky water with only the tallest branches visible,” wrote Nancy Hendricks of Arkansas State University. “Lakes replaced hills, and huge fissures filled with stagnant pools. For miles, the quakes caused land to sink beneath the level of the surrounding countryside. The once-bountiful northeast Arkansas — filled with verdant forests, abundant game and fertile ground — became a swamp. The remoteness of the region, scarcity of settlers and lack of communication made accurate damage reports impossible for years. Survivors of the quakes took stock of what remained and often abandoned what was left of their homes. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was enticing soldiers into service during the War of 1812 with promises of land grants in the areas west of the Mississippi, including northeastern Arkansas. … Many arrived after surviving the journey and found that their land grant was under water, habitable only by the snakes and mosquitoes that were rampant.”

Most of those settlers moved on to Crowley’s Ridge.

Later innovations such as the Marked Tree Siphons allowed towns in the Sunken Lands such as Marked Tree, Trumann, Tyronza, Lepanto, Turrell and Lake City to grow.

Magdalena Teske explained the name of Marked Tree in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The town was named for an oak tree marked with a foot-high M that used to be on the bank of the Little River. There are two possible explanations as to who marked it. One is that it was marked in the 1830s by a member of John Murrell’s band of outlaws from the area of Jackson, Tenn. They stole horses and sometimes even slaves from Kentucky and Tennessee and brought them through Arkansas to Oklahoma and Texas. A less likely theory is that Indians marked the tree. Osages, who lived farther north in Missouri, hunted the Marked Tree area for many generations. Delaware and Shawnee also had communities in northeast Arkansas briefly during territorial times. Although the marked tree for which the town was named fell into the river during a flood in 1890, a tree was found in the river in 1971 that is believed to be the same tree.”

It was Ernest Ritter who headed the movement in 1887 to incorporate Marked Tree as a town. Ritter had come to town in 1886 to work at his uncle’s lumber mill. He was an entrepreneur who by 1906 had started a telephone company, a power company and a water and sewer company. He also owned many of the buildings in Marked Tree and even built a commercial ice plant so fish caught from the St. Francis River by commercial fishermen could be iced and shipped downstream. I just happened to be at a meeting atop Petit Jean Mountain last week with Ritter Arnold, who now runs the agricultural side of E. Ritter & Co. He’s the great-great-grandson of Ernest Ritter. His mother, Mary Ann Ritter Arnold, became the mayor of Marked Tree.

In 1947, E. Ritter & Co. acquired a substantial portion of what had been the operations of Chapman & Dewey, which had begun as a lumber company and had gone on to own car dealerships, a bulk fuel operation, a farm equipment company and thousands of acres of farmland. Chapman & Dewey had bought its first sawmill in the area in 1890 from an Iowa investor. By 1893, the company had purchased more than 100,000 acres in Arkansas, with at least 30,000 of those in Poinsett County.

“At the turn of the century, they were the chief employers in Marked Tree,” Teske wrote. “Although a privately owned electricity plant had been built in 1898, the Chapman & Dewey Lumber Co. installed the first electric plant for the general public in Marked Tree. … The company was hurt by a major fire in 1902. The fire began during the midnight meal break of the night workers, the day after a strike had been settled. The company had agreed to the workers’ terms, but only for white workers. Some people believed that the fire was deliberately set by angry black workers, but there is no evidence to support that theory. The company had employed about 300 men, but due to the losses, it had to fire about half of them.”

Ernest Ritter and W.B. Miller were instrumental in getting drainage districts established in the county. These days, E. Ritter & Co. has an agricultural division and a communications division, which evolved out of its telephone company. It became an Internet service provider in the 1990s and moved into the cable television business in 2005. There are several hundred employees, and the company has revenues of more than $200 million a year.

Mary Ann Ritter Arnold was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1998. She received her college degree from the University of Missouri in home economics and went on to serve on the boards of the Agriculture Council of Arkansas, the Arkansas Rice Council, the U.S. Rice Council and the National Cotton Council. She also served as state chairman of the Farm Services Agency Committee, on the board of the Arkansas State University Foundation and on the board of the St. Francis Levee District. In addition to having been president and chairman of E. Ritter & Co., she was a director for the Marked Tree Bank. Her husband, Dr. Sidney William Arnold, died in 2004 at age 78.

“The business has always been run as a business,” Ritter Arnold once said. “We’ve always been flexible. If it looked like a business needed to be exited, we would do that. One ingredient to a successful business today is to realize that you can’t do it all yourself. If you’re going to be a success, you’ve got to have a lot of other very good people working with you.”

In the Sunken Lands, the company founded well over a century ago by Ernest Ritter plugs on. And the Marked Tree Siphons still lift the water of the St. Francis River over the levee.

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Shame of Hot Springs: Part II

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

They gathered in downtown Hot Springs last Friday night to mark the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel.

The pile of rubble from that fire is still there a year later.

That’s right. We’re talking about one of the most high-profile locations in the state, and nothing has been done in a year.

Here’s what one Hot Springs resident wrote to mark the anniversary of the fire: “Where’s the outrage? Where’s the passion? Are we trying to turn into Detroit? I own a house that is more than 100 years old. I have spent more than it would cost to abandon it. But this house is part of our culture. I’m not the owner, just the custodian at the moment. I have a civic obligation to maintain this property because it is bigger than me. It has a legacy. Why can’t certain people who own properties that are so intertwined with our culture not do the same? What can we do as citizens to get the message out there?”

The writer concluded: “Our town has burned to the ground on three occasions, which is a tragedy. But watching it rot from within during the past 50 years is far more painful. I have many questions but not all the answers. All I know is that the burning of the Majestic is a sentinel moment for our town. We have risen from the ashes in the past. Can we do it again? Or are we just waiting for the whole damn downtown to burn or crumble away? What will be our legacy?”

Indeed. What will be the legacy of those in Hot Springs who claim to be leaders?

On the night of Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, I sat down at my desk and wrote a blog post headlined “The Shame of Hot Springs.”

I took Arkansans to task for having allowed the buildings along the most iconic stretch of street in our state — Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs — to deteriorate through the decades. The impetus for the post had been the boarding up of the windows earlier that week at the Majestic. The following day, more people visited this blog than on any other day in its five years of existence.

Something had clearly struck a chord with Arkansans.

The Majestic fire began about 5:30 p.m. the following Thursday and burned through the night. The out-of-state owner of the Majestic property, Garrison Hassenflu, has refused to do anything since then. Hassenflu, who has a checkered record as a developer, is emblematic of a problem that has beset downtown Hot Springs for decades: Out-of-town owners of historic buildings who refuse to keep up their properties. They are nothing more than commercial slumlords.

On the positive side of the ledger, it appears that the city of Hot Springs finally has gotten serious about code enforcement. Ed Davis, the city’s fire chief, has worked to ensure that buildings are being inspected in what’s known as the Thermal Basin Fire District. City officials so far have stood with Davis despite the whining of some building owners.

I’ll repeat what I’ve been saying since before the fire: What’s occurring in downtown Hot Springs is more than a Garland County problem. It’s an Arkansas problem. That stretch of Central Avenue is so famous that it says a lot about what outsiders think of our state and what we think our ourselves.

About a month before the fire, Hot Springs resident Brenda Brandenburg created the Facebook page “Save Her Majesty: Restoration of the Majestic Hotel.” In a guest column last week for The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs, she wrote: “I’ve been asked many times why I care; what skin do I have in the game? We all have skin in the game. How many of you have had a life experience in one of the buildings downtown? Are my concerns invalidated by the fact that I’m not a property owner or a business owner downtown? I think not. Do you want to live in a town where we allow buildings to just deteriorate and fall? Or do you want to live in a town where the streets are attractive and the economy is strong?

“Hot Springs has been a vibrant part of this state and remains so today. It is up to us to step forward and demand good stewardship of our historic properties. Ownership of a historic building is a privilege. With that privilege comes responsibility. If the owners do not want to put forth the money and effort to bring these buildings up to an acceptable code, then they need to sell them to an investor who will.”

She added: “I have tried to maintain a positive attitude and open mind when dealing with not only the rubble that still remains at the heart of our city but also when considering the effect of the new codes that are now in place. Not all building owners and business owners are resistant to the changes. In fact, many have embraced them. To these individuals, I extend my sincere thanks for having the selflessness to realize that preservation of their properties will ensure that they are here for generations to come. … It is time for us to band together as a community and take back our city.”

David Watkins, the Hot Springs city manager, calls the downtown debris pile a reminder of what can happen when owners don’t take care of their property. Watkins, by the way, is one of the good guys, unafraid to take on the commercial slumlords. He refuses to do business as usual.

Asked about Hassenflu, Watkins said: “I thought at the time that the property owner would be more conducive to working with us, and he has dragged things out. A year ago, I thought the rubble would be gone by now. I was expecting him to work with us, and he obviously didn’t. Right now our strategy is to continue working with our partners and keep putting pressure on him to either clean it up or get out.”

My guess is that the city of Hot Springs will end up owning the property and that city leaders will have to convince the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission to contribute funds to tear down what remains of the Majestic complex. There has been talk of passing a temporary tax to build a performing arts center surrounded by a park and outdoor thermal pools. Such a complex could provide an anchor for the north end of Central Avenue that would serve the state well for decades to come.

Last May, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas released its annual list of the most endangered places in the state. All of downtown Hot Springs was included on the 2014 list.

The HPAA stated: “Until recently, city ordinances allowed and even provided incentive for upper stories above Central Avenue storefronts to be left undeveloped by exempting the upper floors from meeting building codes as long as they remain unoccupied. The fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel dramatized the issues facing legacy structures that define one of the most recognizable commercial districts in the state. Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy. … We hope that the loss of the Majestic Hotel will encourage property owners, developers, city officials, community and state leaders to work together to address the issues of large-scale vacancy and find solutions for reuse and rehabilitation of these important assets for the benefit of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.”

During the anniversary event last Friday, Brandenburg told the Hot Springs newspaper: “I know a lot of property owners don’t want to dig into their pockets to make the changes required by the Thermal Basin Fire District. I know they are expensive, and I can appreciate that. I’m not a business owner or building owner downtown, but I’m a lover of downtown. I frequent downtown. I eat downtown and shop down there. I think this is a calling-out to those property owners to come forward and do what a responsible property owner should do, and that is save those buildings as well as protect the firefighters.”

Steve Arrison, the chief executive officer of Visit Hot Springs (the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau) is among the best in the country at what it does. He’s quick to note that the rubble at the Majestic site “certainly doesn’t look good for us and doesn’t make a very good first impression. It’s just a shame.”

Arrison adds, however, that the public focus on downtown since the fire has led to several positive things. Watkins agrees.

“If you count the number of buildings that have been bought, sold or refurbished in the relatively short time since the fire a year ago, it’s really quite remarkable,” Watkins says. “I think it pushed the realization that Hot Springs can no longer just ignore the elephant in the room. Codes had to be adopted and enforced to prevent a similar tragedy.”

Suzanne Davidson, the city director whose district includes the Majestic property, says: “I can’t help but agree that the fire was a catalyst. I felt Hot Springs was at a tipping point. … Every day I drive down Central Avenue and see something new, another truck with a load of Sheetrock or plywood. I’m excited about what’s going on downtown. It’s unfortunate that it took such an event to do that.”

Yes, there are things happening downtown.

— Plans are still progressing to turn the Dugan-Stuart and Thompson buildings into boutique hotels. This could be the biggest thing to happen in downtown Hot Springs in decades. It’s an area that has lots of hotel rooms but very few quality hotel rooms.

— Regions is building a $3 million banking facility at the intersection of Broadway and Malvern Avenue.

— On the north end of Central Avenue, Kollective Coffee & Tea will soon open in the 100 block, and Spa City Tropical Winery & Gifts will open in the 200 block.

— Tom Daniel is renovating the knife and cutlery shop known as the Mountains Edge and planning to make renovations at National Park Gifts.

— Magician Maxwell Blade has added a small museum to his business.

— Mountain Valley Spring Water is making improvements to its landmark building.

— The owners of Rolando’s have added what they term a “speakeasy” on the second floor above the restaurant.

— The same folks renovating the Dugan-Stuart and Thompson buildings have purchased the first floor of the Medical Arts Building with plans to remodel it for retail space.

— The Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery is now brewing it own beer.

— In the former Newberry’s Department Store building, artist Long Hua Xu is renovating the second floor for a studio.

— A new art gallery will be opening where the Blue Moon once was.

— The Copper Penny Pub has opened in a renovated space.

— The owners of the Belle Arti are planning to have apartments above the restaurant.

— The site that once housed the Goodard Hotel has been purchased, though it’s unclear what will be built there.

— The building that once housed a J.C. Penny store has been remodeled and now houses an art gallery.

— Henderson State University is now offering classes in the Landmark Building.

Watkins also says that Tennessee-based developer Gary Gibbs has signed a lease for a building that once housed city offices. Gibbs plans to tear the building down and hopes to build a hotel tower on the site that will be connected to the Austin Hotel. Gibbs wants to renovate the Austin and transform it into a Holiday Inn. He’s the man who built the Delta Resort and Conference Center, a major shooting sports facility, in southeast Arkansas.

If Gibbs follows through with his plans for the Austin — and the investors in the Dugan-Stuart and Thompson buildings obtain the financing to move forward with their plans this year — the inventory of quality hotel rooms downtown will increase, allowing Arrison to attract larger conventions to the city. These new and remodeled rooms could, in turn, put pressure on the owners of the Arlington to make needed updates to the rooms at the state’s largest hotel.

I’m among those who think that Arlington improvements would be the biggest of all catalysts for bringing back downtown Hot Springs.

For now, though, let’s at least get the rubble cleaned up at the old Majestic site.

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