There was no easy way to get to DeSoto Bluff in Arkadelphia the first time I took Paul Austin to the bluff, which was walking distance from the house in which I was raised.
We parked along U.S. Highway 67, risked tearing our pants as we crossed a fence and then walked through woods filled with ticks and chiggers in order to take in the beautiful view of the Ouachita River.
It’s an easy walk now, thanks in part to grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council (which Paul heads), the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and others.
There’s a paved parking lot and a paved trail to the top.
Most historians, by the way, will tell you that Hernando DeSoto never came near this spot.
Back in 2013, then-Arkadelphia city manager Jimmy Bolt told Wayne Bryan of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “It has been a story that has been told around here for a long time. So the name stuck, and I won’t be the one who says it’s impossible.”
We do know that the expedition of George Hunter and William Dunbar made its way by here in 1804 as the explorers headed up the Ouachita River. When Trey Berry (now the president of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia) lived in his hometown of Arkadelphia and worked as a history professor at Ouachita Baptist University, he became the expert on the Hunter-Dunbar expedition.
“The Hunter-Dunbar expedition was one of only four ventures into the Louisiana Purchase commissioned by Thomas Jefferson,” Berry writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Between 1804 and 1807, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the northern regions of the Louisiana Purchase; Zebulon Pike into the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern areas and two smaller forays; Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis along the Red River; and William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore ‘the Washita River’ and ‘the hot springs’ in what’s now Arkansas and Louisiana.
“While the Ouachita River expedition was not as vast as and did not provide the expanse of geographic and environmental information collected by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the exploration of Dunbar and Hunter remains significant for several reasons. It provided Americans with the first scientific study of the varied landscapes as well as the animal and plant life of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In fact, the expedition resulted in arguably the most purely scientific collection of data among all of the Louisiana Purchase explorations.
“The explorers described an extremely active and vibrant interaction between the European and the Native American population. Hunter and Dunbar also reported many encounters with European trappers, hunters, planters and settlers as well as fellow river travelers plying the waters of the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers. Their copious notes also portray a region in which these European and Indian inhabitants harvested the abundant natural resources along the rivers and in the lands beyond.”
Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Scotland in 1749. He studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London. He traveled to Philadelphia at age 22 and later settled near Natchez, Miss. Jefferson heavily relied on Dunbar’s advice when issues arose that affected that area.
Hunter was also a Scottish immigrant. He was a chemist and druggist in Philadelphia who already had explored parts of Ohio and Indiana.
Congress appropriated $3,000 for the trip. Dunbar wrote to Jefferson in June 1804 to ask permission to make a trial run up a Red River tributary he called the “Washita.” He was most interested in visiting what were known as “the boiling springs,” now Hot Springs.
Jefferson agreed to the change in plans.
The expedition left St. Catherine’s Landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River on Oct. 16, 1804, and made it to what’s now Monroe by Nov. 6.
“Near the current site of Arkadelphia, they met a man of Dutch descent named Paltz,” Berry writes. “The Dutch hunter knew the area well, and he informed the explorers of a salt spring located nearby, as well as other natural features. Paltz told them that he had ‘resided 40 years on the Ouachita and before that on the Arkansas.’ Hunter, Paltz and a small team investigated a ‘salt pit’ and reported it to be of a substantial nature. The chemist conducted specific gravity experiments on the saline water and discovered it to be a high concentration of what he called ‘marine salt.’
“On Dec. 3, 1804, Dunbar and Hunter confronted the greatest potential obstacle to their journey. Near what is today Malvern or Rockport, an enormous series of rocky rapids, called ‘the Chutes’ by the two men, stretched almost a mile before them. Dunbar described the formations as looking like ‘ancient fortifications and castles.’ Through strenuous efforts of rocking the vessel from side to side and essentially dragging the flatboat between and over rocks, the team finally traversed the maze of boulders. Dunbar compared the roar made by ‘the Chutes’ to the sound of a hurricane he had experienced in New Orleans in 1779.”
By Dec. 7, the expedition had reached the point where Gulpha Creek runs into the Ouachita River.
“Several men immediately began a nine-mile walk to examine the site,” Berry writes of the springs. “They returned the next afternoon with vivid descriptions of their experiences, stating that they had discovered an empty cabin thought to be used by those coming to bathe in and drink from the waters of the springs. The following day, Dunbar and Hunter traveled to the springs and began an almost four-week study of the water properties and geological and biological features.”
Back to the bluff at Arkadelphia: A stone-and-wood barrier is now at the end of the trail.
Ouachita professor Mike Reynolds often brings his students there.
“The area has marvelous views of the Ouachita River, the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain to the east and south and the Ouachita Mountains to the north and west,” he told Bryan. “It’s easily accessible yet you get the feeling of being in the woods.”
When Ouachita decided to build a new entrance to its campus from Highway 67, it needed part of Arkadelphia’s Central Park for the project. The city gave Ouachita that land in exchange for 26 acres along the bluff.
Dedication ceremonies for the trail were held in July 2013. Interpretive panels funded by the Arkansas Humanities Council provide information on the Caddo Indians who once called this area home. There’s also a panel on the Hunter-Dunbar expedition.
After Paul Austin and I walked the trail last month, we got back in the car and continued south on Highway 67. We got off the highway at Gum Springs so I could show Paul where Sun Paper from China plans to make one of the largest private investments in the history of the state — $1.3 billion — to build a paper mill.
The next stop was Gurdon.
Meriwether Lewis Randolph, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson, bought several thousand acres in this area before he died of malaria in 1837.
“The area next experienced a large influx of settlers in 1874 when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad was constructed,” David Sesser writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On July 12, 1875, a post office was opened but closed that same year. On March 15, 1876, the post office at Tate was renamed Gurdon. A small depot was constructed, and by 1880 the town had been laid out. That year, 33 citizens petitioned the Clark County Quorum Court to incorporate the city of Gurdon, which was approved. Several theories exist for the name of the city, most notably that it’s in honor of Gurdon Cunningham, who surveyed the right of way for the railroad in the area.”
Gurdon became an important railroad and timber town.
“The city expanded as timber companies opened mills in the area,” Sesser writes. “The number of mills operating in the area reached a peak of 10 in the late 19th century. The combination of people passing through town on the railroad and the rough nature of the timber business brought many unsavory characters to Gurdon. When the first minister arrived in Gurdon in 1881, he found a community of 500 people with three saloons and no churches. The situation changed in 1887 when all saloons were banned from the town.”
Paul and I drove into downtown since he had never seen the headquarters of the Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo or the marker next to the depot that commemorates the organization’s founding.
The Hoo-Hoo is the oldest industrial fraternal organization in the country. The organization of lumbermen once had more than 13,000 members. That’s now down to about 2,000.
Six men — Bolling Arthur Johnson of Chicago, George Washington Schwarz of St. Louis, William Starr Mitchell of Little Rock, William Eddy Barns of St. Louis, Ludolph O.D. Adalbert Strauss of Malvern and Southern Lumber Manufacturers Association secretary George Kimball Smith — formed the order on Jan. 21, 1892, in the Hotel Hall at Gurdon.
Its motto would be “Health, Happiness and Long Life.”
The board of directors would be called the Supreme Nine.
The president would be called the Snark of the Universe.
The chaplain would be called the Bojum.
The secretary would be called the Scrivenoter.
The sergeant at arms would be called the Gurdon.
The other board members would be the Senior Hoo-Hoo, Junior Hoo-Hoo, Custocacian, Arcanoper and Jabberwock.
“Some of these names were derived from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Hunting of the Snark,’ which one of the founders had recently read,” Rachel Bridges writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The name Hoo-Hoo also had a unique origin. In Kansas City about a month before the founding of the order, Johnson had used the term hoo-hoo to refer to an unusual tuft of hair on the head of Charles McCarer, who became the first Snark of the Universe and was given membership number one.”
The mascot would be a black cat with its tail curved in the number nine.
Membership originally was limited to 9,999 people.
That number later was changed to 99,999.
Meetings were to be held on the ninth day of the ninth month at nine minutes after the ninth hour.
Annual dues were $9.99.
The initiation fee was 99 cents.
The first chapter outside of the United States began in Canada in 1924. Soon, there were chapters all over the world.
“Though the Hoo-Hoo experienced a slump from 1929-38, when membership dropped to around 700, the order recovered and membership began to rise again,” Bridges writes. “Two U.S. presidents have had membership in Hoo-Hoo. Theodore Roosevelt was given the reserved membership number 999 for his work promoting the importance of forests. Warren G. Harding was member number 14,945.”
Bridges describes the Hoo-Hoo monument in Gurdon this way: “Several elements make up the present-day monument. The base of the monument is an ashlar-faced barre granite stone measuring 116 inches high, 107 inches wide and 44 inches deep. The second element of the monument — and that which makes it of historic significance — is a bronze plaque sculpted by noted artist George J. Zolnay. This plaque was completed in 1909, at which time it was affixed to a building then occupying the site of the Hotel Hall. When this building was demolished in 1927, the Zolnay plaque was moved to its present location, affixed to the granite base and rededicated. Zolnay sculpted the plaque with Egyptian Revival reliefs and engravings. The pediment is illustrated with the image of a two-headed bird.
“The second horizontal level of the monument contains a relief of the Hotel Hall. The third level contains an inscription recounting the founding of Hoo-Hoo. The names of all Hoo-Hoo presidents are engraved on the opposite side of the base and on two small granite monuments at each side. The monument was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 2, 1999.”
Like other towns in the southern part of the state, Gurdon has struggled in recent decades. Its population fell from 2,707 in the 1980 census to 2,212 in the 2010 census.
Good news came in October 2014 when Georgia-Pacific announced that it would invest $37 million at its nearby lumber mill to expand the production capacity by 60 percent.
The huge investment being made by Sun Paper in Clark County will help even more.
It was time to leave Gurdon and continue to the southwest toward Prescott.