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Arkadelphia to Hot Springs


As we head north out of Arkadelphia, we stop at what the signs on Arkansas Highway 7 proclaim to be “DeSoto Bluff.”

Historians will tell you that there’s no evidence that the Spanish explorer ever reached this point on the Ouachita River, but the name stuck locally.

When I was growing up just a short walk through the woods from this location, we simply called it The Bluff.

There wasn’t an easy way to get there in those days.

Now, there’s a paved parking lot adjacent to the highway, a paved trail and informative interpretive markers along the way.

Since the director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, Paul Austin, is with us, it seems only fitting that we park the car and walk the trail. After all, the Humanities Council paid for the signage. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Department of Arkansas Heritage also contributed funds that make it easy to enjoy one of the best views in the southern half of the state.

The trail was dedicated in July 2013.

The interpretive signage tells the story of the Caddo Indians who once lived here and also the Hunter-Dunbar expedition, which did indeed pass this bluff.

The expert on that expedition is the president of Southern Arkansas University, Trey Berry, an Arkadelphia native and a lifelong friend.

“The Hunter-Dunbar expedition was one of only four ventures into the Louisiana Purchase commissioned by Thomas Jefferson,” Berry writes. “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 is 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 early 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.”

Berry says that the detailed reports showed that the hot springs already had “become an important site for people seeking relief from ailments and infirmities. The expedition met several individuals who had either been to the springs or were on their way to bathe in its waters. When the explorers arrived at the hot springs, they found evidence that people had lived there for periods of time to take advantage of the location’s medicinal virtues. A cabin and several small shacks had been built by people coming to the springs. The explorers used these dwellings during their visit.”

More than 200 years later, people are still coming to Hot Springs. We will be there by lunch on this day.

Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Scotland. He studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London before moving to Philadelphia at age 22. He later moved to Natchez, Miss.

“The president relied on Dunbar’s advice and his propensity for getting things done in the frontier of the southern Mississippi Valley,” Berry writes.

Hunter, a chemist and druggist, also was a Scottish immigrant. He lived in Philadelphia but liked to explore areas of rural Ohio and Indiana.

Near what’s now Monroe, La., the explorers obtained a flatboat with a cabin on its deck and hired an experienced guide named Samuel Blazier. They headed north up the river and crossed into what’s now Arkansas on Nov. 15, 1804.

“The landscape began to change from mainly pine forests to bottomlands with various hardwoods,” Berry writes. “When the team reached Ecore a Fabri (now Camden), the former site of a French settlement, two significant events occurred. First, the explorers found a tree with curious Indian hieroglyphs carved onto its trunk. The carvings portrayed two men holding hands and may have been the site of trade between Europeans and Native Americans. Second, on Nov. 22, as Hunter cleaned his pistol on the flatboat, the gun discharged. The bullet ripped through his thumb and lacerated two fingers. It continued through the brim of his hat, missing his head by only fractions of an inch. Hunter remained in severe pain and danger of infection for more than two weeks. His eyes were burned, and he could not see to record entries in his journals and was little help to the expedition.

“Near the current site of Arkadelphia, they met a man of Dutch descent named Paltz. 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 one mile before them. Dunbar described the formations as looking like ‘ancient fortifications and castles.’ Through strenuous efforts of cordelling, 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.”

After making it to what’s now Hot Springs, the explorers begin their return trip on Jan. 8, 1805. The expedition arrived back in Natchez on Jan. 27, 1805.

Berry writes: “During the following weeks, Dunbar and Hunter settled their accounts and began to work on their reports to Jefferson. Dunbar’s journals arrived on the president’s desk more than a year before Lewis and Clark returned from their trip to the northwest. The Dunbar journals and later the Hunter journals provided Jefferson his first glimpse into the new territory from a commissioned exploration team. … Their voyage did not rival Lewis and Clark’s, but their journey up the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers — along with the explorations and journals of Freeman, Custis and Zebulon Pike — are important accounts that complete the story of Louisiana Purchase exploration.”

We walk back down the trail from DeSoto Bluff, get in the car and head north. We pass the Clark Ranch and cross the Caddo River just above its confluence with the Ouachita River.

The Buffalo River gets all of the attention in Arkansas, but the Caddo is one of the finest float streams in the state.

“For centuries, this unique waterway has carved its way through sedimentary rock formations, creating a broad shallow river valley and leaving miles of gravel along its path,” writes Brian Westfall of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “In some places, the nearly vertical beds of sandstone and novaculite create rapids and water gaps. The Caddo, known for extremely clear water, originates from cold-water springs southeast of Mena. In this region, the springs flow from the Bigfork Chert Ridge, which sits atop the Ouachita Mountains Aquifer, known for its high-quality water.”

Much of the upper Caddo flows east through the Ouachita National Forest. The most popular section to float is from Caddo Gap to Glenwood in Pike County.

“In the early 1900s, Glenwood was a thriving sawmill town that used the Caddo for pine log transport, storage and milling,” Westfall writes. “At Glenwood, the Caddo leaves the Ouachita Mountains behind. As the Caddo leaves the Athens Piedmont Plateau, the gradient drops dramatically, and the river holes become longer and deeper. This section covers about eight miles and ends near Arkansas Highway 182, about one mile north of Amity.”

DeGray Lake begins soon after this point.

After crossing the lower Caddo River at Caddo Valley, we pass the many motels and fast-food restaurants that make up that community. We cross under Interstate 30.

From DeSoto Bluff back in Arkadelphia, we could look to the north and see where the Gulf Coastal Plain ends and the Ouachita Mountains begin.

We enter the Ouachita foothills and can see DeGray Lake with the Ouachita Mountains in the background as we drive through the blasted-out rocks of what my father called Grindstone Ridge. This is one of the best views in the state and was once the cover of the official state highway map.

DeGray Dam across the Caddo River forms 13,400-acre DeGray Lake. A smaller dam below the main dam creates a 400-acre impoundment known as the Lower Lake. It was built so water could be pumped back into DeGray during times of drought and used again for hydropower generation.

“The site where DeGray Dam stands had been considered for a dam since 1909 when Harvey Couch, founder of Arkansas Power & Light Co., reportedly visited the area to consider it for one of his projects,” Guy Lancaster writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In the 1930s, the federal government carried out geological studies in the area, though nothing came of it. Congress finally authorized a dam there in the 1950 Rivers and Harbors Act, though the Korean War delayed the funding of the project. In November 1955, the Corps of Engineers held a hearing in Arkadelphia attended by Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman Oren Harris, both proponents of the project. Congress included the dam in the 1959 Water Supply Act but failed to attach any funding to it. Finally, in 1961, money was appropriated.”

Rather than the cold-water release used on nearby Narrows Dam on the Little Missouri River, the Corps of Engineers decided to have a warm-water release to protect native fish populations downstream.

Highway 7 now runs atop a three-mile earthen dike that was a key part of the project.

The gate was closed at the dam on Aug. 8, 1969, and the lake began to fill. I was about to turn 10 at the time. I can remember that my father would drive our family out to the area each Sunday afternoon to watch the construction and the filling of the reservoir.

DeGray Dam and DeGray Lake were dedicated on May 20, 1972. My Boy Scout troop — Troop 24 — helped direct traffic that day at the dedication site.

Support had built through the years for the establishment of a state park on the lake that would rival anything in surrounding states. The state Department of Parks & Tourism reached an agreement with the Corps of Engineers in November 1971 to lease a 938-acre site. Construction began in early 1973 on an 18-hole golf course. By 1974, a large marina and campsites were open. By 1975, the 96-room DeGray Lodge had become a reality. What’s now known as DeGray Lake Resort State Park remains the only state park with both an 18-hole golf course and a lodge.

The 30-mile trip from Caddo Valley to Hot Springs is a familiar one for me. Hot Springs was the “big city” when I was a boy, and we went there often to shop and eat out. The worst of the Highway 7 curves of my boyhood — including one that was known as Dead Man’s Curve just north of Bismarck — have been removed through the years. Still, it’s a curvy route as we make our way into the mountains.

The cypress bottoms we had experienced outside Camden earlier in the morning seem like a distant memory now.

Just before leaving the DeGray dike as we head north, we pass from Clark County into Hot Spring County. Hot Spring County was established in 1829 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature with land taken from Clark County.

“Ironically, the spring for which Hot Spring County is named is no longer within the county limits,” Jennifer Atkins-Gordeeva writes from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Garland County was created in April 1873 in response to complaints from the citizens of the city of Hot Springs about the difficult trip to the county seat, which was then Rockport. As a result, both the city of Hot Springs and the springs themselves (except for one near Magnet Cove) are no longer found in Hot Spring County.

“The county’s mineral resources include iron, novaculite, titanium, barite, clay and lignite. Magnet Cove got its name from the magnetic iron ore deposits that sent compasses spinning in the 1880s. There are 42 distinct mineral species and mineral combinations in Magnet Cove, some of which are found only in Magnet Cove, the Ural Mountains and the Tyrolean Alps.”

We next cross from Hot Spring County into Garland County. There used to be a liquor store — the Ship & Shore — that was on the county line, but it went out of business soon after Clark County voted to go wet in November 2010. When I worked in college at the Arkadelphia radio stations, Ship & Shore was the sponsor during the Oaklawn race meet for Jim Elder’s “Morning Line” program on the Arkansas Radio Network. Elder, one of the best sportscasters in Arkansas history, would work his way through the entries for each race on that program.

An advantage to the year-round gambling now at Oaklawn is that one no longer has to wait until thoroughbred racing season — the period from January until April that marketers once promoted as the Fifth Season — to get Oaklawn’s famous corned beef. We make plans to park at the track and walk through rows of what Oaklawn officials like to call “games of skill” so we can get our corned beef fix at a sports bar known as Silks.

It will be good to get out of the car for an hour.

Ahead of us on Highway 7 loom two mountain ranges that are separated by the Arkansas River Valley. We have many miles of Arkansas highway still ahead.

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