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Camden on the Ouachita

Mayor Chris Claybaker drives his car slowly along the railroad tracks in downtown Camden on a Tuesday afternoon and invites me to take in the view below.

The Ouachita River, the river along which I was raised (upstream at Arkadelphia), shimmers in the late afternoon sun.

On a small sandbar on the other side of the river, several people have put a beach umbrella in the sand and are enjoying the low humidity.

A boat cruises down the middle of the river.

At the ramp, a man backs his boat into the river in order to get in a couple of hours of fishing before dark.

It’s almost as if the Camden Advertising & Promotion Commission set this up as a postcard shot on a late spring day.

Claybaker, who has been Camden’s mayor since 1995, talks about one of his dreams.

“I’ve long had a vision of somebody opening a restaurant on this site,” he says. “Imagine sitting on the back deck and listening to live music on a day like this.”

For now, that part of the mayor’s vision remains far from reality. But so much already has been accomplished along the river. This Friday night, a series of outdoor movies at the Camden Riverwalk amphitheater will commence. The movies, which are free, will begin at dusk. A film will be shown on a big screen each Friday evening for nine consecutive weeks through the end of July.

Several hundred people have shown up in past years for the Friday night free movies when the weather is good.

Sandy Beach Park along the Ouachita River was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s, but the city failed to maintain the park properly.

“It wasn’t a place you wanted to spend time when I became mayor,” Claybaker says on our drive through the park.

He saw to it that city employees cleaned up the property and kept it clean. On this day, people are having picnics in a park that once was a haven for drug sales. Through the years, the mayor has worked to obtain grants from organizations ranging from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to the Ouachita River Commission to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission to continue the riverfront development downtown. There are now docks on the river, retaining walls, a boardwalk, the amphitheater and even an artifical waterfall.

“When I became mayor, you couldn’t even see the river from most of this area,” Claybaker says. “It was all grown up with weeds and vines. We cleaned that out.”

Steamboats plied the Ouachita from 1819-1910, making Camden an important town.

The Vicksburg District of the Corps of Engineers states on its website: “The river commerce was a great force with activity from November to July. It was noted that during high water the steamboats traveled from Monroe to Arkadelphia. When the steamboats approached towns, the captain would blast the horn and the townspeople would stop all activity to run and greet the ships.”

The Ouachita River originates in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County and flows south for 510 miles. Near Jonesville, La., it converges with the Tensas and Little rivers to form the Black River. The Black River, in turn, meets the Red River about 41 miles south of Jonesville. Another 28 miles downstream from there, the Red River joins the Atchafalaya River.

What’s now known as the Ouachita-Black River Navigation Project began in 1902, making the Ouachita navigable from Camden to Jonesville. Construction on a system of six locks and dams was completed in 1924. There are now four locks and dams in the system.

The northernmost lock and dam is the H.K. Thatcher northeast of El Dorado. That dam produces a navigable waterway 52 river miles north to Camden. It’s named after H.K. “Big Daddy” Thatcher, who spent a lifetime promoting the Ouachita River and whose contributions are recognized with a plaque at the Camden riverfront.

“During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles,” Daniel Milam writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had the accommodations and transportation to service the planter provisioning trade to New Orleans. By 1860, with a population of more than 2,000, Camden had newspapers, churches, schools, merchants, lawyers and manufacturers.”

Union Gen. Frederick Steele occupied Camden during the Red River Campaign of 1864. After losses at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills, Steele and his troops headed back to Little Rock.

“After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden,” Milam writes. “Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping. Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. In the 1880s, the Iron Mountain and Cotton Belt were opened, and in the early 1900s, the Rock Island connection was completed.

“Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to service Camden until the 1930s.”

Even as river transportation declined, Camden thrived. There were three major reasons for this.

First, as mentioned, Camden became a railroad center.

Second, oil was discovered at Stephens in Ouachita County in the 1920s.

Third, International Paper Co. built a huge mill at Camden in the late 1920s.

There was other industry.

Camark Pottery operated from 1926 until 1984, its brand known across the country.

Benjamin Tyndle Fooks developed a new grape soda known as Grapette at his Camden bottling plant, which he had purchased in the 1920s, and the brand thrived.

The population of Camden exploded, going from 3,238 in the 1920 census to 15,823 in the 1960 census. Those four decades were the glory years.

The Camden Army Air Field operated from 1942-44. The Shumaker Naval Depot also was established during World War II. It closed in the late 1950s, but the location was transformed into the Highland Industrial Park.

Like much of south Arkansas, Camden has suffered economically in recent decades. The population dropped from 15,147 in the 1970 census to 12,183 in the 2010 census. 

Responding to a declining population, the Camden and Fairview school districts consolidated in the 1990s. IP closed its mill a little more than a decade ago. It was a blow that, in many ways, continues to affect Camden to this day. The mill had been a mainstay of the local economy from the year it opened in 1927 until its closure in January 2001.

A March 2001 Associated Press article began this way: “For 73 years, the stacks at International Paper Co.’s mill belched gray, sour steam day and night over the pine woods of south Arkansas. On summer afternoons, the plumes sullied laundry hanging outside. On winter mornings, they guided deer hunters downwind of their quarry. In any season, townspeople knew the answer to the question ‘paper or plastic?’ But IP closed the paper-bag plant in January, leaving 580 workers without a way to support families long dependent on company paychecks. The employee union urged IP to sell to another papermaker, but the company refused to put it into a competitor’s hands while the market is down. Now, with the hulking plant sitting silent, this town of 15,000 is dealing with its pain and trying to figure out how to remake itself economically.”

Camden has done some things right in the past decade. Not only is there the development of the riverfront as an attractive gathering spot, there seems to be a renewed interest in the city’s downtown.

Emily Jordan-Robertson, who founded Jordan Construction Co. in 1999, has poured vast amounts of energy and capital into restoring downtown buildings for retail and even residential use. Her most exciting project to date is the renovation of the city’s old post office.

Completed in 1896, the building is a classic example of the Richardson Romanesque style of design. The cost of construction was $39,000 at the time.

The building, once scheduled for demolition, was saved by Jordan-Robertson, who then embarked on an 18-month renovation project. It’s now the Postmasters Grill, bringing people from across south Arkansas to Camden for dinner and occasional live music on the patio.

Unlike the downtowns of so many other Arkansas cities, there’s plenty of activity now in downtown Camden after dark.

In addition to the Postmasters Grill, Allen’s Restaurant on Washington Street and What’s Cookin’ on Adams Street bring people downtown for dinner. Head just a bit farther down Adams Street and you can have dinner at either the famed White House Cafe (among the oldest restaurants in the state) or the Sandbar.

Farther out on Washington Street, James Woods continues to serve some of the best fried catfish in the South at Woods Place. He also caters special events at the River Woods, the shaded facility on the banks of the Ouachita that was once the IP Supervisor’s Club. It’s one of those “if only these walls could talk” buildings that has served as an entertainment location for decades.

Camden has a surprising number of good, locally owned restaurants for a city its size.

Another major project during Claybaker’s years as mayor was to clean out the portion of Adams Street once referred to by locals as The Front. Back when I would go to Camden to either play in or broadcast football games on the radio from old Coleman Stadium, The Front was an expanse of liquor stores and beer joints where drug sales and prostitution were common.

While cleaning up The Front and seeking to capitalize on its riverfront and revitalize its downtown, Camden continues to celebrate its history.

Along the Clifton-Greening Street Historic District, visitors can pass by the Greening House, the John Hobson Parker House, the Ramsey-McClellan House, the Richie-Crawford House (built in 1909 for wealthy businessman Walter Richie and later owned by the ill-fated Maud Crawford) and the Cleveland Avenue School.

Along the Washington Street Historic District, visitors can see the Godwin-Powell-May-Dietrich House (built in 1859), the Umsted House, the Marino Home, the Jordan-Shankle Home, the Graham-Gaughan-Betts Home, the Elliott-Meek-Nunnally Home and the McCollum-Chidester House Museum.

The McCollum-Chidester House, built in 1847 and used for five days by Gen. Steele as his headquarters during the Civil War, is open daily and operated by the Ouachita County Historical Society.

The Umsted House, built in 1923 by Sid Umstead, who prospered following the discovery of oil in south Arkansas, now operates as a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Later this summer, Claybaker will take over as president of the Arkansas Municipal League. He will be able to point to things going on in Camden — renewing a downtown, playing to your strengths (in this case a beautiful river), capitalizing on history — as ways to fight the opposing economic forces as the timber industry continues to suffer in south Arkansas.

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