On a warm, humid Friday afternoon, Cathy Cunningham of Southern Bancorp in Helena gazed at the replica of Fort Curtis like a proud grandparent staring at a newborn child.
A week earlier, about 400 people had turned out for the dedication of the replica at York and Columbia streets.
At a time when heritage tourism continues to grow, Helena is doing more than any other Arkansas city to celebrate its Civil War history.
Of course, Helena played a much larger role in the war than most places in Arkansas. It was the home of seven Confederate generals, the site of a July 4, 1863, effort by the Confederates to return the city to Southern control and the place where thousands of former slaves came for refuge.
Among the speakers at this month’s dedication ceremony was U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, whose great-grandfather Abraham H. Miller was born a slave and came to Helena during the Civil War.
The completion of the Union fort replica represents a milestone for a project that began in 2005 when a strategic development plan for Phillips County was released following 18 months of meetings that involved hundreds of people. Developing a viable tourism industry in this part of the Delta emerged as a suggested means to foster economic development. It would be a new approach in a region that has been wracked by years of outmigration.
The county’s Civil War heritage was identified as one of its most significant resources.
In 2008, a downtown master plan echoed the findings of the 2005 countywide strategic plan. It called for the reconstruction of Fort Curtis, the redevelopment of Estevan Hall and a series of interpretive panels at Union batteries on Crowley’s Ridge and elsewhere across the city.
These Civil War interpretive efforts became part of the Delta Bridge project. Southern Bancorp, an Arkadelphia-based rural development banking company, has owned a bank in Helena since 1999. Working with the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, Southern Bancorp officials decided in 2003 to initiate a comprehensive effort to turn around a county that has lost half its population in the past half century.
The Delta Bridge project was born.
The 2005 strategic plan had 46 major goals and more than 200 suggested action steps. Recent Delta Bridge activity includes everything from the completion of the Fort Curtis replica to improvements to the downtown farmers market.
The block-long reproduction of Fort Curtis is the largest of its kind in the region. The interpretive panels educate visitors about the city’s occupation by Union troops from July 1862 until the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Just down Biscoe Street, work is going on at the future home of Freedom Park, the first National Park Service-recognized “Underground Railroad Network to Freedom” site in the state. Freedom Park, having replaced eyesores that previously scarred the main route into historic downtown Helena, will have interpretive panels and extensive landscaping. Visitors will learn about the African-American impact on the area during the Civil War.
Work is also under way along Biscoe Street on transforming Estevan Hall into a visitors’ center. Also known as the Hanks homestead, the first part of this Southern mansion was constructed in the 1820s. The house was occupied for decades by members of the Hanks family.
Estevan Hall was the site of the marriage of Helen Keller’s grandparents — Charles Adams and Lucy Helen Everett — on Sept. 29, 1845. Alterations to the home in the 1870s were influenced by the New Orleans style. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. Southern Bancorp partnered with the Civil War Preservation Trust to purchase the home.
There are other exciting developments along the Biscoe Street corridor.
At the foot of the Helena Bridge, the site that was once a Holiday Inn (later becoming an increasingly rundown series of discount motels) has been cleared for a $3 million state welcome center.
A private developer is spending $5.6 million to renovate the old Helena High School building into 40 two-bedroom apartments for seniors.
Along the same street, the Chadwicks continue to make the Edwardian Inn the premier place to spend the night in this part of east Arkansas.
Interpretive markers eventually will be placed at 27 Helena sites. You can already access a first-class website at visithelenaar.com/featured-attractions/civil-war-helena/.
In 2008, Southern Bancorp joined forces with the Delta Cultural Center and the Helena-West Helena Advertising & Promotion Commission to hire Joseph and Maria Brent from a Versailles, Ky., company known as Mudpuppy & Waterdog Inc. Their charge was to identify Helena’s Civil War resources and develop a plan to capitalize on those resources.
“Before the war, Helena was a prosperous county seat town, a port and the center of commerce for a very wealthy county,” the Brents wrote. “There was a well-defined social order. People’s lives had a rhythm, a pattern. The Union occupation of Helena ripped that pattern apart. Nothing was as it had been.
“Civil War Helena was a city transformed, a city in turmoil. The people of Helena lived in an occupied city under martial law. Union soldiers found themselves in a foreign and hostile environment. Fugitive slaves risked everything for a chance of freedom.”
In addition to Estevan Hall, other existing sites of interest to visitors include Batteries A and D, the Tappan-Pillow House, Magnolia Cemetery, Maple Hill Cemetery and Confederate Cemetery.
There also will be panels at places that were lost such as the Gen. Thomas Hindman home.
Some exhibits will interpret events such as Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s speech to the Yell Rifles and the Phillips Guards. Other panels will interpret policies such as the plantation lease system and the federal confiscation of civilian homes.
“No two locations will be interpreted in exactly the same way,” the Brents wrote. “Some exhibits will consist of a single freestanding wayside. Others will be enhanced with art, reproduction artifacts and architectural details. … Other locations will be interpreted with exhibits designed to evoke the emotions connected with a particular event or a place that no longer exists. All have the same objective — to make Helena’s complete Civil War history accessible, meaningful and relevant to the community and its visitors.”
The Brents listed these advantages and opportunities that can be found in Helena:
— Delta Bridge initiatives have a strong base of community support.
— The Civil War sesquicentennial will generate increased visitation to Civil War sites.
— Helena is well-positioned to benefit from statewide initiatives to promote the Civil War sesquicentennial
— There are opportunities to partner with other sites on the Vicksburg Campaign Trail.
— Estevan Hall provides a perfect venue to introduce visitors to Civil War Helena.
— Opportunities for community involvement in the success of the project are abundant.
— The Battle of Helena is eligible for American Battlefield Protection Program funds.
“There is overwhelming documentation of the economic benefits Civil War tourism is capable of generating for a community,” the Brents wrote. “The challenge then is to develop and interpret Helena’s Civil War resources — the places, people and events — in a way that delivers a meaningful visitor experience; an experience people will want to repeat and that they will recommend to their friends and increasingly to the world at large” through the Internet.
Helena is well on its way to providing that “meaningful visitor experience.”
The tourism portion of the county’s 2005 strategic plan included these goals:
— Convert the travel corridor from the Mississippi River Bridge to downtown Helena into a historic park/greenspace with Civil War cannons, historic markers and hiking trails.
— Redevelop downtown Helena (specifically Cherry and Walnut streets) to focus on their historical context and create a positive experience for tourists.
— Expand development efforts along the Mississippi River to take advantge of this natural resource.
— Create six major tourist events that occur on an annual basis and, in turn, promote business volume and traffic flow to Phillips County.
— Develop countywide tourism through creation and promotion of available scenic and recreational activities.
It is hoped that eventually 20 percent of the 900,000 people who visit Vicksburg National Military Park each year will visit Helena. That would have at least a $9 million economic impact on the city.
The Brents noted that Helena can be reached easily from the Memphis, Little Rock and Jackson metropolitan areas.
“The primary target market for Civil War Helena is the Civil War traveler, a very specific subset of the cultural heritage traveler,” they wrote. “A preserved Civil War site is an asset to the surrounding area; preserved and interpreted it can be an asset to the business community. Civil War travelers are willing to pay in time and money to visit sites they consider worthwhile. Their spending generates more jobs, higher incomes and more tax revenue for state and local governments.
“Civil War travelers are generally middle-aged, affluent and better educated than the national average. They have more leisure time and more disposable income than other vacationers. They spend more money and stay longer than the average leisure traveler. … Civil War travelers are very discriminating, often traveling to an area specifically to visit a Civil War site.”
The Brents noted that Civil War travelers already are aware of Helena because of Cleburne.
“Cleburne is a Civil War icon,” they wrote. “He is and will continue to be a draw, but visiting Cleburne’s grave will not keep people in town for long. The people interviewed were aware of the July 4, 1863, battle and were disappointed that there was not more to see in Helena.”
The folks in Helena are now providing something more to see. No wonder Cathy Cunningham and the many others involved in this effort are proud.