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Visiting historic Arkadelphia


Few places in Arkansas have a richer history than the old river town of Arkadelphia. And it still boasts a number of historic buildings and homes that make it well worth a visit for those interested in history.

In a little book called “Visit Historic Arkadelphia,” authors Dave Ozmun, Ray Granade, Laverne Todd and Shirley Graham wrote: “Serving as Clark County’s seat of government since 1842, Arkadelphia has offered the surrounding countryside a farm market and trading center, thanks to reliable transportation, first by water, then rail and later roads and interstate highways. From its perch adjacent to the Ouachita River at the edge of the Ouachita Mountains, Arkadelphia has enjoyed a history of light industry, agriculture and manufacturing. Today there are also recreational opportunities offered by the Ouachita and Caddo rivers and the Caddo’s impoundment, DeGray Lake.

“Arkadelphia’s most enduring asset may be its commitment to education. Of the five colleges founded in the community between 1885 and 1895, two continue to thrive in Arkadelphia while the others moved to Little Rock. At one time, local newspapers called this the City of Colleges and occasionally the Athens of Arkansas. Yet the history of Arkadelphia reaches further back, to America’s earliest days. From prehistoric times to the 1700s, when they migrated south into eastern Texas and northwestern Louisiana, this area was home to the Caddo Indians.”

Many call the salt works operated by John Hemphill in the early 1800s the first industry in Arkansas.

“Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area around what became Arkadelphia was administered first as part of the Louisiana Territory then, when Louisiana became a state in 1812, as part of the Missouri Territory,” the authors write. “While administered under the Missouri Territory, the local area was designated as Clark County in 1818. After Missouri achieved statehood in 1819, Arkansas became a territory in its own right, then a state in 1836. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned an expedition, headed by William Dunbar and George Hunter, to map the southern part of the Louisiana Purchase. Their trip up the Arkansas River would coincide with the Lewis and Clark trip up the Missouri River.

“When trouble with the Osage Indians canceled their plan, Dunbar convinced Jefferson that an expedition up the Ouachita River as far as Hot Springs would be beneficial. It became the first river explored by Americans following the Louisiana Purchase. As he reached the bluff on which Arkadelphia now sits, Dunbar chose to call the area the Great Glaze. About 1808, Adam Blakely opened a blacksmith shop on what’s now Caddo Street near the Ouachita River. That was the beginning of a town.”

One of the most historic buildings still standing in Arkadelphia is the Clark County Courthouse, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson and built in 1899.

According to “Visit Historic Arkadelphia”: “For public buildings, Thompson favored Romanesque style, as evidenced by the courthouse and the public library in Arkadelphia and by buildings in El Dorado, Prescott and Hope. The six-story clock tower holds a 600-pound clock. The whole structure was erected using local materials — bricks from Clark County earth and granite quarried near the Caddo River just north of town. Three county courthouses have been located on this site since Arkadelphia succeeded Greenville as the county seat in 1842. This one succeeded a squarish wooden building that had replaced the original log structure.

“During the late 1980s and through the 1990s, some county officials hoped to demolish this courthouse and replace it with a more modern one. The March 1, 1997, tornado, which destroyed or damaged much of the town, damaged the courthouse. Determined efforts by local residents, combined with grants and federal money, led to its restoration.”

Just across the street from the courthouse stands the building that housed the law offices of Harris Flanagin, the Confederate governor of Arkansas. The building at 320 Clay St. was finished in 1858 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in December 1977.

“The building was constructed in several phases,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University. “The front portion was constructed by law partner J.L. Witherspoon. J.H. O’Baugh, a lock brick maker, provided the bricks for the first phase of construction and possibly built the office. The bricks were received in 1855, and construction of the building was finished by 1858. The original design was two rooms with a front porch. Each room had a single door that opened onto the porch, but the rooms weren’t connected by a passageway. Each room also contained a fireplace and chimney.

“At the end of the war, Flanagin and Witherspoon returned to Clark County and resumed their law practice. Sometime during this period, Flanagin purchased the office from Witherspoon. In 1874, Flanagin was selected to represent Clark County at a constitutional convention but became ill during the proceedings, dying in Arkadelphia on Oct. 23. After Flanagin’s death, the office passed to his son Duncan. A section of rooms constructed from wood was added to the rear of the property, and a door connecting the two original rooms was installed. The property was rented as private housing until 1903 when Duncan Flanagin sold the building to Judge J.H. Crawford.”

Crawford used the building until his death in 1930. It was used by his son, Dwight Crawford, as a law office until his death in 1968. In 1974, the office was sold to attorney Bob Sanders.

Harris Flanagin had been born in New Jersey in November 1817. His father was a cabinetmaker who had come from Ireland in 1765. Flanagin was educated in a Quaker school and became a math professor at a seminary in Pennsylvania when he was just 18. He later opened a private school in Illinois.

Writing in the book “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives,” historian Michael Dougan of Jonesboro says: “Armed only with a letter certifying him to be a ‘gentleman well educated and possessing a good moral character,’ Flanagin moved to Arkansas in 1839, settling at Greenville in Clark County before relocating to Arkadelphia, where he established his law office on the courthouse square. His primary interest seems to have been speculating in land with an old Pennsylvania friend, Benjamin Duncan, who served as Clark County sheriff in the 1840s. A Whig in politics, Flanagin was elected to the Fourth General Assembly in 1842, serving in the House for one term.

“Although he volunteered for the Mexican War, his company seems not to have completed its organization. In 1847, he was elected captain of a militia company. In 1848, Flanagin won a spirited contest against Democrat Hawes H. Coleman for the office of state senator. Again, he served only one term. After the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s, his political activity was reportedly limited to serving as an Arkadelphia city alderman. Flanagin married Martha Elizabeth Nash of Hempstead County on July 3, 1851. Flanagin had been raised a Baptist, but after he married, he attended the Presbyterian church with his wife, becoming known locally as a ‘trunk Baptist.'”

In 1861, Flanagin was elected to attend the Arkansas Secession Convention.

“A reluctant secessionist, he was highly regarded by the former Unionists and left the convention after the passage of the ordinance of secession on May 6 to accept the captaincy of Company E of the Second Arkansas Mounted Rifles,” Dougan writes. “He participated in actions at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge. After the death of Col. James McIntosh and the reorganization of the regiment, Flanagin was elected colonel. During the summer of 1862, Flanagin was serving in the Army of Tennessee when his name was put forth as a gubernatorial candidate in a public letter by a strong coalition of ex-Unionists (mostly ex-Whigs) and Democrats who wished to supplant the highly unpopular incumbent, Henry Massie Rector, whose most recent action had been to issue a proclamation threatening to secede from the Confederacy.

“The Constitution of 1861 had contrived to shorten Rector’s term by scheduling a gubernatorial election for the fall of 1862. During these months, Flanagin kept a small diary but made no reference to his candidacy, thus leading some writers to the erroneous conclusion that he had no knowledge of his nomination at the time of his election. However, private correspondence from Arkansans in the Army of Tennessee reveals that the men were aware of his nomination and anxious for his success. His friends in Arkansas did all the campaigning for him. A pro-Rector paper tried to stir up anti-Irish sentiment by claiming the challenger’s last name was O’Flanagin, but the colonel outpolled Rector by more than a two-to-one margin.”

Flanagin was sworn in on Nov. 15, 1862.

“Flanagin called on the Legislature for laws to help people cope with shortages of salt, aid impoverished solders’ families and stop profiteering and liquor production,” Dougan writes. “Some laws were passed, but Flanagin took a passive attitude toward executive responsibilities and failed to offer effective leadership. A Baptist minister reported that he had heard it said ‘your governor loves whiskey too well to get him to stop still houses.’ In contrast to many Southern governors, he didn’t oppose the imposition by Confederate authorities of conscription or endorse an extreme states’ rights position.

“Flanagin worked to get Confederate authorities to take seriously the defense of Arkansas, and he accompanied the Confederate Army on its futile assault on the Union-held port of Helena in 1863. He also made two efforts to raise state troops for defense. After the fall of Arkansas Post in January 1863, he called for volunteers to serve for 60 days. Since the Federals didn’t follow up their victory, there was no need. In any case, the state had no weapons with which to arm the men. In August, when a Federal column began marching on the capital, Flanagin formed a company of old men, which he led himself. Since the Confederates failed to make a serious effort to defend the capital, the Union Army captured Little Rock on Sept. 10, 1863.”

State officials fled south, taking state records with them. Flanagin went home to Arkadelphia for about a month until Confederate authorities convinced him to re-establish a state government at Washington in Hempstead County. The Legislature met at Washington in 1864.

“Thanks to judicial decisions authored by new state Supreme Court Justice Albert Pike, this ‘rump’ government was granted legal standing for its operations,” Dougan writes. “One more brief flight to Rondo (now in Miller County but probably in Lafayette then) took place in 1864 when it appeared that Union Gen. Frederick Steele would capture Washington. Steele, however, went to Camden instead, and the Confederates returned to their temporary capital. Affairs in the Trans-Mississippi were in great disorder once the fall of Vicksburg left this section largely responsible for its own defense. Flanagin failed to attend the first Trans-Mississippi Department governors’ conference, made limited use of his executive powers and did little to retard the rising peace sentiment among the masses.

“Morale-building public speeches and aggressive executive actions were lacking. However, with most of the state either a no-man’s land or in the hands of Union forces, tax collections stopped, and with it the state’s source of revenue. Flanagin’s most energetic act was his rejection of a Confederate enrolling officer’s attempt to draft the clerk of the state Supreme Court. The most important effort to sustain the war was supplying the Washington Telegraph with newsprint, but this was undertaken by Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith and not by Flanagin. The governor’s wartime correspondence contained letters from friends who apparently shared his belief that the war was lost. When criticized by his inactivity, he responded that he would never act ‘without or contrary to law.'”

Unionists in Arkansas had written a new constitution and installed Isaac Murphy as governor in 1864. After the war, Flanagin returned the state archives and retired to Arkadelphia to resume his law practice.

“His correspondence indicates he opposed violence and took the same high legal and moral tone that had marked his gubernatorial career,” Dougan writes. “In 1872, he was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. After the Brooks-Baxter War, he was elected to the state convention that wrote the Constitution of 1874, serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He was even spoken of as a possible gubernatorial candidate. He died, probably from congestive heart failure, before final ratification. But he had signed an early draft.”

Flanagin is buried in Arkadelphia’s historic Rose Hill Cemetery. His reputation was that of a man who took direct action once he had made up is mind.

The authors of “Visit Historic Arkadelphia” tell one story along those lines: “At age 34, the still-unmarried man didn’t seem interested in romance, but a friend told him one day that he knew just the right girl for him. A few days later, Flanagin appeared at the home of Phinias Nash in Washington and told Nash that he had come to court and possibly marry his daughter. He was invited to stay for dinner and afterward talked with the young lady. The next morning, he returned to Arkadelphia. Three weeks later, Flanagin returned to Washington, and he and Martha were married.”

The authors note that Rose Hill originated “when a child of Benjamin Maddox died in 1852 and was buried in the family’s back yard. After other family members died and were buried there, friends requested and were granted the same privilege in what came to be known as the Maddox burying ground. Almost 20 years later, the city bought the property for a municipal graveyard and named it Rose Hill in 1880. Alice McNutt donated the rock fence surrounding the cemetery.”

The cemetery has graves that date to the 1850s. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

“The first public cemetery in Arkadelphia was established shortly after the town was settled,” Sesser writes. “It was named the Blakely Graveyard for an early name of the settlement. The graveyard was closed by the city board to future interments in 1869. Several graves from the Blakely Graveyard were moved to the new cemetery after it opened, including the bodies of several Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. Rose Hill Cemetery, which fronts Main Street, covers about 12 acres.

“The eastern boundary of the cemetery is South 12th Street, and the western boundary of the cemetery abuts another cemetery. The southern boundary is adjacent to private property. The land slopes down from the front of the cemetery with concrete retaining walls used to prevent erosion. The oldest graves are in the northern section with newer graves to the south and west. There’s a small gazebo in the cemetery, and several small sheds are used to house maintenance equipment. A black wrought-iron fence runs in front of the property, and an iron sign displaying the name of the cemetery is located slightly to the east of the front entrance. … A dirt road leads into the center of the cemetery from the front entrance, and a number of magnolia, cedar and other types of trees are located in the older section.”

The cemetery, which makes a nice place for a walk for those interested in Arkansas history, contains more than 3,100 graves. About 1,800 of the interments were made between the 1850s and 1940s. There are few burials there these days.

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