For five miles east of McGehee, Highway 4 is as straight as the Delta farmland is flat. Headed toward the Mississippi River, you see the levee rising in the distance. A few houses appear on your left, and the road abruptly turns.
Welcome to Arkansas City.
Last week, I made this drive and visited this enchanted town. It’s rich with history, heritage, and culture unique to Arkansas and to the Delta.
Arkansas City was once a prosperous Mississippi River port. It had its own opera house, well-respected schools, and a stable population of some 1,500 people. That all changed with the Great Flood of 1927. That year, the river swallowed thirty-six Arkansas counties. Much of Arkansas City was evacuated. When the floodwaters receded, the river had moved a mile east of town. The river port dried up and so did the town’s prosperity. As goes the river, so goes life itself.
Relics of this history still grace the streets of Arkansas City. There are eight sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For a town of 366 people, that’s remarkable.
But in the Delta, this is the rule, not the exception. All across the region, there are similar stories waiting to be uncovered. Luckily, this process has already started.
During my visit to Arkansas City, I learned more about the Delta Heritage Trail State Park. This project converts an abandoned Missouri Pacific rail line and part of the levee road into a biking and walking trail. When completed, the 84-mile trail will follow the Mississippi River from Helena to Arkansas City. Along the route is the site of the Elaine Race Riot, the White River National Wildlife Refuge, the Rohwer Japanese Internment Camp, and historic Arkansas City. Nearby are historic Downtown Helena, the Arkansas Post National Historic Monument, the Louisiana Purchase State Park and Lakeport Plantation.
The Trail pieces these small sites together to tell a larger story: the story of our Delta, the story of our heritage.
In addition, the project will have a positive economic impact in the poorest corner of our state. When completed, the trail will attract visitors from across the country and across the world, and the increased tourism dollars will mean jobs for Arkansans. In Missouri, the $6 million Katy Trail State Park has had an $18.6 million economic impact. That’s a remarkable return on investment.
Here in Arkansas, we sometimes forget the importance of tourism to our economy. It’s the second largest industry in our state behind agriculture. And with its rich history and culture, the Delta is the new frontier in Arkansas tourism. By telling its story, we are not only preserving the past, we are preparing for the future.
I believe in this new vision for the Delta, and I want to do what I can to promote it. I’ve even pledged to take a bike ride along a portion of the Heritage Trail this fall. I encourage every Arkansan to do the same; to enjoy our great outdoors and to rediscover the Delta. I can’t wait to be a part of it.