The earliest settlers in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas arrived about 1830, traveling primarily from the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, and northern Georgia into the area’s fertile, if remote and isolated, river valleys.
In time, some left the valleys for higher elevations. The long, even crest of Rich Mountain, named for its uncommonly rich soil, was especially appealing. Wide enough to accommodate homes, small fields, and garden patches, it combined fertile soil with a multitude of springs bubbling just below the ridge. Aileen McWilliam, herself a child of the Ouachitas and a historian of Rich Mountain, recalled:
[The soil was] in some places so deep that the rocks gave little trouble, and so loose that it required little tillage. A small pocket of soil among rocks could be planted by using only a hoe to make a depression for a few seeds. The atmosphere was conducive to the growth of lush vegetable crops.
Though the growing season is relatively short, growth is rapid, and the winds and cold temperatures of the moutaintop hold back the fruit tree buds that in the valley come out too early, and are nipped by frosts.
Rich Mountain’s summit attracted settlers as early as 1860, even before United States government land patents became available under the 1862 Homestead Act. By filing a claim and making certain improvements within two years — building a two room structure, clearing a patch of land, planting fruit trees — a family could live on a claim indefinitely. If they desired formal title to the land, they could take possession by demonstrating continuous residency: a process known as ‘proving out.’
Anyone examining the records will find that the date of the land patent (the original deed) often seems to be much later than the first date of occupancy. In some cases, the patent appears to have been granted so late in a family’s tenancy that gardens had become overgrown and buildings uninhabitable. Ode Turner, an early mountain dweller who knew many of the Rich mountain settlers, explained the phenomenon this way:
So long as the proving out had not been done,the settler could live on the land free, but as soon as the patent was granted, the land went on the tax rolls and taxes had to be paid annually. Consequently, the patent may not have been sought until the settler was ready to sell the land, or until new people came into the county and challenged the non-taxpaying status of these people.
Today, visible evidence of these homesteads remains in the form of rock foundations and chimneys, log buildings, stone fences, the ruts of old wagon roads, overgrown paths to springs, isolated fruit trees, and graves.
Not all settlers were families looking for a secure spot to raise children and crops. During the Civil War, some came up the mountain to escape turmoil in other areas of the state. A few were known as “mountain Feds” — men sympathetic to the Union who fled to the mountains to avoid conscription into the Confederate military. Needless to say, moonshiners also found the isolation of the mountains convenient for their operations. Whatever their reason for being on the mountain, settlers of every sort seemed willing to live and let live, accepting the difficulties of isolation as an acceptable price for independence.
Then, in the late 1800s, change came to Rich Mountain.
Arthur Stilwell, born and raised in Rochester, New York, moved to Kansas City in 1886. While engaged in founding trust companies and developing belt-line railroads, he came to the conclusion that rail access to Gulf of Mexico ports would allow midwestern states to substantially increase shipments of their agricultural products. He proposed a new Kansas City, Pittsburgh & Gulf Railroad to provide the needed rail access to Sabine Pass, Texas, and began planning for the establishment of a new port there: today’s still-thriving town of Port Arthur.
Unfortunately, an 1893 economic depression depleted capital needed for the railway, so Stilwell traveled to Holland, planning to seek new investors for his project among acquaintances there. Jan DeGeoijen, a Dutch coffee broker Stilwell knew from an earlier trip to Europe, was persuaded; in only a few months, the pair had raised $3 million.
After Stilwell’s return to the United States, work on the railroad resumed, progressing southward to Arkansas’s Ouachita mountains. The tallest range in middle America, the Ouachitas differ from most United States mountains by running east and west rather than north and south: a fact interesting to geologists, but disconcerting to engineers designing a north-south rail line.
Eventually, the valley between Rich Mountain (2,681 feet) and Black Fork Mountain (2,651 feet) became the preferred route through the Ouachitas. At the eastern foot of Rich Mountain, where the railroad resumed a straight southerly course, a division town was established. On August 18, 1896, it became Mena, Arkansas: named in honor of DeGeoijen’s wife, Folmina Margaretha Janssen DeGeoijen, known familiarly as Mina. Janssen Park, still a centerpiece of the town, honored the DeGeoijens by adopting Mina’s maiden name as its own.
Not content with commerce, Stilwell hoped to increase his railroad’s passenger trade by building a resort at the summit of Rich Mountain. The new facility, announced in 1897, would be named after Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands as a gesture to Dutch investors who’d provided financing for his railroad.
When the Queen Wilhelmina Inn opened on June 22, 1898, mountain air and scenic views complemented thirty five rooms and the three hundred person dining room which could be converted into a ballroom. A suite of rooms was set aside for the Queen herself, but the hoped-for royal visit never took place.
Despite the absence of royalty atop Rich Mountain, the building of the railroad and inn brought an increase in population, significantly more activity, and changes in the community. As word about the delights of the mountain retreat spread, people like J.H. and Sarah Wallace arrived in Mena from Indiana, where they had married in 1879. He served as a stonemason and bricklayer during construction of the original inn; after the inn opened to guests, she worked in the laundry.
Construction of the inn was as complicated in its way as work on the railroad. Building materials had to be taken up the mountain on burros; the hauling concession belonged to a Mexican man who owned a string of forty animals.
Even before the inn was completed, guests were eager to visit and they, too, traveled by burro. John McKinney, a young man engaged in road work at the time, told of seeing a finely dressed woman, irritated by her burro’s tendency to balk, beating it over the head with her fancy parasol.
A 27-passenger, burro-drawn wagon named “Tally Ho” transported guests from the Mena train depot to the top of the mountain twice daily: a distance of about thirteen miles. Between the mules and the passengers, wagon master J. M. Tomlin surely had his hands full.
But the journey was considered to be worth the effort. Weddings, family reunions, and social gatherings of every sort took place on the mountain, where guests luxuriated in a life of elegance and ease. Orchestras arrived from Kansas City to provide music for evening dances; mornings were spent playing croquet or admiring the gardens.
Unfortunately, less than three years after the inn’s opening the Kansas City, Pittsburgh & Gulf Railroad faced financial woes. After being placed in receivership, it was sold to what is now the Kansas City Southern Railway Company.
With new owners in place, the inn was abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair. In 1905, it became the prize in a lottery whose tickets were valued at $30 or $100 (accounts differ), and by 1910 it had closed. From time to time, there still were guests, but they were four-footed, not two-footed; the Queen Wilhelmina Inn had become housing for livestock.
But all was not lost. In the late 1950s a group of investors from Mena purchased the site, and in 1957 the Arkansas legislature established Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Two years later, reconstruction of the Inn began, using ruins of the 1898 building as a base.
The new lodge, opened in 1963, was destroyed by fire ten years later. Again it was rebuilt, and rededicated in 1975. After renovations begun in 2012 added some modern amenities, the Queen Wilhelmina Inn reopened on July 1, 2015: once again the Castle in the Clouds envisioned by Arthur Stilwell.
The ever-present danger of fire in the forests surrounding Rich Mountain settlements, as well as the Queen Wilhelmina Inn, led to the construction of a different sort of structure on the mountain: the fire tower.
The first observation tower on Rich Mountain consisted of a pine tree with a platform. In 1910, after a fire known as the ‘Big Blowup’ burned three million acres and killed eighty-seven people in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, early detection suddenly became a priority, and Rich Mountain’s platform in a pine tree was replaced with a wooden fire tower.
Towerman Amos Egger, his wife Grace, and their three children lived below the tower from 1923 to 1926. Later, they moved into a three room cottage west of a 1924 replacement metal tower with a cab measuring 7’x 7′.
Living conditions were upgraded further in 1937 with the construction of a third residence. A latrine was added in 1940.
A third, 65′ tall tower, built in 1954, doubled the size of the metal cab to 14′ x 14′. Despite being taken out of service in 1970, it still stands just down the road from the Wilhelmina Inn.
In the Mena and Oden districts, eleven towers were constructed, their names beautifully descriptive of the land on which they stood: Rich Mountain, Cossatot, Abbott Mountain, Tall Peak, Bee Mountain, Eagle, Horseshoe Mountain, Wolf Pinnacle, Buck Knob, Muddy Mountain, and Lone Pine Mountain. Today, only three remain — Rich, Bee, and Lone Pine — and the towermen and women are gone.
Like the towermen, most early settlers came down from the mountain, even as increasing numbers of tourists trekked to its top. Why some settlers continued to stay is a different sort of story, which deserves its own telling. (To be continued…)
Comments always are welcome.
Historical photos are from various Arkansas Forest Service and state parks sites; current photos are mine.
Details about life on the mountain came from conversations with Mena residents, as well as online sources.
Quotations are taken from a Ouachita National Forest/Arkansas State Parks brochure titled “The Old Pioneer Cemetery Historical Site.”