ARKANSAS A-Z: Rich Mountain, begun in the 1800s, now rich in tourism | The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Rich Mountain is a small residential area that is part of a larger, 200-square-mile tract of land that lies in the Ouachita Mountains and spans the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line. The name Rich Mountain applies to the mountain (which, at 2,681 feet above sea level, ranks as Arkansas’ second-highest peak) and the Polk County community at its northern base. While few people reside in the community in the 21st century, the influence of the name can still be seen in area institutions.

In 1820, the United States gave the Choctaw tribe the part of the Arkansas Territory that included Rich Mountain. The boundaries of the Choctaw land were altered in 1825 to reflect the boundary between Arkansas and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and again between 1831 and 1833.

The earliest white settlers went to Rich Mountain in the 1850s and 1860s. These settlers traveled to Rich Mountain for three main reasons: the rich soil, which was useful for growing vegetables; the spring water and mountain air, believed by settlers to be healing in nature; and people’s desire to live at higher elevations due to the prevalence of malaria and tuberculosis in lowlands of Louisiana and Texas, the river bottoms of Arkansas and the southeastern portion of Indian Territory. A store, blacksmith shop and moonshiner’s still sprang up during this time.

In 1875, William A.J. Beauchamp took a printing press to the mountain, where he later published the Mountain Signal, Polk County’s first newspaper. The first issue was published in 1877, and it ran for seven years, printing new editions only when sufficient news justified an issue. Beauchamp left Rich Mountain in 1884 after printing the story of a local murder, as the people named in the article threatened to kill Beauchamp and his entire family. He deeded his real and personal property to his son, E. Louis E. Beauchamp, and returned to Texas, where he operated a sawmill on the Neches River.

Although it had a post office as early as 1878, Rich Mountain officially became a town in 1890. The same year, A.Y. Hays and M.M. Triplett deeded one acre of land for use as a cemetery and combination church and school. About four years later, Arthur Stilwell — a Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (KCP&G) executive — traveled to Europe to secure funding for a railroad that would extend to the deep-water ports of the southern United States. He found success in the Netherlands, where he secured $3 million in funding to build the railroad. In 1897, Stilwell announced that a resort, Mount Mena, would be built at the mountain’s peak. Additionally, a road would be built from the KCP&G station to the new inn.

The inn opened on June 22, 1898, under the name Wilhelmina Inn in honor of the queen of the Netherlands. By 1900, Stilwell lost control over construction of the railroad, and KCP&G became Kansas City Southern (KCS). This led to the decline of the Rich Mountain community. By 1905, the inn and hundreds of lots within the community had been disposed of through a lottery, with chances sold for $30 each. Some 3,000 people attended the drawing, with E.A. Cotham of Monticello winning the inn. It closed permanently in 1910 and fell into disrepair.

  photo  Homestead at Rich Mountain (Polk County); 1937 (Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System)
 
 

In April 1921, the U.S. Forest Service built trails to the mountain’s peak, which created scenic views accessible to the general public. The site became Queen Wilhelmina State Park in March 1957 through state legislation, and in 1959, work began on a second lodge, using the ruins of the first inn as its base. The inn formally reopened on June 22, 1963, 65 years after the grand opening of the first inn. This, combined with official naming of the Talimena Scenic Drive in 1966, brought tourists back to the Rich Mountain community.

The second lodge was destroyed by fire in November 1973, and a third inn was constructed in 1974–1975. The current lodge, park and scenic byway take visitors to the area each year. Tourists and locals alike enjoy camping, hiking, walking in the park and eating at the Queen’s Restaurant.

While the earliest economic activity in the area revolved around the railroad, nearly all industry in the community in the 21st century pertains to tourism and the hospitality industry. University of Arkansas Rich Mountain, which began offering classes in 1975 under the name Rich Mountain Vocational-Technical School, takes its name from the mountain. — Mysti L. Gates

This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at encyclopediaofarkansas.net.

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