The rugged path to Arkansas’s first state park
The legend of Petit Jean Mountain’s namesake covers the mountain in a thick layer of folklore. Nothing wrong with folklore, but it’s a shame that it sometimes clouds the natural beauty of the home to Arkansas’s first state park.
Petit Jean Mountain is part of the Ouachita Mountain range, separated from the Ozarks by both geological form and the Arkansas River. The mountain and surrounding land are characteristic of the Ouchitas as a whole — steep, benchless hills covered in native shortleaf pine and hardwoods, and spreading valleys of rich bottomland soil. But Petit Jean Mountain is home to its own spectacularly distinctive natural wonders. Breathtaking vistas are tops on the list. The warm, brown Arkansas River shoulders past the mountain’s base directly below Stout’s Point with a view of the Ouachita Mountains and their folded rock ridges to the south. To the west sits trapezoid Mount Nebo, and north, across the river and in the hazy purple distance, the Ozark Plateau rises with White Oak Mountain standing as sentinel. But there are wonders of a more intimate type found in the heart of Petit Jean Mountain. There’s Rock House Cave full of ancient Native American rock art and the turtle rocks that make up the path to Rock House. The centerpiece of the mountain is Cedar Falls with its misty silver cascade plunging seventy feet into a rocky pool. Taken as a whole, Petit Jean Mountain is a magical place. It was this way long before and after a certain French teenager followed her love to the New World and fell to fever here on the mountain.
The magic of Petit Jean Mountain is obvious to any who look for it. One of those people is park Interpreter B.T. Jones. Jones has been employed at Petit Jean State Park for nearly a decade now. He comes from an education background, and that combined with his fondness for nature makes him a natural fit for the job. Jones’ soft-spoken personality belies an in-depth knowledge of Petit Jean State Park, both natural history and park history. Despite the professional qualifications, there was likely one shining attribute that probably guaranteed his employment at Petit Jean State Park. “I was here a lot,” said Jones. His spare time was spent as a volunteer for the forest service, mainly for the Flatside Wilderness area in Perry County, but also helping keep trails and campsites clean in Petit Jean State Park. Jones stands in a long line of people that have fallen in love with Petit Jean. But one man stands as the catalyst for protecting Petit Jean Mountain, and his actions led to protection for many other beautiful natural areas here in the Natural State. His name was Dr. Thomas William Hardison. B.T. Jones knows the story behind Dr. hardison and Arkansas’s first state park like he knows the trails winding though its hollows.
“Dr. Hardison moved to Adona, Arkansas in 1906 as company physician for the Fort Smith lumber Company,” said Jones. The lumber company owned the timber rights to large swaths of land on Petit Jean Mountain, and Hardison would spend his spare time exploring the rock formations and hollows. Hardison marveled at the beauty and was soon exploring ideas of how to protect it from the saw. The topography of the mountain helped his plans.
“Hardison was buddies with some of the board members,” said Jones. “They went into the Seven Hollows (an area on Petit Jean) to determine cost effectiveness of getting timber out of that area and decided it wasn’t very cost effective. They also discussed donating as a park, which was Hardison’s idea.” Ultimately, the land sat untouched: too rugged for logging yet no real plan to protect it.
The only parks in existence at that time were national parks. No one had heard of or dreamt up the idea of a state park. But over the next decade the national parks made some big changes. “National parks were protected and watched over by the calvary units of the U.S. Army since right after the Civil War,” said Jones. “But around 1916, the army said they had other things to do.” And so the National Park Service was born. A man named Stephen Mather was named as director. “When Mather took that post, Hardison caught wind of it and knew this was a man he needed to see,” said Jones.
Sometime around 1921, Hardison gathered maps and photographs, and headed to Washington D.C. to meet with Mather. Hardison and Mather were like-minded individuals, both geared toward conservation and preservation of natural places, and so they quickly formed a relationship. After gazing over photos and maps, Mather agreed that Petit Jean Mountain was a place worth protecting, but the acreage donated by Fort Smith Lumber— around a thousand acres — was too small to justify administrative costs for a national park. Mather had received requests from other people with smaller tracts of land so he came up with a solution. “Mather formed a National conference of State Parks and asked Hardison to join it,” said Jones. And Hardison did. The idea behind the formation of this conference was that National Parks planners would come and oversee the planning and construction of park facilities when park proponents had raised enough funds to support it. This was the seed that grew into the Arkansas State Parks service, and other state park services, we enjoy today.
A couple of years went by and Hardison gained a few political connections in Arkansas’s state legislature. Hardison’s political friends brought a bill before the Arkansas General Assembly in 1923 requesting a state park on Petit Jean Mountain. “Of course the first words the legislators asked is ‘what’s a state park?’” said Jones. “ And then of course the politicians’ next question was ‘how much is this state park going to cost?’” The park proponents were ready for that question. It was not going to cost anything. The land would just be set aside until funds and plans came together to build and organize the park. The legislature voted unanimously to preserve the land for a future park, and Arkansas’s first state park was a reality.
Arkansans read about that first state park, nothing more than a pocket of natural area with no buildings or organization, and still, they drove a rugged dirt road to the top for camping and hiking. The land was preserved, but organization for the park would have to wait. Ten years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt is President and riding the promise of the New Deal designed to pull America out of the Great Depression.
The jobs portion of the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corp, and the creation of the CCC caught the attention of Petit Jean State Park’s founder. “Dr. Hardison is reading the Arkansas Gazette, and he reads about this Civilian Conservation Corp,” said Jones. And the wheels turned. “They can move up here on this mountain and build a park with the assistance of the National Parks Service which was promised through the National Conference of State Parks.”
A veteran company named V1781 was assigned to build the park atop Petit jean Mountain. Most were veterans of World War I. The CCC camped on Petit Jean Mountain from 1933 to 1938 and built roads, buildings, bridges and trails designed by National Parks planners. The remnants of a CCC camp house chimney still stands right across the road from the old water tower. CCC workers and their efforts are memorialized in a bronze statue near the chimney.
There were originally eight cabins built on Petit Jean Mountain. But the masterpiece of the CCC’s work on the mountain was Mather Lodge, named in honor of the first National Parks director, Stephen Mather. The architectural design of structures and buildings on Petit Jean is the same as those found on National Parks across the nation. “That type of architecture is called National Park Service rustic,” said Jones. “It’s got a colloquial nickname — parkitecture. The old lodge [Mather Lodge] is authentic parkitecture.”
The look is definitely woodsy, but not rough. The edges are softened and that is part of the mission behind all parks, both state and national. It’s sanitized wilderness designed to make the park accessible to as many people as possible. “That’s the goal,” said Jones. “To have accessible areas for people who need them and also to keep as much area as natural and rugged as possible.” It’s a tough balance to hold. But boundaries to the wild are almost a necessity, especially today. “Young people are probably over protected today, and probably for good reason. They spend too much time indoors and too much time with electronics to experience the outdoors here without being overwhelmed by it physically.” But even in a technology crazed era, the park attracts visitors by the hundreds of thousands. Today, Petit Jean State Park has an estimated half million visitors annually. “I think it grows every year,” said Jones.
Jones speaks about the history of Petit Jean Mountain with an intimate knowledge, telling the listener that park interpreter is more than just a job to him. “I love parks,” said Jones. “Anybody that works here loves parks, and it’s a labor of love. We’re wilderness first responders, first aid, search and rescue. That’s part of it. Some parts aren’t pleasant. But what makes Petit Jean a beautiful place is also what makes it a dangerous place.”
Indeed, the mountain’s allure is tied directly to its rugged and sometimes treacherous topography. The jagged, rocky outcroppings and overhangs shaped through years of elemental caress stir a song in the spirit while also representing mortal peril. No doubt this exquisite contradiction captured the heart of Dr. Hardison as it still captures the hearts of park visitors today.