Arkansas: From Hot Springs to cool diamonds

Little Rock
Opened in 2004, the 150,000-square-foot William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park is located in the downtown River Market District along the Arkansas River. It contains the nation’s 12th Presidential library and the largest archival collection of American Presidential memorabilia. The main building of the Clinton Center is in the form of a glass bridge symbolizing Clinton’s theme of “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.” The first floor features thematic alcoves detailing Clinton’s domestic and foreign policy efforts and achievements. Take a seat in a model of Clinton’s Cabinet Room and use interactive media stations to learn about key decisions made in the original room. A full-size replica of the Oval Office is on the upper level. Windows provide a view to the outside. However, instead of seeing the Rose Garden, visitors here see downtown Little Rock. During the hour-long audio tour, President Clinton leads visitors through featured areas of the Clinton Center, providing his unique perspective of the exhibits. He discusses some of the many influences in his life from his early childhood years in Arkansas to his friendships with world leaders.

The Central High School National Historic Site serves as a symbol of the national struggle over school desegregation. Here, in 1957, the governor of Arkansas attempted to defy federal court orders by preventing nine black students from attending the school. President Eisenhower ordered 1,200 U.S. Army troops into Little Rock to protect the civil rights of the students and guard the campus. Today, Central High School is the only operating school to be designated a national historic site. The 50th anniversary of this momentous day will be celebrated Sept. 23-25, 2007, with numerous activities and special guests. One of the highlights will be the formal dedication of the new Little Rock Central National Historic Site Visitor Center, now under construction. The new facility, which will be six times larger than the current one, will provide space for interpretive and educational programming, special events, storage and preservation of historic archives and museum objects. The existing center, which is a restored Mobil station across the street from the school, will be converted into an education center.

Regarded as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the nation, the Old State House was built in 1836, the year Arkansas became a state. It is now the oldest surviving state capitol building west of the Mississippi River, and houses a museum of Arkansas history. The MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History is housed in the 1880 birthplace of General Douglas MacArthur.

Located in a former Union Pacific Railroad Depot, the Hope Visitor Center and Museum was featured prominently in a video on Clinton’s life that was presented during the 1992 Democratic National Convention. The city of Hope renovated it and it opened it as a visitor center/museum in 1996. Exhibits and videos on the history of the town and on Clinton’s connection to Hope are featured. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Clinton’s Center & Birthplace is where the future president lived with his grandparents from 1946 to 1950. It has been refurbished to look as it did in the 1940s and 1950s. The Paul W. Klipsch Museum is dedicated to the life and achievements of the man whose company manufactures world-famous speakers.

Hot Springs
On a cool day in December 1804, naturalist William Dunbar and chemist George Hunter discovered the steamy waters in what is now Hot Springs National Park. They had been sent on a fact-finding mission by President Thomas Jefferson after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The men published magazine articles about their findings and the area developed into a popular resort. Hot Springs is the smallest and oldest of the parks in the National Park System. In 1832 it became the first federally protected area in the nation’s history. Hot Springs Reservation — which was renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921 — originally was created by Congress to protect the 47 naturally flowing thermal springs on the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain. Today, Bathhouse Row is located right in the heart of Hot Springs’ Historic Downtown District. Begin your visit with a stop at the opulently restored Fordyce Bathhouse to experience an era when Hot Springs literally “bathed the world.” Learn where the thermal waters come from, how they are used and how the federal government protects the 700,000 gallons of thermal water that gushes uninterrupted from the earth every day.

Fort Smith
This scrappy town near the Oklahoma border grew up around the area’s first frontier fort, which was established in 1817 to promote peace between warring Indian tribes of the Osage and Cherokee. The city’s official tourism information office, Miss Laura’s Visitors’ Center, is located in a renovated century-old brothel.  Remains of the first fort are within the Fort Smith National Historic Site where visitors learn the history of the Trail of Tears and find out about the Civil War in Arkansas. Exhibits of early regional history, plus an old fashioned drug store with working soda fountain, are in the Fort Smith Museum of History.