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The mid-1800s was a critical time in Arkansas and the United States. Westward expansion was at its peak and as the frontier settled, the need for transportation and trade from the east to the west and back again increased. Steamboats and the river were Arkansas’s most reliable transportation and trade sources. Jacksonport became a rising star in the industry thanks to both its location at the confluence of the White and Black Rivers and the discovery of a hidden treasure beneath their waters.
Grace Kelly wasn’t wrong when she said, “the Pearl is the Queen of gems.” Pearls have worldwide history and appeal, but the pearl necklace is a time-honored symbol of southern gentility. The discovery of pearls and mother-of-pearl in several Northeast Arkansas rivers caused a pearl rush with Jacksonport right in the middle.
The pearl trade and the bustling steamboat business had Jacksonport seemingly poised for greatness. As we all know, change can be difficult, but the refusal of Jacksonport’s citizens to embrace change led to its eventual demise.
The railroad industry was rising to the top of trade and travel, pushing out the steamboat because of its ability to cross plains and mountains and, most importantly, reach the west. The railroad quickly expanded throughout Arkansas, and Jacksonport was on the shortlist for the rails. Citizens of Jacksonport, fearing the noise and the mess that rolled in with the trains and feared that it would push out the river industry fought tooth and nail to decline the railroad.
In what seemed like a win, the railroad was diverted to the nearby city of Newport. In an unfortunate twist of fate, changes to the river bottoms brought about by the constant dredging for the pearl-containing freshwater mussels also brought problems, including flow issues and sandbars. Boats began to have difficulty navigating the water. Arkansas was also believed to be home to one of the world’s largest populations of freshwater mussels, but greedy and overzealous pearl traders quickly depleted the habitat.
River and pearl trade quickly faded, the railroad became king, and Jacksonport became a memory now preserved as a state park.
The park serves as a memorial to the Jacksonport river community and tells the story of river and rail, pearl and button. Native Americans, French hunters and fur traders, riverboat captains, Civil War soldiers and everyday families just trying to find their place in this world have trod the banks of the White and Black rivers in Jacksonport. All have left their marks which are expertly preserved and retold through the park’s exhibits.
Jacksonport State Park offers camping, finishing, boating, swimming and more. The park is open year-round, but spring flooding may close the campground and swim beach sections. Be sure to bring your bug spray when visiting in late summer, as the mosquito may just be the park’s mascot.
Highlights of the park include the two-story brick and limestone courthouse completed in 1872 and the state-of-the-art visitors center, which opened in 2019. New and old come together, and visitors can view displays highlighting the town’s heyday and unique past.
Like most of Arkansas’s State Parks, Jacksonport offers a variety of interpretive programs, from pearl-stringing workshops to Dutch oven cooking demonstrations. One of the most heralded programs is Justice In Jacksonport. This mock trial event includes a catered supper, and guests participate in the trial, playing the roles of the defendant, witnesses, lawyers, and jurors, deciding the fate of a historical trial that was once brought to justice within the courthouse walls.
A trial based on actual scandalous events tried at the Jackson County courthouse in Jacksonport in the fall of 1885. The trial will be conducted in the same courtroom where it was originally held. After enjoying a catered supper, audience members will take part in a living history drama to determine the fate of Mrs. Hott. Who was the guilty party? Only the members of the jury will decide.
RSVP by calling the park. The deadline for this event is Feb. 6, 2023, or you can visit their calendar for information on future events.
Jacksonport State Park is located at 111 Avenue St. in Newport. Call the park at 870-523-2143 or visit them online.
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