Asked to name the wildest place in Arkansas, many residents of this state would point to a spot in the Ozarks or Ouachita Mountains. I look to the lowlands, the remote country that makes up the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge. The land along the lower White River in southeast Arkansas is a maze of oxbow lakes, creeks, bayous, sloughs and swamps.
The refuge was established during the Great Depression in 1935 to protect migratory birds and endangered species. The 160,000 acres of wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests is the largest remaining tract of the famed Big Woods, which once stretched down both sides of the Mississippi River in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. There were 24 million forested acres in the Big Woods when European explorers first reached the area in the 1500s. There are now fewer than 5 million acres.
"The refuge stretches for about 90 miles along the lower White River, and its topography is varied," Sharon Yarbrough writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "It boasts 356 natural and man-made lakes consisting of 4,000 acres of water. Among its most important features are the Southern bottomland hardwood forests. Roughly 154,000 acres of the refuge are forested. The natural terrain attracts many kinds of birds, including migratory songbirds. Starting in the fall months and proceeding through the peak time in late December, birds continue to arrive. Up to 350,000 birds may spend the winter here.
"The refuge is home to almost two-thirds of the bird species found in Arkansas, many of which are part-time residents. Some of these include ducks, geese and swans as well as pelicans, loons, cormorants, wading birds, hawks, shorebirds, gulls, terns, doves, owls, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, warblers, buntings, finches and more. Another goal of the refuge is to protect endangered species living in the area and to preserve the natural diversity of life there."
Large numbers of alligators and black bears can be found in the refuge.
"While much of the Delta was claimed for agricultural purposes during the 19th century, other parts remained largely unsettled until late in the century when the population began to increase along the river," Yarbrough writes. "With the increase in population came an accompanying decrease in wildlife due to industry and hunting. With the establishment of the refuge, species and vegetation began to thrive again. There are native black bears and active bald eagle nests."
Bumpers' name was added to the refuge in 2014 in honor of his efforts to protect the natural environment of southeast Arkansas during his years as governor and U.S. senator. A visitors' center, which was constructed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at St. Charles in 2003, is a good starting point for those wanting to explore the refuge.
St. Charles also features a small but fascinating local museum. St. Charles had only 230 residents in the 2010 census, but it's a historic community.
"Fur trader Pierre Pertuis arrived after purchasing a 1797 Spanish land grant," Glenn Mosenthin writes for the Grand Prairie Historical Society. "By 1839, Charles W. Belknap owned the site, known briefly as Belknap's Bluff. He built an adobe house, one of just a few found on the Arkansas frontier. The house served as a hospital for both sides in the Civil War and was a longtime landmark.
"The name St. Charles first appears with Belknap's appointment as postmaster in 1850. He platted the town and began selling lots. St. Charles flourished during the 1850s with the shipping of products on the river."
During the Civil War, what was known at the time as the deadliest shot of the war was fired at St. Charles. A Union naval vessel known as the USS Mound City lost the majority of its crew on the White River. The ironclad had been constructed in August 1861 under the supervision of James Buchanan Eads and was named for Mound City, Ill. It weighed 512 tons and had a crew of 175 officers and sailors.
"On June 17, 1862, the Mound City participated in an attack against St. Charles," writes historian Robert Patrick Bender. "Struck in the steam drum, the Mound City had 105 of its sailors killed. An additional 45 crew members were reported wounded, primarily by scalding."
The Mound City's commander lost his left arm. The deadly shot lives on thanks to the St. Charles Battle Monument, which sits in the middle of the intersection of Arkansas and Broadway streets. It was erected in 1919. The monument was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 1996.
A United Daughters of the Confederacy publication once described the monument as "unusual in Arkansas in that it's one of two monuments in the state located in the middle of a road (the other is the Lake Village Confederate monument). It's unusual, perhaps unique, in the South, in that it was erected by a Northern man and commemorates the men of both sides of the encounter."
St. Charles remained a key port city until the railroads came to southeast Arkansas.
"Most commerce of inland communities passed through the town until the railroad reached DeWitt, after which St. Charles began declining," Mosenthin writes. "For years, its economy depended on timber, fishing, hunting, trapping, mussels for the button industry and crops. A school district opened in 1891."
A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established at St. Charles in July 1935 to help develop the wildlife refuge.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.