Editor’s note: This is part 2 in a two-part series. Part 1 appeared March 6 in Style, see arkansasonline.com/313part.
Hiram Whittington died in 1890, but his legacy is still very much alive in the northwestern part of Hot Springs. For instance, an avenue, a historic district, a park and a creek bear his name.
March 6, we touched on some of his earliest years in Arkansas, beginning in 1826, when he toiled as a printer for the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock. Then we looked at his move to Hot Springs for health reasons and some of his contributions to the development of his adopted hometown (see the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas essay about his life here: arkansasonline.com/313eoa).
Today, we'll do a little sightseeing along Whittington Avenue, taking in the historic district and its environs. We also will offer a tidbit that might surprise you about his connection with Mount Ida, county seat of Montgomery County.
We approach Whittington via Central Avenue, coming through downtown on a Saturday afternoon. Despite the cool weather and overcast skies, Bathhouse Row is crowded with tourists. On our right is the Arlington Hotel, and in the next block we start looking for our turn. We see a fountain in the middle of an intersection and hang a left there onto Whittington Avenue.
Glancing to the right we see a knoll where Whittington's home, known as the Magnolia House, once stood. It was demolished to make way for an annex of the Majestic Hotel, which burned in 2014 and was leveled. All we see now are a few traces of the hotel property, including a jagged retaining wall and some steps.
We check out the knoll, then spot a nearby historical marker related to Hot Springs' years as a Major League Baseball spring training site.
The marker says the hotel, built in 1902, was a favorite of major league teams, including the Boston Red Sox. A post supporting the marker has a small sign with a QR code and a phone number for an audio tour. I call the number and learn that teams first came to Hot Springs for spring training in 1886.
Hot Springs is peppered with such markers, erected by the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, along what's called the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail.
Quite a few such markers can be found alongside or near Whittington Avenue. In fact, we find two more in the avenue's 100 block.
One marker tells us about Stan Musial, the Hall of Famer who played 22 seasons in the major leagues: "Stan would come with his St. Louis Cardinals teammates and owner August Busch to take the baths, and enjoy the races at Oaklawn Park."
The other tells about Al Simmons. "When illness threatened to end his Hall of Fame career prematurely in 1928, Al Simmons came to Hot Springs to take the baths and hike the mountain trails. The visit worked wonders, and, encouraged by legendary [Philadelphia] Athletics' manager Connie Mack, 'Bucketfoot Al' returned many times."
The marker adds that on March 15, 1931, Simmons hit three home runs at Whittington Park ballpark.
Alas, that ball field is no more. It closed in 1942. Now it's mainly an asphalt parking lot, situated on the west side of the Weyerhaeuser Co. corporate offices in the 800 block of Whittington.
A replica of a home plate can be found amidst the asphalt. A marker states: "More baseball was played in the ballpark on this corner than anywhere else in Hot Springs." Among the baseball greats mentioned on the marker are Cy Young, Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth.
A marker dedicated to one of Ruth's achievements can be found outside the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo, which sits across Whittington from the former ballpark. "On March 17, 1918 (St. Patrick's Day), he launched a mammoth home run from Whittington Park that landed on the fly inside the Arkansas Alligator Farm. It has been measured at 573 feet, baseball's first 500-foot-plus drive."
Sadly, it was about this time that spring training began to wane in Hot Springs. By the 1940s, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, most teams had moved to Arizona, California and Florida.
The alligator farm, founded in 1902, is a reminder of this part of town's heyday as a tourist destination. Among many other things, folks could visit the Ostrich Farm, where ostriches were trained to race on a quarter-mile track with jockeys aboard, and they could go to the Whittington Amusement Park, which had a roller coaster. The ostriches were sold off by 1933, but the business operated as a small zoo until 1953. The amusement park also closed in the 1950s.
We are tempted to check out the alligator farm, but the day is cold and drizzly, and it is getting late. We hear goats bleating and other petting zoo sounds, but we decide that maybe it would be best to come back on a warm, spring day and bring the grandkids.
We head back east to the other Whittington Park, the one the federal government began building in the late 1890s, and check out the surrounding historic district. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, the district encompasses the 300 through 700 blocks of Whittington Avenue, plus a block and a half of Sabie Street, which parallels Whittington to the north.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the district features buildings dating to the late 1800s. "It held an important place in the growth of Hot Springs as a health resort, while also reflecting the contributions of African-Americans to the area's health resort industry and serving as an exemplar of a successful racially diverse, working-class neighborhood."
[Gallery not showing? Click here to see photos: arkansasonline.com/36hiram]
The Encyclopedia further notes: "After the ostrich farm closed in 1953, the Whittington Park Historic District settled into life as a pleasant neighborhood around its signature greenspace."
I can attest to the pleasantness of the neighborhood. In two recent trips, I walked along a path that makes a 1.2-mile loop around the park. It was a highly pleasurable, calming experience that I look forward to repeating.
BOSTON COMES SOUTH
Now for that Montgomery County connection: Hiram was a one-person chamber of commerce in touting the benefits of his new home to his brother, Granville, in Boston. "I cannot for the life of me see why the people of New England states do not emigrate more than they do. Here is plenty of good land at $1.25 per acre and the finest climate in all the world," Hiram wrote in a March 3, 1833, letter to his brother.
Hiram apparently was persuasive enough to entice his sibling to move. Granville settled in Montgomery County in 1835.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas says he established a farm across the south fork of the Ouachita River about a mile north of the Montgomery community, which served as the county seat. According to the encyclopedia, in 1837 he began operating a general store and in 1842 he opened a post office, naming it Mount Ida after a hill in the Boston area.
In the next several years, the county seat's name was changed a few times, alternating between Montgomery and Mount Ida, even briefly to Salem, but since October 1850 the name has remained Mount Ida.
Sonny Rhodes is a mostly retired journalism professor who likes to walk and visit historic places.
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