Old-time Northwest Arkansas resorts remembered
Today we naturally think of our northwest Arkansas area as a tourist attraction, a good place for people from all over to come for vacations. Especially since the forming of the great Beaver Lake, our area has been promoted as a fine place for water-based recreation, fishing, boating, sight-seeing and so on. It may not be quite so well known that even in the “old” days, this area attracted many summer visitors, vacationers, and people who kept summer homes.
One of the most prominent of our resort areas in the years before the Great Depression was what we now call Old Bella Vista.
My mother was a native of the Bentonville area, born in 1916. She remembered visiting Bella Vista area as a girl, usually in the company of her grandmother. Mrs. Dunaway was an enterprising person who carried the U.S. mail from Bentonville to outlying small communities such as old Rago. She also had an “egg route” on which my mother would ride with her as she traveled about by horse and buggy selling eggs to her acquaintances and friends. My mom used to tell stories of their riding through the old 1920s Bella Vista, and seeing the “fine” people from New York and other big cities who vacationed there in summer cabins in the hills. Many of the visitors were quite wealthy, as seen in their long, grand Packard automobiles and other distinguished luxury cars.
The most visible part of old Bella Vista lay along U.S. Hwy. 71 North, beginning where today’s Benton County 40 (McNelly Road) intersects with U.S. Hwy. 71 north of Bentonville. Some may know that our Little Sugar Creek, which runs by our golf course in south Pea Ridge, continues its westward flow until feeder streams such as Spanker Creek and Ford Creek empty into it near U.S. 71.
We currently have somewhat of a controversy going on about Old Bella Vista’s lake, as to whether the dam which created the lake should be rebuilt, or if Little Sugar Creek should be returned to a natural state in old Bella Vista. I won’t try to take a position on that question, but with or without the lake, Bella Vista was a major attraction for visitors from far places in days gone by. One of the major attractions in Bella Vista, well before Cooper Enterprises began developing the Bella Vista which we know today, was the Wonderland Cave sadly now closed. The cave was an attraction even in the early decades of my life, the 1940s and 1950s. Also, the Sunset Hotel, located on top of the hill above old Bella Vista was one of the finer hotels in our area in its heyday. The Great Depression pretty much brought about the demise of the early Bella Vista resort, but even today, as you drive U.S. 71 north toward Missouri, you can see some of the old summer cabins set into the hillside on the west side of the road.
Another of our prominent resort areas in earlier years was Eureka Springs. Eureka is still a tourist town today, of course, but with somewhat different attractions as compared to the years ago. In earlier days, the main attractions were the springs themselves, and the health benefits believed to derive from the wonderful spring water. There was a time when public interest in seeking health renewal through drinking pure spring water was very strong. Like Hot Springs, in mid-Arkansas, Eureka Springs attracted visitors from all around the country. Although those days were before the real advance of the automobile, ready access by train was a real asset to Eureka Springs in bringing in the tourists.
The Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad in those days made its way across central and northwest Arkansas, running from the Mississippi River town of Helena, and across the state through towns such as Searcy, St. Joe, Harrison, Green Forest, Eureka Springs and Beaver, finally intersecting with the Frisco Railroad at Seligman, Mo. This made traveling to Eureka Springs relatively easy from almost anywhere in the country, at least if the M&NA was not disabled by a derailment or a bridge washout. M&NA stood for the Missouri and North Arkansas, but many people called it “the May Never Arrive.” Of course, many people visited Eureka Springs by car. My mother told many stories of driving to Eureka Springs in the family’s Model T Ford. My Grandpa Clement was never a very good driver, and often killed the T’s engine when pulling hills on the way. My Mom said there were many times when they had to jump out, scotch the wheels, and then push the Model T to get going after Grandpa cranked ‘er up again.
Still closer to Pea Ridge was the Park Springs Hotel in Bentonville, a beautiful hotel about seven or eight blocks north of West Central Avenue. Park Springs also advertised the health benefits of its spring water, its baths, and its beautiful, restful gardens.. For some years, shortly before 1920, a special railroad unit, known as the Interurban, provided passenger service from Rogers to Park Springs in Bentonville. The Interurban rail car picked up passengers at the Rogers Depot on the Frisco line, and followed the Frisco’s spur line into Bentonville, making a turn northward on rails down the center of Southwest A Street, and continued on Northwest A to the Hotel in the north part of town. One can still identify the location of the old Park Springs Hotel site, but the area today is mostly occupied by new houses.