Budget-friendly road trip: Historic Helena
Helena is one of the oldest towns in Arkansas – incorporated three years before Arkansas became a state. Because of its proximity to the Mississippi, Helena became a busy river town in the early 1800s. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described Helena as occupying “one of the prettiest situations on the Mississippi.” Your first stop should be the Arkansas Welcome Center in Helena-West Helena, where you can grab a free cup of coffee, meet with the knowledgeable staff and get information on driving tours, attractions, restaurants and more.
During the Civil War, Helena held a prime strategic location – between Memphis and Vicksburg, along the banks of the Mississippi River. On July 4, 1863, Union and Confederate troops clashed over the coveted waterway. By days end, nearly 2,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. The Battle of Helena secured the Union stronghold on the river and proved to be the last major Confederate offensive in Arkansas.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the city grew into a vibrant blues community. Helena became a stop for traveling musicians. Today, historic Helena is home to the longest running blues radio show in the world, King Biscuit Time, which helped spark the careers of many musicians, including B.B. King, who listened to the broadcast while he picked cotton in Mississippi. In a nod to the historic radio show, the King Biscuit Blues Festival began in 1986 and has become one of the most well-known blues festivals in the world, bringing thousands of blues fans world wide to the Arkansas Delta town each October.
Helena is the only downtown on the Mississippi River for the 300 miles between Memphis and Vicksburg. The Helena River Park is home to a boardwalk that takes visitors right to the edge of the river and features interpretive panels that explain some of the local ecosystem and the town’s history.
Helena is home to Freedom Park, an interpretive area of Helena’s Civil War story. Once the location of a Contraband camp, this park is dedicated to interpreting the African American experience during the war. The five exhibits feature life-sized figures and sculptures, and structures representing a plantation house and a refugee dwelling. Freedom Park is the first location in Arkansas designated as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site.
Visitors won’t want to miss the Delta Cultural Center, an award-winning state museum dedicated to preserving, interpreting and presenting the cultural heritage of a twenty-seven-county region. The museum and educational complex tells the story of a land and its people, capturing what makes the Arkansas Delta region unique. The facility is an official interpretive center of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway and is situated four blocks south of the historic road.
The Delta Cultural Center opened in 1990 with a single building – The Depot. It has grown over the past twenty-five years to include multiple properties and an impressive collection. Just one block from The Depot museum, the Delta Cultural Center Visitors Center is home to King Biscuit Time, the longest running Blues radio broadcast in the world. Visitors can experience the one-of-a-kind live radio broadcast weekdays from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m.