View Travel Guide Request Info

Fort Smith: Where the New South Meets the Old West

Article follows the photos. Click on a thumbnail to view and download a high-resolution version of the image. Due to the large file size of the high-res images, they may take a few minutes to appear. You must be logged in to view the high-res images.

Ft. Smith Arts Center
Ft. Smith Arts Center
    Ft. Smith National Historic Site
Ft. Smith National Historic Site
Miss Laura's, Ft. Smith
Miss Laura's, Ft. Smith
    Ft. Smith National Cemetery
Ft. Smith National Cemetery
October 31, 2003

Fort Smith: Where the New South Meets the Old West
By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Fort Smith is a city of convergence. Its history began with a fort built in 1817 at Belle Point, where the Poteau and Arkansas rivers join. During the Civil War, soldiers of the North met those of the South here with devastating results. Later, federal marshals rode out of the town -- and out of the United States -- and into Indian Territory; and the outlaws they apprehended collided with "Hangin' Judge" Isaac Parker.

Today, Fort Smith fittingly bills itself as the place "where the New South meets the Old West." From its military beginnings on the western edge of U.S. territory, the city has grown into a meetinghouse for the past, present and future with its well-preserved frontier spirit, its establishment of contemporary arts and entertainment venues, and its thriving community that is building for the future.

Located on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border and near the junction of Interstates 40 and 540, the city is easily accessible to travelers, vacationers, business groups and tour coaches. Arkansas's second-largest city, Fort Smith has 34 motels and hotels, as well as bed and breakfast inns, that cater to every budget and lifestyle.

History and Heritage

Located downtown, the Fort Smith National Historic Site embraces the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The site also commemorates a significant phase of America's westward expansion and stands as a reminder of 80 turbulent years in the history of federal Indian policy.

The building that houses the visitors center and museum was completed in the 1840s and was first used as barracks by U.S. soldiers sent to maintain peace between Native American tribes that were relocated into the Indian Territory.

The center, which recently underwent a $7.5-million renovation, contains a bookstore, 50-seat auditorium and exhibit areas that focus on Fort Smith's military history from 1817 to 1871, Judge Parker and the federal court's impact on Indian Territory, and U.S. Deputy Marshals and outlaws. The original "Hell on the Border" jail, notorious for its dark and dank conditions, is in the basement. In the main exhibit area stands a partial, full-sized replica of the 1888 jail, where visitors can step into one of the cells and view a 15-minute video.

From his courtroom, which today contains reproduction 1880s furnishings, Judge Parker sentenced more people to hang than any other judge in American history (160), and 79 of those he sentenced met their fate at the end of a rope. Next to the courthouse stand the gallows, which are a reconstruction of the one used during Parker's time.

A block from the historic site is the Fort Smith Museum of History, which has exhibits that cover a wide range of the city's past -- from life on the frontier and the Civil War to World War I and the Great Depression. The museum also houses an old-time working soda fountain, antique vehicles, toys and hundreds of vintage photos.

Located downtown in the 22-block Belle Grove Historic District, Miss Laura's serves as the city's tourist information center. The restored baroque Victorian home, built in 1900, is the only former bordello listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But Claud Legris, executive director for the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, will tell visitors -- with a smile -- not to expect any "original hospitality" at Miss Laura's. In addition to information about the city, the center has exhibits and vintage photos that shed light on the lives the "working girls" led.

Next to the historic site, the Fort Smith Trolley Museum offers rides on a restored 1926 electric streetcar. It makes half-mile runs between Fort Smith's Garrison Avenue and the U.S. National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers -- and Judge Parker -- are buried.

Since the Belle Grove Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, nearly 25 homes spanning 130 years and representing a variety of architectural styles have been restored -- and about half a dozen are open for tours. Visitors to the district can experience fine dining at the Romanesque-Victorian-style J.M. Sparks home (ca. 1887), which houses Taliano's Italian Restaurant.

Arts and Entertainment

As its slogan proclaims, Fort Smith is as much "New South" as "Old West." The city features a diverse range of food and dining atmospheres at more than 200 restaurants and shopping opportunities at local boutiques, small shopping centers and the one-million-square-foot Central Mall.

Nightlife in Fort Smith is anchored by Garrison Avenue, which is lined with restaurants and bars featuring live music. "There are restaurants everywhere," Legris said. "There is a wide range of Asian, Cuban, Mexican and other multi-cultural restaurants that are locally owned."

Entertainment options at Fort Smith include more than diverse dining opportunities and live music at small venues, though. Scheduled to perform with the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra during its 2004 season is Diane Schuur, a two-time Grammy Award winning jazz musician, as well as other noted guest musicians.

Familiar and contemporary musicals, comedies and dramas are produced at the Fort Smith Little Theatre, which is the oldest all-volunteer theater group in Arkansas. And the Fort Smith Art Center, housed in a gracious Victorian Second Empire-style home built in 1857, contains fine paintings, sculptures and permanent and changing art exhibits. Its gift gallery features area artists' works.

Events and Festivals

The Fort Smith River Park Amphitheater, located along the banks of the Arkansas River, hosts numerous events each year, and several of these, as well as events at other city locations, have become traditions anticipated by residents and visitors.

Begun in the mid-1930s, the Old Fort Days Rodeo and Barrel Racing Futurity is a 10-day rodeo that starts on Memorial Day and draws competitors and spectators from across the country. Another Memorial Day event is Tales of the Crypt at Oak Cemetery, where actors in period clothing bring to life the stories of individuals buried at the cemetery.

In September the city celebrates with the Riverfront Blues Festival and the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair, a 10-day event and one of the largest two-state fairs in the nation. The Old Fort Riverfest, which takes place in June, includes three days of food, fun, arts and crafts and activities. Frontier Fest takes place in late October and attracts Wild West re-enactors and historical exhibits.

A complete listing of the city's special events can be found at

Outdoors and Sports

Green spaces at Fort Smith include Creekmore Park has a new tennis center and large swimming pool, and -- for generations -- adults and children have enjoyed riding the park's kid-size trains.

"Along the Arkansas River [on the levy] there is a new running and biking trail about three miles long, and the city is working on expanding that little by little," Legris added.

ATV enthusiasts can enjoy their sport at Twin City ATV Park, which has miles of trails on 300 acres. The trails feature sand dunes by the Arkansas River, about 100 acres of forested land and plenty of muddy, sandy areas to play in after rains.

The Arkansas River Navigation System affords those visiting Fort Smith many fishing opportunities. The system has created scores of quiet inlets filled with fish native to Arkansas, including largemouth bass.

And Fort Smith is well known among the state's birdwatchers. Because of its warm climate, abundant water, varied terrain and nearness to the migratory flyways, the area attracts all sorts of birds and waterfowl.

Not to Miss Near Fort Smith

Just across the Arkansas River, Van Buren's historic downtown district comprises six-blocks filled with art galleries, antique shops and restaurants. At Van Buren's restored train depot, visitors can also board restored turn-of-the-century passenger cars on the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad for half- or full-day roundtrip excursions through the Ozark Mountains.

Approximately 45 miles from Fort Smith via U.S. Interstate 40, is Arkansas's Wine Country. Four wineries around the small, scenic town of Altus offer free tours, wine tastings and special events. Visitors to the area can also dine at one of several restaurants in Altus or learn more about the region's coal mining history at the town's Heritage House Museum.

List of Attractions

* Fort Smith National Historic Site -- Third Street and Rogers Avenue, (479) 783-3961,
* Fort Smith Museum of History -- 320 Rogers Ave., (479) 783-7841,
* Miss Laura’s Visitors Center -- 2 North "B" St., (479) 783-8888 or 800-637-1477,
* Fort Smith Trolley Museum -- 100 S. Fourth St., (479) 783-0205 or (479) 783-1237,
* J.M. Sparks Home -- Houses Taliano's Italian Restaurant, 201 N. 14th St., (479) 783-2292
* Fort Smith Art Center -- 423 N. Sixth St., (479) 784-ARTS
* Fort Smith Little Theatre -- 401 N. Sixth St., (479) 783-2966,
* The Fort Smith Symphony -- (479) 452-7575,
* A&M Scenic Railroad -- 1-800-687-8600,
* Ben Geren Regional Park -- 7200 S. Zero Ave., (479) 784-2368,
* Creekmore Park -- Rogers Avenue and S. 31st St., (479) 784-2368,
* Twin City ATV Park -- 5700 Midland Boulevard, (479) 629-2565. (The park does not rent ATVs.)
* Van Buren Downtown Historic District -- Six block area along Main Street, 800-332-5889,
* Arkansas Wine Country --


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)
Copyright © 2018 Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. - Web Services by Aristotle Web Design
The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism is in compliance with the Freedom of Information, Ar. Code Ann., 25-19-101 et seq.