A Lodging Tradition at Queen Wilhelmina State Park
The beginning of this lodging tradition on 2,681-foot Rich Mountain, Arkansas's second highest mountain, is rooted in the 1890s. Arthur Stilwell, vice president of the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (KCPG), decided to build the first north-south railroad, a route stretching from Kansas City, Missouri to Port Arthur, Texas, to provide rail access to the Gulf of Mexico. This brought the railroad's route through Arkansas, and into the Ouachita Mountains, the southernmost of the state's two mountain ranges. During the routing of the tracks through the valleys of the rugged east-west trending mountains, a flat area near the top of Rich Mountain was discovered. Tradition has it that the mountain derived its name from the richness of its foliage growth and the fertility of the soil. This windswept location with panoramic views was brought to the attention of the investors of the KCPG, many of whom were Dutch, as a site to build a resort retreat featuring a grand hostelry to entice railroad passengers from the North and South to travel the rails and help build up traffic.
The railroad spared no expense in constructing the luxurious hostelry of Victorian splendor. Constructed of native stone and timber at a cost of $100,000, the inn was illuminated by carbide lights, making it a glorious site as wagons pulled by draft mules topped Rich Mountain from the train stop at the base of mountain's north side. Thirty-five guest rooms graced the second floor, with at least four water closets to serve the guests. Maids and cooks were housed above on the third floor. The glorious first floor was the place to socialize. An especially beautiful setting was the 300-seat dining room which could be converted to a ballroom.
The young Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was to be crowned in September 1898. Since the railroad was largely financed by Dutch investors, and to give it a touch of grandeur, the mountain resort retreat for passengers on the line was called Wilhelmina Inn to honor the new queen. The company reserved a suite of rooms located in the southeast corner of the second floor for the queen in vain hope she would choose to visit, something she never did.
The grand opening was held on June 22, 1898. The luxury accommodations earned the inn the title of "Castle in the Sky." The grandeur of this mountain inn with its sweeping views, fine accommodations, and exquisite service lasted only a few short years. Less than three years after the inn's opening, the KCPG, facing enormous financial troubles, was sold to what is now the Kansas City Southern Railroad. With the new owners in place, the inn was abandoned by its former owners to languish into disrepair. Although the inn did not close permanently until 1910, its heyday had quickly come to an end. The building soon fell into decay.
Though the construction of the regal lodge was solid, years of non-use, coupled with the elements atop Rich Mountain, took their toll on the vacant building. By the 1930s, only remnants of the original structure's stone fences and fireplaces remained, standing as stark silhouettes against the sky. The old rock wall that served as part of the reservoir for the original 1898 inn can still be found on the side of the mountain on the park's Reservoir Trail.
The year 1940 brought a brief respite and renewed hope for the desolate remains. Earnest Rolston, a professor from Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, decided to create a summer music school using a portion of the inn. The idea was a good one, but the timing of it was not. The beginning of World War II in 1941 ended any further attempt to restore the ruins.
After the decade of the 40s, the 1950s brought a new opportunity into sight. The war years had brought travel awareness to the many men and women who had served in the Armed Forces. The birth of America's travel and tourism industry was on the horizon. In light of this, State Senator Landers Morrow and other community leaders created Resolution 17 to establish a new Arkansas state park on the site where the Wilhelmina Inn once graced Rich Mountain. Act 76 was passed by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1957. Plans were soon underway to construct a new state park lodge on the site of the original inn.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the second inn opened its doors on June 22, 1963. Although less grand than the original hostelry, this lodge featured 17 guest rooms and a restaurant. Gracing the same site as the first inn, this second structure was built with some of the rockwork from the ruins of its predecessor. Operated for 10 years by the state of Arkansas, the lodge was a popular travel attraction until the evening of November 10, 1973, when it was destroyed by a fire that began in the kitchen area. There was no loss of life, but the building was a total loss.
To carry on the lodging tradition here on Rich Mountain, Arkansas State Parks lost no time in constructing a new lodge on the same site. The $3 million state park lodge opened in 1975. This lodge is the crowning attraction of Queen Wilhelmina State Park. The lodge has recently undergone a $9.6 million renovation and expansion, and it will reopen on July 1, 2015. This applies to the entire lodge, including the restaurant.
All other facilities in the park are open. Within walking distance of the lodge are the park's campground featuring 41 sites and a modern bathhouse, a playground, the park amphitheater, and hiking trails. Open seasonally are a miniature train and mini-golf course (admission fees apply).
Queen Wilhelmina State Park is a cloud-capped hideaway wrapped in the cool mountain breezes of summer or the blaze of fall colors in autumn. It is a winter wonderland or the magic of spring. Come experience the panoramic scenery at this Arkansas getaway gracing 2,681-foot Rich Mountain, Arkansas's second highest peak.
For more details on the history of Queen Wilhelmina State Park or the history of the Arkansas state park system, go to our Interactive History Timeline. Plan an unforgettable vacation in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas.