A Lodging Legacy at Queen Wilhelmina State Park
The beginning of this lodging tradition high atop Arkansas's second highest mountain is rooted in the 1890s when railroad expansion was big business in this country. Arthur Stilwell, vice president of the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (KCP&G), decided to build the first north-south railroad, a route 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 inevitably the Ouachita Mountains, the southernmost of the state's two mountain ranges. During the routing of the tracks through the valleys of the rugged Ouachitas, a flat area near the top of 2,681-foot Rich Mountain was discovered. This windswept, mountaintop location was brought to the attention of the investors of the KCP&G, many of whom were Dutch, as a site to build a resort retreat featuring a grand hostelry to entice railroad patrons to travel the rails.
The luxurious hostelry of Victorian splendor was constructed of native stone and timber at a cost of $100,000. Illuminated by carbide lights, the inn made for a glorious site as carriages 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 dining room which, when converted to a ballroom, seated 300 people.
Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was to be crowned in September 1898. Since the railroad was largely financed by Dutch interest, the magnificent resort retreat for passengers on the line was called "Wilhelmina Inn" to honor the young queen. A suite of rooms was located in the southeast corner of the second floor and named for Wilhelmina in the vain hope she would visit.
The grand opening was June 22, 1898. Soon, Wilhelmina Inn became known as the "Castle in the Sky." The grandeur of this mountaintop inn with its breathtaking scenery, fine accommodations, and exquisite service, however, was to last only a few short years. Less than three years after the inn's opening, the KCP&G, 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. The photograph below shows sheep standing in what was once the grand ballroom where elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen danced.
By the 1930s, only remnants of the original structure's stone fences and fireplaces remained, standing as stark silhouettes against the sky. 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 good, but unfortunately the timing 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 renewal 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 create a new Arkansas state park on the site where Wilhelmina Inn once reigned over the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. 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 contained 17 guest rooms and a restaurant. Gracing the same site as the first inn, the second structure was built with some of the rockwork still remaining from its predecessor. Operated for 10 years by the State of Arkansas, the facility was a popular travel attraction until the evening of November 10, 1973, when a fire that began in the kitchen area destroyed it. There was no loss of life, but the building was totally destroyed.
To carry on the lodging tradition atop 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. Today, this lodge is the crowning attraction of Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Currently closed while undergoing a major renovation, the lodge will reopen in spring 2014. Within walking distance of the lodge are the park's campground with 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 high atop 2,681-foot Rich Mountain, Arkansas's second highest peak.
For more 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.