April 23, 2002
Railroads and Royalty Part of Wilhelmina's Past
By Jay Harrod
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Arkansas's 14th state park, Queen Wilhelmina, lies 2,681 feet above sea level, atop the state's second highest peak. The park boasts cooler summer temperatures, unique flora, abundant wildlife viewing opportunities, hiking trails, improved campsites and a graceful 38-room lodge with a year-round restaurant affording panoramic views of the surrounding Ouachita Mountains.
Queen Wilhelmina. The name alone invites questions of the past, and the answers that make up the story are as intriguing as the unusual name itself.
As late as 1886, bustling Kansas City had no rail access to the Gulf of Mexico. Into the picture steps Arthur Stilwell, a New York native and young businessman whose vision was to link the agriculture-dependent city and a major seaport for financial growth through increased exports.
As president of the Kansas, Pittsburgh and Gulf Railroad, Stilwell -- a gifted promoter -- traveled to Europe in the midst of a domestic economic crisis in an effort to raise investments. In Holland, Stilwell called upon an acquaintance he'd met on a previous vacation. Stilwell convinced his friend to support the rail-constructing efforts in America, and together, the two promoted the selling of bonds which resulted in funds sufficient to meet the needs of the railroad.
But other obstacles still stood between Stilwell and his dream. Namely Arkansas's Ouachita Mountains, which run east and west and made difficult the task of surveying for the rail line which was to run north and south. "It ended up there's a little pass between Blackfork Mountain and Rich Mountain," said Brad Holleman, interpreter at Queen Wilhelmina State Park. "While surveying, the Railroad's principle surveyor suggested a lodge be constructed on top of Rich Mountain."
Rising nearly 2,700 feat above sea level, Rich Mountain provided something uncommon to summers in the South -- cooler temperatures. "Air conditioning wasn't invented at the time, and there were lots of wealthy people who sought relief from the heat wherever they could find it," Holleman said. "So the railroad company built a lodge, which was completed in 1898 and cost about $100,000 to build."
Because the railroad was primarily funded with Dutch investments, Stilwell named the impressive lodge, "Wilhelmina Inn" in honor of Holland's queen. The inn even had a suite for Queen Wilhelmina, and it was hoped she would someday pay the resort a visit, which she never did.
Built for the most affluent people of the day, the new lodge "had all the finest china and a dining room that could seat 300 people," Holleman said. "They actually brought in orchestras to entertain on certain occasions. It was very nice."
In 1962, LaVerne McCurry, a Texarkana native who'd spent several summers at the resort during the late 1890s, was asked to document her memories of the lodge. Later the Mena Star published her account, which included the following descriptions:
The native stones provided the huge foundations, the two fireplaces in the large dining room and the lobby where the six-foot logs blazed nightly for the comfort of the guests. The second floor was built of solid wood, with heavy gray painted canvas stretched over it and then criss-crossed by heavy timbers painted brown, simulating English style architecture. This floor provided for about 35 bedrooms and several bathrooms. The third story provided quarters for the waiters, maids, cooks and caretakers.
McCurry also wrote of a botany teacher who'd take children on "field trips identifying trees and shrubs," noting the group found more than 35 different "classifications." Reading McCurry's account, Holleman said he likes to think the state parks' modern interpretive program got its start at Queen Wilhelmina.
During the years in which McCurry visited Wilhelmina Inn, the resort was very successful. But By the late 1890s, hard times had fallen upon the railroad and effected the resort, according to Holleman. "Arthur Stillwell was a much better promoter than manager. They didn't have enough money to get the trains moving -- get the freight moving to pay off the interest on the debt. They went under and all of the management was ousted, including Stillwell. Another management group took over, but they weren't interested in operating the lodge."
Without the connection to the railroad, operating the lodge at a profit was virtually impossible. "In the early 1900s, the only transportation to the lodge was the train," Holleman said.
After 1900, the property was bought and sold numerous times, and during one ownership, almost all of the fine furnishings and china in the lodge were auctioned, which Holleman believes was the "final nail in the coffin." Wilhelmina Inn closed for good in 1910, and by the 1930s the once-majestic structure was in complete ruins.
The land surrounding the hotel was parceled and sold, and like the hotel continued to change hands until the 1950s when a group from Mena purchased the property. The group consisted of several state senators, including Senator Roy Riales, who in 1957 authored the resolution creating Queen Wilhelmina State Park.
Two years later, ruins of the original hotel were used to create a new lodge and restaurant for the state park atop Rich Mountain. The café was completed and opened in 1961, and the 17-room lodge was officially dedicated June 22, 1963, exactly 65 years after the first inn opened.
Like the original, the new state-owned lodge quickly became a popular tourist attraction. But in 1973, bad luck again befell the resort. In the pre-dawn hours of a November morning, a fire started in kitchen, and though all 29 guests and staff escaped without harm, the blaze destroyed the entire hotel. Not long after the fire, a modern 38-room lodge modeled after the 1898 inn was built on the same site and remains today.
Although the lodge has been rebuilt twice, Holleman said the success of the resort has never hinged on the facilities. "I always like to tell people that even though many things change, some things stay the same. And people have always enjoyed scenic vistas. Certain things people have always valued."
The railroad still runs between Rich and Blackfork mountains, though patrons no longer use the rail to travel to Queen Wilhelmina. Today people in cars zip up the Talimena Scenic Byway overlooking deep valleys of the Ouachita Mountains on their way to the "Castle in the Sky," where the air is cooler and scenic views have and will continue to draw the human spirit.
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"