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Queen Wilhelmina State Park and Mena Yield Mountain Views, Intriguing History

Oct 15 2002 4:13PM
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May 19, 1998

Queen Wilhelmina State Park and Mena
Yield Mountain Views, Intriguing History

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

MENA -- By April's third week, the deciduous trees around Lake Wilhelmina are casting deep shade, while a mere six miles away the strangely stunted oaks around Queen Wilhelmina State Park are bare and only the blooms of dogwood, redbud and countless early wildflowers testify to spring's arrival.

A century ago this June, an elegant hostelry opened on the remote crest of Rich Mountain some 13 miles west of this western Arkansas town. Oddly, the new resort was named after the reigning queen of the Netherlands. It even had a suite set aside for the young monarch.

When it comes to quirks of nature and history, Rich Mountain, Arkansas's second tallest peak, is aptly named. Those abundant quirks make the state park atop it -- as well as the Mena area at its base -- an intriguing destination for an Arkansas vacation.

The park is situated on the Talimena Scenic Drive, a National Forest Byway that features six vista turn-outs in the 13 miles between its eastern terminus in Mena and the park. A $4 guidebook available at the drive's visitor center just west of Mena is a helpful aid to appreciate the mountain's scenery, environment and human history.

Open year-round, Queen Wilhelmina State Park caters to vacationers with a modern, 38-room lodge, a full-service restaurant, a gift shop, two meeting rooms, a lobby with wood-burning fireplace and campsites for RVs and tents. Two of the guest rooms include fireplaces.

Noting that the park is popular for family reunions and weddings, Park Superintendent Joyce Tinsley says: "Basically, the reason people come here is that it's a beautiful resort." Rich Mountain's fall foliage displays are spectacular, she adds.

The area's beauty can be experienced on a broad scale with views of the valleys and peaks of the surrounding Ouachita Mountains and more intimately by hiking one of the park's trails. In addition to a southern vista, the mile-long Lover's Leap Trail provides a forested walk where wildflowers abound from spring through fall. The park offers a free guide to its trails.

The park's tent campsites often accommodate backpackers hiking the 225-mile long Ouachita National Recreational Trail, which passes through the park on its route between Pinnacle Mountain State Park near Little Rock to Talimena State Park in Oklahoma.

While the park offers a "Romantic Rendezvous" package that includes lodging and meals, a miniature golf course, a miniature railway and a small animal park, open from April to November, provide opportunities for entertaining children.

Temperatures on the mountain can run as much as 10 degrees cooler than in lower, surrounding areas, according to park interpreter Brad Holleman. "The elevation tells the story here," he says.

That explains the mystery of why spring phenomena emerge earlier at Lake Wilhelmina than at the park. The lake sits at 1,000 feet above sea level, while Rich Mountain reaches 2,681 feet. The oaks near the mountain's crest, Holleman says, are stunted in large part because of wind and winter ice.

Tinsley says the elevation also means the park is sometimes shrouded by clouds and fog for extended periods.

Holleman is the author of "Mountain Memories," a 35-page, $2.50 booklet packed with fascinating details and photographs of the mountain's quirky history and environment. Included is information on the mountain's rock glaciers, on the park's unusually designed 1931 Wonder House, on the locomotive that now sits on the mountaintop where no tracks have ever run and on the complicated saga of how the 1898 lodge came to be named after a Dutch queen.

It happened like this:

In the late 1880s, Arthur Stillwell of Kansas City, a New York transplant, decided Kansas City needed rail line access to the Gulf of Mexico via Port Arthur, Texas.

An economic depression beginning in 1893 dried up capital needed for the railway. Stillwell, then a part owner of the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Gulf Railroad, traveled to Holland in 1894 seeking investors for the project.

His effort failing, he looked up Jan DeGeoijen, a coffee broker he had met on a previous trip to Europe. He won over DeGeoijen and in a few months the two managed to raise $3 million.

After Stillwell's return, the railroad work progressed southward to the Ouachitas, the tallest range in mid-America and one of a few of the Western Hemisphere's only mountains that run east-west, a particular problem for building a north-south railway.

The valley between Rich and Black Fork Mountains became the rail's route through the Ouachitas. At the eastern foot of Rich Mountain, where the railroad was able to resume its southern course, a "division" town (halfway between Kansas City and Port Arthur) was established on August 18, 1896. The town was named after DeGeoijen's wife, Mena.

To boost the railroad's passenger trade, Stillwell announced in 1897 that a resort would be built atop Rich Mountain offering cool air, springs, wildlife and scenic views. On June 22, 1898, the 35-room "Wilhelmina Inn," named after the queen of the Netherlands, opened. Its dining room with seating for 300 doubled as a ballroom where an orchestra entertained guests.

The lodge proved unsuccessful, however. Stillwell's railroad went into receivership and became the Kansas City Southern in 1900. By 1905, the lodge was raffled off as the prize in a $30-a-ticket lottery and by 1910 it was closed.

Today's state park lodge stands on the original site of the inn. A previous state park lodge that opened in 1963 was destroyed by fire 10 years later.

On June 21, the park will hold a centennial observance of the recreational use of Rich Mountain. Other special park events include a day camp for kids aged 7 to 12 to be held June 1-5 with a $35 registration fee; a July Fourth celebration featuring games, free watermelon and live music; and the 10th annual Mountainfest on August 7-9 with arts, crafts, games and live music.

For additional information on the park and its special events, write: Supt. Joyce Tinsley, Queen Wilhelmina State Park, 3877 Highway 88 West, Mena AR 71953 or phone (501) 394-2863. For lodge reservations, call toll free at 800 264-2477.

At the base of Rich Mountain, Mena has spread an exceptional welcome mat for visitors by using its restored Kansas City Southern Depot as a tourist information center. The depot is located at 514 Sherwood Avenue.

The depot, built in 1920, fell into disrepair after being closed in 1969. In 1985, volunteers, including the non-profit SouthWest Artists, Inc., started work on saving the building. It was deeded to the city in 1986 and reopened in July 1987, after restoration involving 7,500 hours of volunteer labor and $120,000 in donations.

The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also houses the Mena-Polk County Chamber of Commerce, art exhibits provided by SouthWest Artists, local history exhibits and railroad memorabilia.

Another Mena site on the Register is the 10-acre Janssen Park, in which the 1851 log cabin built by William Shelton still stands on its original site. In its 147 years, the cabin, which lost its roof to a 1993 tornado (now restored), has served as a residence, hospital, post office, inn, city hall and the main office of the company that purchased the land and then platted Mena.

Janssen Park will be the site of Mena's 21st annual Lum 'n' Abner Arts and Crafts Fair to be held June 5-7 and of an August celebration of the town's 102nd birthday.

The Mena area offers numerous other recreational possibilities including fishing at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's 300-acre Lake Wilhelmina located five miles west of town; spring and fall float trips on the upper Ouachita River (which begins on the north slopes of Rich Mountain), the Cossatot and the Mountain Fork; tours of an Arabian horse farm; and shopping for antiques at many locations.

For more information on Mena attractions, accommodations and restaurants, write the Mena-Polk County Chamber of Commerce at 514 Sherwood Avenue, Mena AR 71953 or phone toll-free 800-210-9084.

At locations in the Ouachita National Forest around Mena, the U.S. Forest Service has provided trails for hiking, horseback riding, ATVs, dirt bikes and mountain bikes. The nearby Shady Lake Recreation Area, developed with Civilian Conservation Corps labor, features fishing, boating and swimming on its 25-acre lake as well as camping, hiking and picnicking.

More information on Mena-area Forest Service recreational attractions is available by visiting or writing the USFS visitors center at 1603 Highway 71-N, Mena, AR 71953, or by calling (501) 394-2382.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

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