Sunday, October 28, 2012

XXVI. The City of Magical Waters

October 24 dawned cool and cloudy. On either side of their encampment trees blazed as if on fire, their colors luminous in the soft even light of early morning. The smoke of small fire rose straight into the heavens where it slowly dispersed on a soft breeze wafting high above the valley, but breakfast was hurried and sharpened by a sense of urgency: after three weeks on the road, their destination was upon them.

Below them meandered the arc of the White River, its waters steel-gray and low. In single file they crept down the road—more a cowpath switching back and forth along the bed of the creek—until the lead horse came to the river. Before committing the first wagon the men studied the current and tested the bottom, and contemplating the current’s lazy pace questioned its depth and in general did the things men do when faced with decisions largely outside their grasp or reckoning, cognizant all the while that their choices were no more than zero and had been since entering the narrow confines of Roaring River Hollow. 

A snap of the reins, a sharp bark, and the horses plunged into the river.

Almost laconically, Sadie described what happened next: “We forded the river the first thing and our horses balked in the sand on the other side.” Sand was something unexpected, something new, soft and springy and unnatural after the craggy plunge into the Ozark Plateau. With the second and third teams coming up behind and the water sweeping through the spokes of the wheel, it was no time for balking, and anyway they’d had enough balking from the horses and mules along the route. It was time to go, and Fred resorted to something seldom used: his persuader. 

The long tongue of the whip flickered through the air like the strike of a serpent, cracking the air with a sonic boom.

“The horses were kind of shocked at anything like that and they pulled it out in a hurry,” she wrote. “We had no more trouble.”

But it was hard going nevertheless, and would be for the length of the river. Even as Sadie admired the timber, “the nicest you ever saw,” and the mountains, as she called them, and the prettiest pines and cedars all growing straight and tall in the deep hollows, the sycamores, hickories and oaks showering them with leaves of every hue and shape, the river route was arduous and taxing on man, beast and equipment. Within six miles of their fording they crossed the river 19 more times, each a challenge in itself, prompting Sadie to quip, “They don’t believe in building bridges down here.”

Before the coming of the railroad travel had always been difficult, topography dictating the course of travel with the majority of the geography measured in elevation gain or loss. Nowhere was that more evident than at Eureka Springs. A promotional pamphlet published in 1892 declared that “the location of the city is the last one in the world which would ordinarily have been chosen.” So steep were the hillsides that an apocryphal story tells of a well-digger who sank a shaft 43 feet into East Mountain before the bottom fell out, sending him tumbling into Main Street. He eventually had to dig upwards from his property to find water.

But after Dr. Alvah Jackson in 1856 used waters seeping from the side of a rock bluff to cure his son of an eye ailment (and went on to market his own concoction, “Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water”), a shrewd combination of hucksterism and land speculation put the nascent town squarely in the public’s eye. Named the “City of Magical Waters” and advertised far and wide, people came in droves. Shanties and tent cities spread across the steep hillsides like fungi while magnificent Victorian houses and massive limestone commercial structures took root. Streets were laid out almost willy-nilly owing to the terrain, many following animal and Native American trails through the dense woods. 

By 1879 the city’s population topped 10,000, making it the fourth largest in Arkansas. Bath houses and health resorts catered to the common and the wealthy, some little more than roughhewn cabins and others architectural masterpieces. They huddled in clusters around the various springs—63 were identified—the most famous of which was Basin Spring, also known as Indians’ Healing Spring. The water was rich in minerals and cold as glacial seep and all but guaranteed to cure ailments as diverse as kidney troubles, intestinal tract diseases, dropsy, asthma, diabetes, rheumatism, insomnia, eczema, scrofula and liver complaints. Samples from Little Eureka Springs won prizes at the 1904 World’s Fair in St, Louis, and soon the Ozarka Water Company was shipping water out by railcar. The climate was temperate except for the occasional ice storm that utterly paralyzed transportation, a fact conveniently withdrawn from promotional materials. 

But times change, and boom cycles last only so long before being dragged down under the weight of unkept promises. By 1912 the population had dropped to half its former size, and springs were drying up from changes wrought by civilization’s influx. But it was still an impressive city, with the railroad depot marking the northern terminus and the commercial district a maze of intricate masonry, the most famous being the angular Flatiron Building. 

Shortly before noon Sadie, Fred, little Lucile and the others were nearing Eureka Springs when a train erupted around a bend. They barely had time to get the wagons away from the tracks before it blasted through with an angry whistle and a choking plume of smoke. “The tracks make so many curves around the hills you never see it until it is on you,” Sadie wrote. The near escape put the party on edge and might have been a catalyst for how they viewed the city when they entered a few minutes later. 

They followed the main thoroughfare downhill from the depot through the downtown district with its extravagant facades and bustling businesses. Many of the structures were tall and narrow, replying on height over depth; one building described itself as having eight stories each with its own ground-level entrance. Once past the downtown area the valley opened slightly and houses crowded down to the edge of the road, with numerous secondary lanes spidering off in an endless and bewildering labyrinth. The city was a hive of activity, and nowhere more than the wagon yard.

Built on a wide scrape of raw earth, the yard consisted of a series of clapboard buildings housing warehouses, liveries and workers. Along the periphery were makeshift camps where transients congregated in what amounted to primitive camping quarters. Among the other wayfarers they found a place to park the wagons. Eyes tracked their every move. It was squalid and unkempt and populated with people they had no desire to fraternize with, utterly lacking in privacy. Sadie hated it, and hated the town, too.

“I have not fell in love with what I have seen of this place yet,” she wrote. “We pulled into a wagon yard and are camped. I don't know for how long. I hope not long. I have not seen any of the town only the street we came in on. It is built all over the hills.”

By nightfall she was sick with a headache and thinking of the healing springs they’d read about. But in the grubby wagon yard the springs and their magic seemed a million miles away.


I’d studied the city’s map upside down and sideways, trying to get a fix on the lay of the land.  Instead of a comfortable grid of evenly-spaced streets the layout resembled a spilled plate of spaghetti or something a child might scribble on an Etch-a-Sketch. Our bed-and-breakfast was near the south end of town and up—a term I used to distinguish various parts of town, up being where we were to stay, the Victorian enclave and the rarified (and, some said, spook-haunted) Crescent Hotel with its alpine views of the valley and the towering white monolith of the Christ of the Ozarks, and down being the downtown area and the lower conjunctions where tourist traps jostled with cheap hotels and eateries. 

By the time we followed Sadie into town my directions were hopelessly skewed. I missed my turn and found myself locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the narrow, congested downtown district, and, finding it impossible to turn around, shifted to plan B, clearly (ha!) marked on a printed map that Lori puzzled over. Her eyes darted restlessly from the street signs to the map and back, the furrows on her forehead deepening with each glance. “This map makes no sense,” she muttered.

“This town makes no sense,” I said. 

Like Sadie, I disliked it at once, hating the traffic, the narrow streets, the plethora of shops hawking bad art and worse Taiwanese T-shirts, windsocks and shot glasses. I didn’t navigate as much as steer blindly, taking likely turns when the mood struck me and keeping the nose of the car on an uphill path. Within a mile of leaving the main road we’d driven north, south, east, west, northeast, southwest and every cardinal combination in between, until somehow miraculously (magically?) coming upon our B&B. I braked sharply without hesitation and whipped into a narrow parking spot.

My nerves were frazzled. The place was wonderfully plush, with a private cobblestone patio on the edge of a deep wooded ravine filled with birdsong, a sunken jacuzzi and small living room. It was so nice, in fact, and the road outside so alien and, to me, hostile, I had a difficult time summoning the courage to re-enter the fray. But we were hungry and needed sustenance, so after unpacking the car we retraced our route down the hill for a little more exploration.

For better or worse, we had reached the end of Sadie’s trail.

(To be continued)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

XXV. Water from stone

        So not a plateau. So something else, here on the western fringe where topography becomes scrambled and nothing is as it seems, where valleys are hollows and streams are cricks and the land is riven and sundered and smoothed over with a carpet of green, green beyond belief and imagination, and turning now as autumn waxes, colors at once dulling and flaming as if in opposition to one another, the yin and yang of the universe, balance in all things save for the plodding of iron-shod horses and the creak of harness as three covered wagons make their descent into the Ozark Plateau.

In name only. And how did they go, what path did they take, what road, now lost to even the oldest plat maps? East from Cassville, that much is known; not today’s two-lane highway which leaves the relatively straight contours of that gateway city to immediately turn on itself, twisting and writhing as it adheres to the curvilinear topography of verticality. East then, a few miles, before the road, such as it was, climbed the flanks of Bald Mountain and followed the ridgeline a few miles before plunging into a narrow, rocky crevice.

Until 1932 when the present highway was built the Roaring River Road was the only entrance into the valley. “The roads throughout the area at that time were narrow, winding, rough, and muddy, or dusty as the seasons dictated,” a history of Barry County states. “But the little lanes that wound through the valleys of the tracks that precariously climbed the hills at Roaring River were worse than most. They had the added hazard of many, many fords, where the road crossed the river.”

Our road was more benign and not nearly as scenic, though surprises and wonders were abundant. I was first and foremost a desert rat, preferring the stark beauty of open vistas to the claustrophobic confines of eastern deciduous woods with their mosses and fungi, their alien pines and odd-shaped leaves, whose very fecundity seemed an affront to the natural order of things. And all the more mysterious for it, and inviting. Green is a soothing color, psychologists tell us. Green is the color of solace, of refuge. But for Sadie and the others, the hollow was anything but a refuge though it enveloped them so completely that once into the canyon there could be no turning back.

The previous night had been silvery with moonlight, Sadie wrote. The others mentioned the caterwauling of a wildcat, but she and Fred slept through it all the way to a pack of coon dogs invading the camp like darksome specters. The hounds flowed through pausing only to sniff and bay and disappeared as suddenly as they arrived leaving in their wake a preternatural silence that left them all straining to penetrate. 

After breakfast they trudged on, the road paralleled by twin split-rail fences until such time as the fences gave way to woods and the mouth of the canyon. “We went down and down what seemed like mountains,” she wrote. “We saw the prettiest scenery when we looked at the bottom. There was only room for our wagons. If you moved a foot out of track you would upset. There were hills on both sides, you could look up and up and see only trees, all kinds and colors. If you looked straight up you could see blue sky. But on each side was every thing to see.”

Every thing to see. In that we were alike, wanting nothing more than to stop and explore, to step outside ourselves, our transports, our lives, to touch and smell and feel this new world. To hear its songs. We are all children in the face of the unknown.

Fred was the worse. At the reins he fidgeted and squirmed, mercilessly constrained by the narrow wagon seat and its paltry view of a pair of horse’s asses and swishing tails, of swaying harness and twitching ears and the rubbled road ahead. Sadie, at his side, studied him from the corner of her eye. The impatience that inflicted him, its seething inescapability, was instantly recognizable, as intrinsic to his personality as his facial features or the patterned whorls on his fingertips. He could no more constrain those impulses than he could make the canyon floor less jarring. For her part Sadie patiently waited for the denouement which would come sooner or later, usually sooner, and when Fred could take no more quietly took the reins and watched him leap from the wagon. 

“There is no need of saying he saw fine places to set his steel traps,” she wrote that night. Her entry of October 23 would be the longest of the trip, easily three or four times the length of an average entry, filled with a girlish merriment of discovery and wonder. “We saw some of the prettiest rock clifts,” she added. “We were thinking the river had dried up when about nine o'clock we saw a rock clift with a hole in it. Fred said when we get to that we will see something worth looking at.”

He had hurried ahead to the sound of waters and returned with a look of astonishment written on his face. Ahead the canyon opened into a narrow valley studded with a roughhewn settlement consisting of a combination flour and saw mill, a general store and two farm houses. Piber Hollow came in from the northwest and Dry Hollow from the south with the narrow track of the Seligman Road branching off to the southwest. Tame geese wandered at will. But it was the water that captured her attention.

It erupted from the face of a perpendicular cliff. Impatient now herself to escape the wagon, Sadie hastily watered the horses and pulled the wagons to a small clearing. Then she was off, bunching her skirts and hastening toward the cliff.

“There was a wall and a dam laid up and a mill race came out at the bottom and some came running down some race steps all in a foam,” she wrote. “I went up on top of the wall and all around the pond on a path. The rest followed. [There was] a hog in the water catching little fish. The boys saw some fish they could not name. Then we went around a little and by and by we saw the beginning, where the Roaring River came up out of the ground way back in a cave and a stream of water came from the top of that rock clift. You could look up and up some more.”

Not content to stare into the twilit gloom of the cave, Sadie gingerly balanced on a series of slick-smooth rocks and made her way into darkness. Fred and Charles Chambers followed her as far as they could before the cleft narrowed to a sliver. The water was ice cold and so deep it appeared bottomless. And blue, bluer than the autumn sky or a bluebird’s feathers, “the prettiest blue you can not begin to imagine it,” as she described it. “I just looked and could not see enough of it. That was Roaring River Point.”

The dam, built in 1865 by William McClure, confined the water in a deep reservoir used for the turning of the mill wheel. Two openings, or races, provided waterfalls that foamed down to the channel of the river. A second mill, located at the end of the mill race, stood where the current park lodge is now situated. The mill supplied facilities for grinding grain and sawing lumber, and also acted as a primitive woolen mill, with spinning wheels, looms for weaving and a carding machine. Interestingly enough, the creation of the dam silenced the roar of Roaring River, whose spring flows at the rate of more than 20 million gallons per day. 

Roaring River State Park (roaring no more) is the latest iteration of what was once a Native American encampment. Billed as Missouri’s finest trout fishery—a statement that at one time would have quickened my pulse—it now consists of a narrow stream choked with anglers of all sizes, shapes and permutations of tackle, from fly-fishers to bait-slingers, packed cheek to jowl in what appeared to be a sort of communal harmony. At the head of the stream, sandwiched between the rivulet and the cleft, lies a fish hatchery and an assortment of stone buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s. The place had the air of a summer camp about it, tinged with nostalgia of former times when the world was simpler and less dangerous. Visitors jostled to peer into the watery tanks holding thousands of sizable trout, fodder for the masses below. Others walked to the cleft and peered within even as Sadie had done, though there were no more stepping stones leading into the cave; nor was there a bottom to it, from the looks of the gloom. The pond, half in sun and shadow, mirrored the sky and the wooded inclines, its surface shattered now and then by skimming swallows.

Far above the pond a small rocky knoll circumscribed by a wooded fence jutted from the cliff. After some scouting around I found a trail leading upward and pulled Lori behind me. The trail steeply rose into dappled shade, its switchbacks ill-fitting limestone slabs grooved by footsteps. For a hundred yards it hugged the ace of a cliff before reaching a junction where a narrower trail descended to a viewing platform. Lori was altogether unsure of the stability of the structure nor was I, and neither of us had plans on leaning against the rail to peer into the turquoise depths of the pond. But the view was stunning, and while studying the birds aloft I shouted “Black vulture!” and “Broadwinged hawk!” and knew we were in the South. 

After making our way down we cut through the CCC camp to a road leading to the park’s maintenance shops. Beyond that the road continued into the canyon, narrowing to a rutted path barely wide enough for a car to maneuver. A ranger told us that people drive it all the time but a four-wheel-drive vehicle was recommended, and as we had neither the time nor the vehicle we chose to walk about a half mile into the canyon. 

After the first bend the sounds of the park receded. Birdsong filled the air, thrushes and robins and chickadees. Butterflies gathered in rainbow clusters around small pools of water, and a new species of moth I was never able to identify led me on a merry chase. On either side the woods climbed to the heavens. So rapt was I in trying to identify birds and butterflies that Sadie’s presence took me by surprise. One minute I was studying a likely specimen through my binoculars, the next I was practically reeling in wonderment. “She was here,” I whispered. “Here. Right here, right where we’re standing.”

Dazed, we turned to retrace our route—Sadie’s route—down and down to the car. So much had changed in the past hundred years, and so very little.


Leaving the spring, Sadie and Goldie picked ferns. Sadie’s came from the cave and Goldie’s from along the stream, six distinct varieties altogether. Sadie also picked up a small shell from the water’s edge.

The road was a road in name only. “We went on down the valley and forded that river 14 times before dinner,” she wrote. 

The constant fording of the river took its toll. By the time they chose a likely site for a meal they and the horses were exhausted, though not so exhausted that the “boys” didn’t have the energy to break out the fishing tackle. Fred wanted to make camp so they could fish for supper but the others chafed to continue, so they carried on. Fred managed one small bass before hurrying to catch up.

“The roads are like cow trails,” Sadie wrote. “You did not know which you were following. We have come over the worst roads, the worst hills [we] ever saw, but we did not double teams. We are all tired as we rode late this evening.”

How they went, where they went, is a mystery. Two canyons split from Roaring River, one following the river itself southeast toward Eagle Rock and the other almost due south to its conjunction with Butler Hollow. The Seligman Road would have taken them part way. Butler Hollow curved toward the southeast at a 45-degree angle leading almost directly toward their destination before its confluence with the White River. Such was the likeliest route.

By dusk they had cleared the hollow. Below them the broad White River reflected the last light of the sunset. Birdsong gave way to the thrum of crickets and the first stars. They cobbled the horses and built a small fire for cooking and sat there weary beyond words, but not so weary that Sadie couldn’t draw aside with pencil and paper to tell of the day’s adventures, concluding with an update on their positioning. “We are now in Arkansas tonight,” she wrote, “and six miles from Eureka Springs.”

(To be continued)