On the Mississippi River cruise I took with my family last summer, one of our stops was Helena, Arkansas. As we took the hop-on-hop-off bus into town, the depressed nature of the area was fairly evident. Main Street featured many old and beautiful, but shuttered and dilapidated storefronts and new, comfortable low-income housing was highlighted by the bus driver as we drove past. But our guide also expressed great optimism for the future of Helena and a blooming revitalization of the area, including work planned for that Main Street area to renovate some of the empty buildings into new stores and hotels. A key part of this revitalization, I could tell by the end of the day, was the use of historic tourism and highlighting the history (particularly the Civil War history) of the area.
The utilization of historic tourism was evident from our very first stop of the day, the Delta Cultural Center which interpreted Helena’s central role in the rise and dominance of Blues music. The Visitor Center featured exhibits on the history of Blues and its connection to the area and is also the home of “King Biscuit Time,” the longest running Blues radio broadcast. Across the street The Depot tells the wider history of the area, from Native American settlement through its economic development and struggles. This is where we started to really see the emphasis on Civil War history. Upstairs at The Depot is a permanent exhibit titled “Civil War on the Delta” which covers the Confederate history of the city, its Union occupation, and the Battle of Helena.
From there, our next stop was a location called Freedom Park. My interest peaked with its advertisement as a site related to contraband slaves, but the site was far more impressive than I expected. Freedom Park is a park-like space located on the site of a contraband camp with exhibits that take the visitor on the journey from slavery to emancipation in the context of local history. The first exhibit represents a plantation house and gives the story of slavery and then the path continues to present the refugee and contraband experience, the transition to emancipation, and the role contrabands played in the Union army and the Battle of Helena. Dedicated in 2013, Freedom Park uses traditional wayside exhibits in addition to statues and metal sculpture to convey this progression from slavery to freedom and the site was the first location in Arkansas designated as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site. Impeccably groomed and modern in its design, Freedom Park stands apart from the rest of downtown Helena. You could tell that it was new and fresh, an addition to Helena that would draw positive attention and tie into the area’s heritage tourism.
The next stop of our day was similar in that regard, and it was here that I really started to tie together the use of heritage tourism in the city. We stopped at New Fort Curtis, labeled that way because it is a ¾ scale reconstruction of the original Fort Curtis, a Union fortification erected in 1862 during the occupation and used in July 1863 during the Battle of Helena. The fort is built as an earthen redoubt with wooden walls shoring up the inside of the space. While the inside seems empty, the fort does show gun placements and a few 24-pounder guns. While we were there, the interpreter fired off a mini-replica of these guns to show people how they worked and what it sounded like in the small scale. Dedicated in 2012, this fort replica is another recent addition to Helena that highlights its Civil War history.
Next we went to the Phillips County Museum, a much older site in both physical appearance and interpretation, but one that again highlighted the Civil War history of the region. The museum was very much your typical local history museum, with a hodgepodge of artifacts put together in glass cases with old interpretive labels. There was a variety of items from the local area, including collections of items from Thomas Edison and Mark Twain. The museum even has its own resident ghost story with a scary looking mannequin encased in glass to go with it. However, the museum did have an entire section devoted to the Civil War history of Helena and a diorama of the Battle of Helena that showed the different defensive positions around the city (including Fort Curtis and the defensive line at what is now Freedom Park) to orient visitors visually to how the battle played out around the area. Outside the museum stands a statue of Major General Patrick Cleburne, acquired as part of the sesquicentennial in 2012. While the interpretation style of the museum was very outdated, the docents were very friendly and engaging, and they were happy to talk about history with me. One even offered to drive us out to the local Confederate cemetery when he found out my interest in cemeteries and monuments (but alas we had to be back on board our boat soon). With the collections they have at their disposal, it would be fascinating to see what an update of interpretation within their exhibits could bring to this small museum.
While two of these sites featured more traditional (and older) styles of museum interpretation and two were more modern, outdoor interpretive spaces, all four Civil War sites sought to bring our attention to the history of the city as a feature to invite interest and tourism. It was also interesting to see how these sites interpreted this Civil War history considering there was a large focus on the Union occupation of the town, the contribution of contrabands and the impact of emancipation, and the battle was a Union victory that helped secure the area in the context of the Vicksburg campaign. Most of the sites included in the hop-on-hop-off bus route were historic—including the Victorian-era Pillow Thompson House which we took a quick visit to at the end of our day—and it was clear that part of the city’s revitalization plan was using this historic tourism to draw people and revenue. The fact that Helena was included as a stop on our cruise is an indication of that process in action.
Historic tourism is an opportunity for communities to preserve very important elements of local, state, and national history while also investing in the development or revitalization of their region. When done well, both the local community and the historic community benefit in the increased traffic to these sites and the preservation of history. I do cringe when I see advertisements for things like the stereotypical “mint julip and magnolia” house tours where I can only imagine what inaccuracies are presented to visitors (I did not see this in Helena, but did see it on other stops of the cruise). But in the case of Helena I applaud their efforts with Freedom Park and New Fort Curtis and hope that they can keep developing their other museums to provide new incentive to visitors and local alike to take interest in the history of the city.
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.