FORT SMITH (AP) — Fifty years later, the foundation stones of the first Fort Smith establishment continue to draw the eyes of residents and visitors alike.

Located on the south end of the Fort Smith National Historic Site at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, the large, light-colored stones served as the building foundations of the first Fort, said Loren McLane, FSNHS park ranger and historian.

"The first Fort here is one of the most popular spots here on the Fort Smith National Historic Site’s grounds," he said.

The exact location of the first Fort wasn’t known until archeologists uncovered the foundations in late 1962 and 1963, McLane told the Southwest Times Record.

"People here wanted to establish this as a national historic site, but it couldn’t be established until the first Fort was found," he said.

Area archeologist and Fort Smith native Clyde Dollar performed preliminary excavation work in January 1959 before he started digging deeper to reveal the Fort’s history, McLane said. Dollar, who would later serve as a historical consultant for the Richard Harris film, "A Man Called Horse," soon was joined for those early excavations by National Park Service officials, he said.

"It was these findings and the ones done a little later that revealed the establishment of the first Fort," McLane said. "Those were exciting discoveries."

The first Fort was established in 1817 in what is called Belle Point, with the stone work beginning in the spring of 1818, he said. The scenic site was selected by U.S. Army officials because it was the highest navigable point on the Arkansas River, with Maj. Stephen H. Long being instructed by Secretary of War John G. Calhoun to help create the first Fort; Long provided plans to Major William Bradford for the creation of the Fort, although military personnel occasionally improvised with the plans to suit evolving military needs, McLane said.

"Some of the original stone foundations that people see were of a block tower, which was used to view activity on the Arkansas River — the tower stood about 35 feet tall and would allow you to see to the south and to the west," he said.

"Some of the other stone foundations were part of facilities for soldiers and surgeons," McLane added. "The stones that people see here are the 1818 original stones, so it’s very interesting to see these foundations today."

The first Fort’s landscape looked remarkably different than the Belle Point area does today, he said.

"There wasn’t the same tree line you see here along the Arkansas River, obviously," McLane said. "If you were standing here back then, you’d see berries and wildflowers, not Bermuda grass."

Those who lived and worked in the first Fort most likely experienced numerous emotions, he said.

"Frontier life was probably a double-edged sword for some people — that potential of the unknown," McLane said. "On one hand, people felt the frontier offered a sense of hope, a second chance and an opportunity of giving yourself your own destiny.

"But frontier life occurred during a time when society was becoming more industrial and Native Americans were moved from their land," he added.

Prior to the lock-and-dam system, the Arkansas River was seen as "erratic" by those occupying the first Fort, McLane said.

"Sometimes, when it was a really dry season, you could walk out into the river and wade your way across the river, or cross your wagons through the mud," he said. "When the river froze, people would walk out across the ice to try and get to the other side."

In the early and mid-1800s, steamboats frequently were seen along the riverfront, McLane said.

"Sometimes during dry seasons, steamboats couldn’t get past Little Rock, so things about the Arkansas River were different back then," he said.

Abandoned by the U.S. Army in 1824, the first Fort was then used by transient troops but not maintained, McLane said. It later served as a settlers’ trading post, he said.

"The site once was a supply depot for people when the Native Americans were on the Trail of Tears," McLane said.

City and NPS officials began thinking about riverfront restoration and a courthouse in the 1920s, which put the community’s focus on the area of the first Fort, he said. In May 1956, the NPS opened the Judge Isaac C. Parker’s courtroom and the gallows as a tourist attraction, McLane said.

At that time, officials were hoping the historic site would become a federally funded national monument, he said. Dollar’s initial excavations, which involved help from both city and prison labor as well as research efforts by NPS historian Ed Bearss, paved the way for the site being designated a national historic site, McLane said.

"There has been so much history here," he said of the historic site, which was dedicated by first lady Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Johnson in October 1964. "It’s fascinating what’s happened here."

FSNHS Superintendent Lisa Conrad Frost agreed.

"It is an honor for the National Park Service staff to take care of the cultural resources at the Fort Smith National Historic Site for the American public and for future generations," she said. "The awareness and preservation of these vital archeological resources makes it even more important that the public understands and complies with the federal laws protecting them."

Enacted in 1979, the federal Archeological Resources Protection Act was created to secure the protection of archeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands. The law states that sites like FSNHS are an "irreplaceable part" of the country’s heritage.

"It’s a great place because so many people come down here and enjoy the scenic beauty," McLane said of the FSNHS, which temporarily closed for remodeling after the 1996 tornado. "You’ll see wedding parties and people picnicking, and there’s always photographers down here taking family portraits and other photographs."

Each year, about 80,000 people visit the site.

"It’s interesting that so many people say, ‘Wow, I never knew this was here before, and I’m so glad to have found it,’" McLane said. "They love to come here and enjoy this public, urban space."

Many children are as excited as adults when learning about the historic site, he said.

"It’s always great to tell the children, ‘That stone you are sitting on, it’s 180 years old and it’s part of the oldest regional history right there,’" McLane said with a smile. "You can see it then in the kids’ eyes — they have that small epiphany and they make that connection. They realize that this site connects them with their past, and they realize that Fort Smith is a place they want to stay and enjoy."

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Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/