Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Helena, West Helena, Arkansas

Cross the bridge over the mighty Mississippi and you'll arrive in Helena/West Helena Arkansas.  Located on the southern tip of Crowley's Ridge, the city was established in 1820 and incorporated in 1856. Fort Curtis is replicated in the city limits. It was here on July 4, 1863, when the Union forces turned back the Confederates in the Battle of Helena.

The earliest inhabitants of this area were Indians of the Hopewell Culture around 500 B.C. Evidence of their settlements still remain in mounds nearby. In 1541 explorer Hernando de Soto crossed over the Mississippi river and held the first Christian service west of the river here.

The City hasn't changed much over the years. What we found was a lot of decay and not much redevelopment. Many of the buildings were vacant and in dire need of repair. Even their lone grocery store had closed it's doors and moved to West Helena which was just slightly better than Helena itself.

One of the highly touted attractions of this area was the nearby River Park bordering the Mississippi River.  The River Park features a 60 foot boat ramp, one of the largest public access ramps on the lower Mississippi. A boardwalk takes visitors right to the edge of the river, with interpretive panels that explain some of the local ecosystem and Civil War history.

Helena is the only downtown on the Mississippi River for the 300 miles between Memphis and Vicksburg.

Unfortunately, we found the River Park to be too far away from the river and it too was in a bit of decay.

I did get this nice picture of the bridge though.

This huge once stately home shows some of the unfortunate decline in this area. It is a huge home with a beautiful wraparound porch. Sadly, it is falling to Mother Nature with the side and rear covered with vines. Several of the windows were broken and the house was vacant. I couldn't find any information about it's history.

Fort Curtis played an important part in the Union forces occupation of Arkansas and Missouri. It's location on the Mississippi River provided ammunition and supplies to Union troops all along it's borders.

The original fort was abandoned around 1866. After the war, the City of Helena grew around it.

One of the buildings that housed the troop commanders overseeing Fort Curtis.

The fort was constructed within the confines of earthen berms which provided protection against approaching enemies. Besides the immediate fort, the Union Army built four nearby batteries as a buffer against Confederate troops.

While there are no barracks or housing inside the fort grounds, you can get a feel for the fortification. The large walls were protected on all four sides by six thirty two pound siege guns.

In the summer of 1863, Confederate troops gathered for an attack on the city in an effort to provide some relief for their comrades under siege at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and to push the largest contingent of Federals out of Arkansas.

However, inadequate reconnaissance by the Confederates led them to believe the Fort was vulnerable when it was not. 

As the battle opened, Fort Curtis was not directly attacked by the Confederates, who directed their attention to the batteries. Artillery pieces inside the fort shelled the approaching Confederates with ease. The attackers were able to capture Battery C, and the Confederate General ordered these troops to continue their assault with a charge against Fort Curtis across 700 yards of open ground. The attack failed before it reached the fort. By 10:30, Confederate forces began to retreat, bringing the battle to a close.

To the right, an below are pictures of the cannons used to protect the fort. They are actually called thirty two pound siege guns for the weight of the lead balls they fired.

I'm not sure how I'd feel looking down the barrel of one of these babies. Thirty two pounds of lead can really do some serious damage.

This is the Centennial Baptist Church as viewed from within the Fort grounds. It is the only known example in Arkansas of a church designed by an African American architect for an African American congregation. Henry James Price, a member of Centennial Baptist, designed this Gothic Revival church.

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