ON A RECENT staff outing, we had gone up to the lower Buffalo looking for water and found too much of it. Despite what the Farmers’ Almanac might tell you—that August averages 3.5 inches of rain—the 2.1 inches the area saw on Aug. 24 flouted historical precedent, along with any hopes of floating. Still, as the cabin had been booked, travel plans and baby sitters arranged, we decided to salvage what we could of the weekend and made our way to the one place sure to be unaffected by the rain: Blanchard Springs Caverns.
After taking a tour of the underground, we emerged to find the world a little less soggy than we’d left it—and hoofed it down to the springs proper. Once there, we’d ticked off the necessary tourist boxes. Photos in front of the eponymous Blanchard Springs. Some quiet contemplation at Mirror Lake and dam, followed by some concerned, not-so-quiet contemplation of a deer skull impaled upon a branch leaning into the dam’s falls, (a little too True Detective, Season 1, for comfort). And finally, a walk along the boardwalk to an observation deck overlooking what appeared to be the ruins of an old mill.
Having read the adjacent weather-beaten placard, we learned these were not ruins at all, but the never-finished work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Members of the corps had established a camp in the area—CCC planner Willard Hadley made the first documented foray into the caverns in 1934—and after rebuilding the mill dam (the old Mitchell Mill had ceased operations in 1928), had focused their efforts on the rock foundation and walls—at least until the onset of World War II led to the CCC’s dissolution. Looking down from the observation deck, you can see the shape their work had been taking: Two stone walls still stand, forming an L, the foundation opposite indicating where the next two walls were planned. But even then, you almost have to know it’s there to see it, the way that it’s practically an extension of the landscape.
If you’ve ever visited a state park—and I’d venture a guess that’s the case for most everyone reading this—you’ve likely seen the CCC’s fingerprints. In this month’s feature, Russellville-based writer and photographer Liz Chrisman notes that the corps’ efforts have stood the test of time, appearing in the shape of “roads, trails, lodges, cabins, campgrounds, amphitheaters, bathhouses, picnic pavilions and beaches throughout the corners of our state.”
However, it’s important to note that the CCC isn’t the main focus of the feature—at least not directly. In a sense, as Liz writes, the corps has provided what you might call the aesthetic and spiritual guidance for the people who’ve undertaken a very different project in Arkansas’ state parks. For the past year, thanks to a private-public partnership, new trails have started to appear in the parks (“russet ribbons” as Liz calls them), carved out with the mountain-biking set in mind. Although it remains to be seen if these efforts will have the staying power of their forebears, the mark these new trails have started to leave on our state makes us tremendously excited to get outside—even if we’ve got to raincheck a time or two.