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Refashioning the fort: new superintendent has some ideas about improving Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Judge Isaac Parker presided over federal court at Fort Smith from 1875 to 1896.

Considered one of the greatest criminal judges of his time, Parker presided over 13,490 cases and sentenced 160 people to be hanged. Fort Smith's gallows were designed to hang as many as six convicted criminals at one time.

While only 79 prisoners were hanged, the gallows and nearby courthouse-jail complex remain a testament to a legendary judge and his brand of justice.

Fort Smith National Historic Site includes a reproduction of the gallows, the courthouse-jail complex and the ruins of the original Fort Smith. The site was donated by the city to the National Park Service in 1961.

Since that time, the facility has seen little renovation work, a trend Superintendent Bill Black would like to reverse.

Black, an Indiana native, was transferred to the park four months ago.

The 20-acre facility, located downtown, has suffered as a result of commercial progress, Black says. Non-historic buildings within the site's boundaries have been razed to enhance the value of the area, but more remains to be done.

The old federal courthouse, originally built as a barracks for the fort, was remodeled as a city welfare office in 1934. Unfortunately for Black and his staff, who occupy the first floor of the courthouse, the plumbing and hardwood floors haven't been replaced since.

"There is roughly 24,000 SF, but we can only use 8,000 SF," Black says. "And the space that is used is antiquated."

Twice The Tourists

In addition to updating the wiring and plumbing at the courthouse, Black wants to make other changes at the park.

Fort Smith National Historic Site draws between 75,000 and 85,000 visitors each year. Black thinks the number of visitors could double with improvements such as interpretative and living history programs.

The new interpretative program would provide additional tour guides and allow for park literature to be rewritten. The program also would involve area schools.

The living history program would involve park employees dressed as Western characters.

"It's hard to get a feel for the Old West when you're surrounded by office buildings and parked cars," Black says.

Black has suggested the addition of a second railroad crossing ramp to allow the handicapped to tour the original fort site. The superintendent also wants to develop a comprehensive landscape management plan.

All of Black's plans are contingent on federal funding. Requests for funding are being made "through normal channels," he says.

One improvement already planned, however, is the clearing of overgrown woods near the Arkansas River. A controlled burn is scheduled for February.

The woods are filled with litter and inhabited by transients, according to Black.
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Title Annotation:Across Arkansas
Author:Taylor, Tim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 25, 1992
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