Crowley's Ridge State Park Offers History, Outdoor Fun
By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

WALCOTT -- To escape a federal land grant in Arkansas's swampy delta, Benjamin Crowley moved his family to the "ridge" in 1820. Today he would most likely be shocked to know that Arkansas's most unique geological land formation, several schools, a state park, a nature center and a national scenic byway now honor his name.

All four seasons may be enjoyed on Crowley's Ridge. (CH)
All four seasons may be enjoyed on Crowley's Ridge. (CH)

By the time Crowley arrived in Arkansas Territory, he was already in his sixties. Like hundreds of other veterans, he accepted a land grant in the Louisiana Purchase in lieu of payment for military service during the War of 1812. However, the New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12 covered his land claim with water from the St. Francis River.

The Crowleys staked a new claim on the only "highlands" in the delta. Only 12 miles across at its widest point, the ridge rises 200 feet in stark contrast to the otherwise flat country. Creation of the 200-mile, crescent-shaped ridge began more than 50 million years ago. Massive twin rivers flowing from the north during the Ice Age left fragile remains of sediment between their swift currents. Over thousands of years, fine silt was also added to the ridge by water and wind action.

Crowley built his home near a freshwater spring and established a large farming operation nearby. He strongly supported the creation of Greene County in 1833 and offered his home as a temporary courthouse. Rev. Isaac Brookfield, who had established a Methodist Church on the Crowley plantation, was the first county judge. The only reminder of Brookfield's church is a little pioneer cemetery that occupied the churchyard. Among those buried there is Benjamin Crowley, who died in 1842 at the age of 84.

Crowley, reportedly a man with a dominating personality, may have been living when his neighbors started calling the rolling hills "Crowley's Ridge." The name stuck and was soon known from the ridge's beginnings in southeastern Missouri to Helena, on the Mississippi River.

Establishing Crowley's Ridge State Park

The faithful spring on the Crowley property had been a gathering place for natives and continued to be a summer campground, picnic site and home of religious events after the pioneers arrived. When the state started accepting lands for public parks, it was only natural that Greene County residents thought Crowley's homesite and spring should be included.

Initial surveys reported that Crowley's land was not adequate to become a park, but several supporters of the project refused to accept defeat. Heading the proponents was Mrs. Bell Hodges Wall, secretary of the Paragould Chamber of Commerce at the time. She launched a letter-writing campaign, used the media to gain widespread public support and enlisted political help from across the state. Her dream was realized in November 1933, when the Civilian Conservation Corps occupied the property and work started on Arkansas's fourth state park.

CCC workers from Companies 1729, 2746 and 4733 built several miles of roads, foot trails, bridges, cabins, pavilions, a bathhouse, picnic sites, campgrounds and a 300-ft. earthen dam with a concrete spillway.

The CCC-built pavilion is the park's focal point. (CH)
The CCC-built pavilion is the park's focal point. (CH)

"The classic two-story pavilion and bathhouse overlooking the swimming area has always been the focal point of the park," says Park Supt. Gretchen Sacotnik.

Huge stones from the nearby former homeplace of Gov. J.M. Futrell (1933-37) were reportedly combined with rock from another area and used with a framework of native cypress logs, trucked in from the St. Francis River. The bathhouse complex and three other CCC structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in America in 1992.

According to written accounts from the construction era, a great deal of time and labor went into building the swimming lake, which remains one of the park's main attractions. The CCC crews cleared a natural basin below the springs and brought in more than 11,000 cubic-yards of dirt for the earthen dam. Workers scooped the lake bottom to a depth of some nine feet, and then clay was brought in to help create a watertight lining for the 3.5-acre lake.

The new park officially opened in 1936, although people continually visited the park during its construction. On July 4, 1935, a crowd estimated at 8,000 picnicked at the park site. Almost three years later, on June 4, 1938, the park was officially dedicated.

Crowley's Ridge State Park Today

Soil conservation was a high priority throughout the building phase of Crowley's Ridge State Park and remains so today. More than 11,000 trees, shrubs and vines were planted in 1935 alone. The park now covers 291 acres and boasts an excellent variety of native fauna.

Nature trails help tell the story of the 'Ridge.' (CH)
Nature trails help tell the story of the 'Ridge.' (CH)

Facilities at the park today include 26 campsites, four modern, fully-equipped cabins with kitchen and fireplaces, a CCC group cabin area with five units and dining hall, and a 31-acre fishing lake with barrier-free pier and boat launch ramp.

The park also boasts a restored CCC-era amphitheater, a looping trail system, a primitive tent camping area, a barrier-free playground, pavilions, a wildlife observation platform, the CCC pavilion-bathhouse, a sandy beach area, paddleboat rentals, surf bikes, snack bar and a visitors center.

Funds from Arkansas's Amendment 75 conservation tax have brought many needed improvements to the park, according to Sacotnik. These include the renovation of bathhouses and other facilities to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, refurbishing the group cabins' dining hall and bathhouse, paving projects, plus new picnic tables and grills.

Special Events/When You Go

Special annual events at the park include: Early Settler Days in April; Memorial Day Celebration and a Fishing Derby in late May; Fun on July Fourth; Labor Day Extravaganza, End of Summer Bash and the Great Arkansas Clean-up in early September; Bats Unlimited in late October; Holiday Craft Workshop in early December; plus learning events, day camps, school days and Scouting activities throughout the year.

The park is located 12 miles west of Paragould via U.S. 412 and Ark. 141, or 15 miles north of Jonesboro via Ark. 141. The park also serves as an information center for the Crowley's Ridge Parkway, a national scenic byway that links several roadways along the length of the ridge in Arkansas.

For more information, contact Crowley's Ridge State Park at (870) 573-6751 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com. For cabin reservations, call 1-800-264-2405.