Photographs by Special to the Democrat-Gazette/MARCIA SCHNEDLER
Cornwell House is the setting for exhibits detailing the history of Mount Nebo from the 19th century’s pioneering era to today’s operation as Arkansas’ second-oldest state park.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
MOUNT NEBO STATE PARK -- Saturday's visitors to Arkansas' second-oldest state park can enjoy a lively lesson in Mount Nebo's history, from the 19th century resort heyday and the building of its picturesque stone cabins in the 1930s to today's recreational pleasures.
The half-hour presentation by a park interpreter will start at 11 a.m. in Cornwell House, the setting for a museum that deserves to be better known than it is. Unlike most state park exhibit areas, it sits separate from the visitor center. So an extra stop is needed to check it out.
If time travel were possible, displays at the Cornwell House would provide temptation to go back to Mount Nebo's popularity as a summer getaway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That was well before it joined Petit Jean in the fledgling state park system in 1928.
Named for the biblical mountain where God allowed the aging Moses to view the Promised Land, the flat-topped plateau became a prime warm-weather destination in the late Victorian Era. That was thanks to its elevation, 1,350 feet above the Arkansas River Valley, which had lower temperatures in the days when home air conditioning was not even a dream.
A driving force for this tourism boom, as illustrated in fascinating detail at Cornwell House, was the opening in 1889 of the three-story Summit Park Hotel, which could accommodate 450 guests in a rambling structure festooned with balconies and a wide veranda.
An information panel notes that Summit Park room rates in 1889 "ran from $35 to $40 per month with special rates for families. All patrons were assured that they would be safe from the wild panthers, which could be heard almost nightly."
There was no paved road up Mount Nebo in the 1890s. Visitors took a train to Russellville before transferring to a horse-drawn carriage or taxi for the serpentine climb. The rail ride from Little Rock to Russellville took more than three hours, followed by another two hours in carriage or taxi. An alternative involved puttering in a steamboat up the Arkansas River.
Once the somewhat arduous journey ended, there was plenty to do atop the mountain, as described at Cornwell House:
"Leisure time on Mount Nebo began before sunrise. Hardy souls would trek to Lookout Point to watch the sun rise. They would then return to the hotel for breakfast. After breakfast, activities included walks to the springs or Fern Lake, where canoes and paddle boats were available for sunlit cruises.
"The ladies of the mountain loved their social occasions, a favorite being the almost daily progressive euchre parties. The ladies spent hours at these card games. Other activities available to the guests and residents were lawn tennis, 10-pin bowling and picnics."
A posted hotel menu from the 1890s suggests that all the calories burned during the day could be easily replenished at dinner. The extensive bill of fare ranged from Oxtail a l' Anglaise to lemon sherbet, from Westphalian ham to greengage pie, from baked pork and beans to coconut drops.
Tourism on Mount Nebo dwindled after the uninsured Summit Park Hotel burned to the ground in 1918. The year-round residents who remained made a bit of history in 1924 as the first Arkansas community to elect an all-woman government.
After the state park opened, the rustic stone cabins that still welcome overnight travelers were built during the Great Depression by the federally funded Civilian Conservation Corps. Equipped with fireplaces, the cabins make for a cozy overnight stay in a setting with glorious views of the valley and a rich sense of the past.
To reach Mount Nebo State Park, 85 miles northwest of Little Rock, take I-40's exit 88 near Pottsville and follow brown tourism signs about 12 miles to the park entrance up steep and winding Arkansas 155. Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily is the Visitor Center, where self-guided tours of the Cornwell House can be arranged at the reception desk. For more information, visit ArkansasStateParks.com/MountNebo or call (479) 229-3655.
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