An Arkansas river town stakes its future as a tourist attraction on its turbulent past
Helena, Arkansas, is a classic Mississippi River town. But it doesn’t exactly reflect the richly ornamented world of Showboat . Spend a day or two there and you can watch Helena being put back together, against great odds and in a time when every preservation dollar is likely to be deemed “pork.” Some of the pieces are in place; others are missing, gap-toothed evidence of the struggle to bring the kind of life to a town that will support locals and draw tourists. Today’s Helena, off the main tourist trail, drowsy, a bit frayed along the edges, was once a busy port, a lumber and railroad center, and Arkansas’s main depot for shipping cotton.
The place did have a lot going for it, which is why the first white settlers of Arkansas Territory chose, in 1797, to stay near here, not far from where Hernando de Soto had crossed the Mississippi in 1541. In 1820 three of them platted out Helena, named for the daughter of one of the men, making it the only settlement of any size in eastern Arkansas. Helena’s founding fathers were attracted, of course, by the great river highway flowing past their first crude streets. And there was the benefit of high ground: Crowley’s Ridge rose inland and west of the river and, at an elevation of two hundred feet, was thought to provide safety against the malaria that lurked in the swampy lowlands. Also, the land of the Mississippi Delta, surrounding Helena, offered fine, rich soil for planting and hardwood forests thick with cypress, gum, and oak —trees that thrived despite the standing and seasonal water that regularly plagued settlements along the river.
It was the wealth promoted by agriculture and the river and the constant visits by fleets of lacy steamboats that shaped Helena’s best days and gave rise to a whole Delta culture, and in a way it was a present-day steamboat that set me on my path there last summer. I’d previously known of the town as a onetime center of the blues, a stop on the Mississippi, Memphis, and Chicago music trail from the 1920s into the 1940s. (And I couldn’t help recalling an article on the blues guitarist Robert Johnson published in this magazine several years ago that found Helena to be rundown and shabby.) So it wasn’t until I learned last year that the Delta Queen Steamboat Company had launched a new itinerary for all three of its vessels featuring Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Helena that I thought it was time for a visit. After all, I reasoned, they wouldn’t have decided to include Helena if there weren’t something worth seeing there.
Arkansas’s tourism people were only too happy to set up an itinerary last June. Everyone warned me (at least it sounded like a warning, perhaps it was merely a description) that the Delta was “very flat.” But on the approach, a two-hour drive east from Little Rock, it wasn’t flatness or the dullness this implies that met my eye but richly green, contoured fields of rice and soybean. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds dive-bombed the young plants, while their mechanical brothers, the primitive-looking crop-dusters, swooped daringly low over the same fields. Beyond the side of the road, where Queen Anne’s lace grew high, magnolia trees held plate-size blossoms, and cattails sprouted from waterlogged ditches. On a drier shoulder of the road 1 spotted the slow journey of what appeared to be an ancient fortification on feet but was in fact an armadillo. Two harmonious, brick Georgian houses stood side by side in the middle of nowhere. Signs for towns that bore names like Stuttgart, Slovak, and England spoke of the first settlers to this remote, daunting region.
I stopped for barbecue at Armstrong’s, a simple structure on what passes for the motel and fast-food strip just where Helena meets West Helena. The unprepossessing but cheerfully crowded spot offers a down-home cuisine entirely unknown to me. But I’d head back to Armstrong’s anytime for that sliced pork sandwich. Here I met up with Pat Wheeler, Helena’s community affairs director, and “Miss Virginia” Sträub, a columnist for the local paper. I suppose it’s a holdover from plantation days, with all that implies, but the “Miss” designation, conferred seemingly randomly on various Helena women, both charmed and puzzled me. It’s not limited to maiden ladies, I noticed, nor does it seem to indicate a certain age. It’s a respect thing and a Southern thing, and no one could satisfactorily explain it to this outsider.
Helena and all of Arkansas saw terrible times in the 1930s. One estimate is that nearly a third of the state’s people were starving. Miss Virginia, it turned out, although a Helena native, had spent some years in New York City, living in its most exclusive area and working at Harper’s Bazaar . How did she get there, I wanted to know. Her response held all one needed to know of hard times. “I was visiting relatives in New York,” she said, “and I heard from my mother: ‘Your father lost his job, you had better find work there.’”
We rolled into Helena via Cherry Street, now the main commercial avenue after the river had effectively drowned two others closer to it in the last century. Since 1985, after being selected to participate in Main Street Arkansas, a statewide project with ties to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Helena’s citizens have been working to revive the fortunes of Cherry Street, once the liveliest part of town. In the early 1920s at least twenty-three saloons stood on these few blocks, and the plaintive notes of the blues harmonica drifted from them through the alleys, across the railroad tracks, and out over the sea wall to join and flow with the Mississippi. A more cleaned-up picture of Helena belongs to an early 1900s booster who wrote, “The U.S. flag floats above a splendid opera house. Electric lights, 3 railroads, many steamers and street railways give a modern air, and…a thriving prosperous look.”
Even now, when this busy official portrait has long given way to the watchful stillness of a Walker Evans photograph, Cherry Street still has much to offer. As the state’s most intact main street in its oldest city, it presents a dignified facade of two- and three-story brick storefronts, some boarded up, others open for business. These include several antiques shops and restaurants as well as Bubba Sullivan’s Blues Corner, the source of a wide range of CDs and some of the more esoteric blues records, and Gist Music, in business in the same spot since 1953 under the same owner, Morris Gist, who specializes in guitars and harmonicas.
The Main Street Arkansas program works with local government and business to revitalize the downtowns of eighteen small cities. In the case of Helena it was perhaps the first sign that things might be changing in the town’s favor. More recent evidence is the wonder- fully evocative Delta Cultural Center, which opened in 1990 in the old railroad depot at the south end of Cherry Street. The Union Pacific Railroad donated the attractive brick building, and much work has gone into creating a balanced picture of the region. Museum exhibits tell of good and terrible times, early prosperity, the contributions of an amazing mixture of immigrants (including a sizable Swiss contingent, who must have been mighty surprised by the Delta’s climate and configuration), racial tensions, and the ties that bind a people who live, I learned from a museum exhibit, in “a land of rivers, built by rivers and defined by rivers.” Scinthya Edwards, the center’s energetic new director, is striving to make it a place that isn’t just a research facility for visitors from elsewhere but is meaningful to the local population. At the center’s 1990 opening, then Governor Clinton led the ceremonies and spoke of a “Delta region…forged by hardship and adversity,” which “has always had a special kind of blessing.”
From the center’s second-floor window I could glimpse a slice of what had, beyond anything else, drawn me here: the Mississippi River. Separated from the town by a high levee, also called a sea wall, the river is nowhere visible from street level. As newscasts tell us each spring and early summer, we need to wall our rivers out, or they’ll come tumbling, wild and heedless, into our living rooms. All along the lower Mississippi such barriers separate the river from its people. But with great canniness Helena recently found a way to take back the river for the first time in this century.
In 1992 engineers breached the sea wall at one point and laid a hardtop road a mile or so that parallels the water. This is buffered on both sides by grassy knolls that invite people to picnic here and jog and fish. The crown jewel of the 142-acre Helena Reach River Park is a cleverly conceived treeshaded, elevated boardwalk that brings strollers right out over the river, presenting what is normally a gentle, soothing sight.
At the time of my visit this part of the Mississippi was higher than it had been in thirty years, as rain-swollen tributaries to the north drained into it. And with a lazy, almost casual reflex, like the swipe of a lion’s paw, the river spilled over the roadway, shredding the blacktop in a moment, ending all access by car. Somehow the boardwalk was spared. Helena was in shock, wondering what it would take to fix its newest landmark and where the money would be found. Last I heard, the townspeople had started repair work and held a couple of fund-raisers. More help would be needed.
After the lion’s paw had swiped Helena a few times a century or more ago, its citizens got the idea of moving back up into the safety of Crowley’s Ridge, beyond the water’s reach. The spectacular assortment of houses and some striking churches that they built, mostly during the late nineteenth century, stand in companionable closeness on a half-dozen streets. The perfect guide to these architectural treasures is Miss Annetta Beauchamp, who runs a business called Beauchamp-By-the-River. Her fact-filled driving tour includes a stop for tea at one of the grand houses and several generations’ worth of local history. Miss Annetta knows this town, brick by brick. She can tell you who lived where going back a hundred years. She knows her Confederate generals (seven came from Helena), and she’s especially partial to Gen. Patrick Cleburne, who is buried in the town’s Confederate Cemetery and who, Miss Annetta feels, has been mysteriously neglected by history.
Surprisingly she wasn’t born in Helena but went there for the first time, to a horse show, when she was four or five. “I don’t even remember what the town looked like,” she told me, “but after that I would say, ’I’ll never leave home unless I can live in Helena.’” When she married, that was where her husband’s business took them. “Fate just knew where I would wind up,” she says.