In a Day’s Drive: Discover the history behind Ft. Smith

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Learn about some of Fort Smith's history in this week's, "In a Day's Drive!"

FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA) — A tour of historic Fort Smith should start at Miss Laura’s.

“It is the Ft. Smith Visitors Center but it is a very historic place itself,” Executive Director of the Ft. Smith Advertising and Promotions Commission Claude Legris said.

It dates backs to the 1890s.

“It was one of six houses on the row when some things that are illegal now weren’t,” Legris said.

The artwork on the walls gives you an idea of what those things are. Miss Laura’s used to be a bordello.

“That gaggle of keys and the slate chips were found in that cigar box in the house. If we could get those keys to talk…” Legris said as he gave KNWA a tour.

Historic artifacts line the hallways of Miss Laura’s.

Miss Laura’s is quite an attraction. As KNWA was there, a tour group from Germany was passing through the building.

“We get visitors from all over the world who come into Ft. Smith and the Ft. Smith Visitors Center to learn about that very unique history,” Legris said.

There is history all over town.

“The Ft. Smith National Historic Site continues to be the number one drawing card and attraction. Almost 140,000 people going through the historic site, visiting every year,” he said.

That was the next stop on the tour.

“At the park, we have a number of exhibits on the marshals, outlaws, the prisons, of course, the courtroom,” park ranger Loren McLane said.

He and the park rangers give tours almost every day. Those include a stop right on site of the Western District of Arkansas’ courthouse from the 1880s.

Judge Isaac Parker oversaw thousands of cases in this courtroom.

“The jurisdiction that they had over western Arkansas and Oklahoma, which was known then as the Indian territory,” he said.

And two stories down, in the basement, is where the bad guys ended up.

This room housed up to 50 prisoners at a time.

“You can imagine that all 10 to 50 prisoners would all be in this open room right here,” McLane said as he showed us around.

“With the heat and everything in the summertime, people would get really sick,” he said.

“And not much separation in here between the inmates,” KNWA’s Chad Mira noted.

“Right. And you could have a kid in here who robbed a basket of apples and then punched someone. It’s like minor assault. And they could be in here waiting for trial with someone who had multiple murders,” McLane explained.

This site has a lot more to see.

“It was the conclusion of the trail of tears. The forced removal of American Indians ended right on that property,” Legris said.

But Ft. Smith is not all about the past. It is also looking to the future that will include the U.S. Marshals Museum.

A statue honoring Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi.

“That construction is ongoing but we feel like that will be a national-caliber museum as well and we feel that will really will be the linchpin that truly marries our past to our future,” Legris said.

It will give people more reasons to go visit.

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