From The Archives -- Arkansas Highpoint And Gangster Museum

[ Posted Friday, July 9th, 2021 – 17:01 UTC ]

I've been warning everyone for the past two Fridays that I was taking today off, so there will be no Friday Talking Points article today, sorry. Tune in next week, when we'll have a new one up as usual.

Since it's summer holiday time, though, I thought I'd re-run a vacation travelogue article I wrote in August of 2018. This article has nothing to do with politics at all, it was just a few days on the road winding our way towards the Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans.

The article contains a promise to post photographs of what is described, but it doesn't have a link to it, so if you want to see the accompanying photos (as well as a few Netroots Nation photos as well), check it out.

And I hope everyone's having a wonderful summer!


Originally published August 1, 2018

This is your humble narrator, checking in from the road. Today's column is nothing short of a travelogue, so if that sort of thing doesn't appeal to you, I would suggest you stop reading right now. There will be no political discussion, as I've been doing my best to ignore politics for the past few days while enjoying a drive down the middle of the country. Oh, and today's title is quite literal.

Which is as good a point as any to begin with. Our drive was not carefully planned, we just kind of wandered around. Sometimes this leads to disappointing experiences, and sometimes it leads to quite the opposite. It's a Zen sort of way to vacation, in other words. This time, it worked out wonderfully, as we stumbled across a largely-undiscovered gem.

We were driving across Arkansas towards the end of the day, and decided to explore Magazine Mountain, which happens to be the highest point in the state (hence the literalness of our title today). It stands at 2,753 feet, with an impressive view of the Ozarks and the Petit Jean Valley. We had driven through Paris, Arkansas, which (to be polite) does not exactly live up to its better-known namesake in France. We didn't find a hotel there, and were somewhat concerned with where we would be spending the night.

I did have a guidebook of sorts, but it was over a decade out of date. It described the mountain and the short hiking trail to the top, and mentioned that around the other side from the trailhead were the ruins of a lodge that had burned to the ground in 1971. The lodge had originally been built in the Great Depression, by both the W.P.A. and the C.C.C., after the land on the mountain was all bought up by the federal government.

Many of these grand lodges were built across the National Park system at the time, as anyone who watched the Ken Burns documentary on the parks will know. Most of them still stand (most were built in parks throughout the West), and are absolutely breathtaking. So while the sun began to set, we drove around to see the ruins of one of these that had been built a lot further east than most of them.

We were in for a rather big (and rather pleasant) surprise. All the signposts looked rather new and they all pointed to "Lodge" -- not "Lodge ruins" or "Where the lodge used to be," but we really didn't notice this at the time. We rounded the shoulder of the mountain to find an enormous and fully functioning replica lodge -- which, seeing as how we needed a place to stay for the night, was serendipitous indeed.

[Editor's comment: I should insert a little side note here -- while I do have photographs to share, it's really beyond my abilities to post them right now, so I'll have to post a followup article next week with some of the photos of our trip. I will definitely include some showing this wonderful lodge, as well as one of me brandishing an authentic Thompson submachine gun (more on that in a moment).]

We were lucky, as there was indeed room at the inn. In fact, there weren't all that many people there at all, even though it was smack in the middle of the summer tourist season. Perhaps this was because it was a Sunday night, but for whatever reason we were thankful that we didn't have to drive down the mountain and seek some seedy little motel somewhere in the back of beyond.

The lodge (we were informed) was built just over a decade ago, but in every detail it looked exactly like all the Depression-era lodges throughout the West we had previously visited. Enormous beams made of full tree trunks were used to construct soaring ceilings in the cathedral-like dining room. While all the facilities were new and modern, the lodge looked and felt like one constructed by a Roosevelt "alphabet" works agency. It is simply stupendous all around, and it sits on the edge of a cliff (there is even a hang glider launch pad on the grounds, which not every lodge can boast). The rooms all have a breathtaking view of the Petit Jean River Valley.

So if you're ever in central Arkansas and want a fantastic experience, or are just looking for a place to stay, I would highly recommend the Lodge at Magazine Mountain. It is well worth the trip, and you might as well also make the 15-minute hike to the highest point in the state (although, to be fair, the peak itself is wooded, so the lodge itself has much better views).

As I mentioned, this was a rather Zen trip, without a hard and fast itinerary, so we were merely wending our way south towards the Big Easy, killing some time before the Netroots Nation conference was due to start. But time wasn't the only thing notably killed on our trip, as we wound up visiting not one but two museums devoted to gangsters. How's that for serendipity?

From Magazine Mountain, we headed roughly due south, which led us straight to Hot Springs, and what is quite possibly the weirdest national park in the whole system. The rangers also claimed it was the smallest, but I personally happen to know this is false, as I've been to Greenbelt Park just outside of Washington D.C., which is only 1,176 acres big (or "small," really).

Size aside, though, Hot Springs is without doubt the strangest national park around. It stakes a claim to being the first national park ever, nationalized long before Yellowstone was created in 1872. Forty years earlier, Congress passed an authorization on April 20, 1832 setting aside Hot Springs for future recreation. So while not actually called a "national park," it was indeed the first federal land devoted to recreation, in the hopes of creating a European-style spa town so the public could enjoy the medicinal properties of the hot springs there.

Now, if you visit the park, you'll hear all about the history of the medicinal uses of the hot springs. They delve into the history of the treatments and the bathhouses and the town itself. Or, to be more accurate, the sanitized version of the town's history. It's all very whitewashed and bowdlerized, and if you just visit the park and leave, you'll never hear of the rest of the colorful history of the town. It'd be like visiting Las Vegas and just learning the history of the neon sign, without ever being told why such signs were ever created -- in other words, with no history of the casinos at all. This is the closest analogy I can make, because Hot Springs was also known for both its casinos and its Wild West atmosphere -- for over a century, and long into the 1900s.

Hot Springs was where all the organized crime families across the country all came to vacation. The town was neutral territory for all of them, because the big boss of Hot Springs was a mathematical genius who singlehandedly created a moneylaundering empire. He handled the cleaning of illicit funds for all the other crime bosses, which is why Hot Springs was much like the Switzerland of organized crime in two ways -- banking, and neutrality.

Gambling was illegal in Arkansas -- casinos were never authorized by law. But they flourished in the town, along with houses of ill repute, nightclubs, and all the rest of the "Sin City" attractions. It was discovered that the waters of the hot springs had more than just medicinal properties -- if you made moonshine from these waters, it came out brilliantly clear. So the local bottled water industry was co-opted in brilliant fashion. Mountain Valley Spring Water was bottled in large glass jugs which were upended into dispensers, just as water cooler water bottles are still used today. But they rather intelligently decided early on that because their bottles were upended for use, they would emboss their logo on the bottles upside-down, so they could be read properly when the bottle was in use.

Bottles with the logo upside-down contained medicinal water. But soon bottles with the logo rightside-up began travelling across the country for distribution, and in these bottles was a different sort of medicinal "water" -- clear moonshine. One of the most prominent importers of this product was Joe Kennedy, father of J.F.K., R.F.K., and Teddy.

We learned all this more-colorful history across the street from the national park, in the Gangster Museum in Hot Springs. I can highly recommend this to (as the sign out front boasts) learn the real history of the town -- a much more interesting history than looking at medical devices from the 1920s!

Hot Springs was a wide-open town run by gangsters right up to the 1960s, in fact, with the police department fully co-opted in the management by the crime bosses. It wasn't until Winthrop Rockefeller became Arkansas governor that the town was cleaned up, in fact. The raids on the illegal casinos Rockefeller launched was the top Associated Press story of 1967, in fact, and there were a whole lot of other interesting things going on in the country at the time, to put it into perspective.

Also, for perspective, Bill Clinton spent his formative years (from age 4 through high school) in Hot Springs. This is the town he grew up in, which explains a lot, when you think about it for a moment. I mention this by way of a segue, since we also briefly visited Hope on our travels, and saw the house he first lived in after he was born.

From Hope we headed south, and again almost randomly came across the town of Gibsland, Louisiana, where we spent some time in the Bonnie and Clyde Museum, which is located there because seven miles outside of town is the spot where they were ambushed by officers of the law. Remember the final scene from the Warren Beatty movie where their car was riddled with bullets? This is where that happened. So without ever intending to delve into the subject of gangsters, we wound up visiting not one but two actual museums devoted to gangsters. Both were of a rather ad-hoc nature (they weren't exactly the Smithsonian), but they were both completely enjoyable and well worth both the time spent and the entrance fee, so I would freely recommend them to other travelers.

OK, it's getting late and I've got a lot of political news to catch up on, so I'll just sign off here. Photos will be posted later (next week, hopefully), I promise, including that one of me with a Tommy gun. After all, what other museum in the world allows you to pose with a "Chicago Typewriter" at the end? In other words, a good time was had by all. For the rest of the week, I'll be participating in more politically-correct activities, but I have to admit that our road trip getting down to New Orleans was certainly a whole lot of totally unexpected fun!

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


27 Comments on “From The Archives -- Arkansas Highpoint And Gangster Museum”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That sounds like an awesome trip! I think that scene from the top of Magazine Mountain shows up as my screensaver or whatever ... truly beautiful!

    Now, about the CW Sunday Night Music Festival and Dance Party ...

    Any suggestions for a theme?

  2. [2] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Liz M.

    Yeah, how about politics/economics. Yaknow, like on a political blog??

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Oh, I'm sorry C.R.Stucki, you must be new here.

    Let me try to explain.

    Every Sunday night we regulars here put the fun and phenomenal world of politics aside for a few hours and enjoy some music for a while ...

    ... "but, you don't really care for music, do ya?"

    So, I'm sending this out just for you, a little early before the festivities get underway. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Of course, the songs may be as political as we wish. Do you know any political tunes, CRS?

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Sorry for my misplaced sarcasm, CRS and for misunderstanding your comment [2] ... it's a great idea for a theme!

    How about next week?

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Why don't we reach for the stars tonight ... celebrating the successful flight today of the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 spacecraft, launching a new industry of commercial space travel.

    Congratulations Richard Branson and crewmates and all who made this historic flight to the edge of space possible! Next up - Jeff Bezos on July 20th ...

    And, why not get this party started early and take it into and through the night ...

    Welcome, everyone, to the CW Sunday Night Music Festival and Dance Party on a special day for space travel - it's the Music in Space edition. :)

    I'm too excited to wait until this evening so let's kick this off properly with a PRiSM tune from 1977, off their eponymous debut album (which, by the way, was the first debut album by a Canadian rock band to achieve platinum status in Canada!) ... a song, I am happy to say, that was way ahead of it's time and will be with us through the future, here on earth and throughout the confines of outerspace as we may venture to in our lifetimes ...

    Spaceship Superstar!

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I hope you will forgive me for being such a smart ass. I've been in a bit of mood of late. Anyways, I going to start thinking up my favourite political (and economic??) songs for next week!

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    i don't know if i'd celebrate sending a few obscenely wealthy people into orbit just for kicks. unless of course they stayed there.


  9. [9] 
    John From Censornati wrote:
  10. [10] 
    John From Censornati wrote:
  11. [11] 
    John From Censornati wrote:
  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    We're not celebrating people here, Joshua, just the vastness of space and the thrill of travelling there sometime ...


  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight, with a billion stars all around ..."

    Peaceful Easy Feeling

  14. [14] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Just stumbled across this live video ...

    Black Sabbath

    Was never into metal but, I think I could've had some fun at a concert like this. :)

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:
  16. [16] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    This one goes out to Kick ... hoping you are well and will join us again!


  17. [17] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:
  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:
  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    One of my new favourite bands is Parallel 49 - United We Rock (love that motto) and they just released a cover of Montrose. More about P49 another time.

    I've never heard of Montrose but here they are doing Space Station #5

  20. [20] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    From the Let It Be album ... Across the Universe

  21. [21] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    2000 Light Years from Home - the Rolling Stones set to pictures taken by the Hubble telescope!

  22. [22] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Is there anybody or anything out there?

    Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft

    Great first comment under this video, too!

  23. [23] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The first climate apocalypse song ... about a guy lamenting our dying planet and dreaming about boarding a rocket ship and finding another world, wanting to stay but, first must get the Kaptin's approval ...

    Take Me To The Kaptin

  24. [24] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "Is it the stars that tell us what to know?"

    Take Me Away

  25. [25] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I sure hope you're not the type to hold a grudge ... :)

  26. [26] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Next Sunday night, it's time for our favourite political (and economics-inspired) tunes!

  27. [27] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Make that next, next Sunday night...

Comments for this article are closed.