The Ouachita Mountains characterize this region. They extend as long, narrow ridges running west from eastern Oklahoma to central Arkansas. Sandy soil and the drier climate of the Ouachitas’ south-facing slopes support pine trees, while the mountains’ moister north faces are forested by hardwoods. The steep and narrow valleys sustain mixed forests of hardwood and pine. This region offers spectacular scenery with streams, springs, waterfalls, ridges, and peaks. Today, most of the region lies within the Ouachita National Forest.
From the mid-nineteenth century Anglo settlers, many from eastern seaboard states, began to occupy the rich agricultural lands along the streams. Settlement was limited to the valleys until after the Civil War, when the availability of free acreage under the Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged rural settlement on less fertile lands. Beginning in the 1880s, the railroads spurred a region-wide boom in lumbering. Speculators and lumber barons assembled large tracts of timberland and developed their own railroad spur lines to supply raw material for the sawmills. The railroads also opened up the tourist industry, drawing large numbers of health-seeking visitors to the mineral springs and bathhouses of Hot Springs. Yet, even after 1900, a large portion of the interior of the Ouachitas remained in the public domain. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside much of this public land as the Ouachita National Forest, and by the 1920s the U.S. Forest Service had built trails and primitive roads and was enforcing rules for selective cutting by lumbermen who had bought government timber. During the Great Depression, bankrupt farmers and defunct lumber companies sold large acreages to the International Paper Company and to the Forest Service, and during the 1930s the Ouachita National Forest more than doubled in size. Also in this decade the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed facilities for visitors to the forest and to the region’s state parks. The roads, drainage ditches, campgrounds, cabins, picnic areas, and swimming lakes built by CCC workers established an essential infrastructure for tourism. An important early industry in the region was bauxite mining in Saline County. Discovered here in 1887, the material proved necessary for the production of aluminum. The process of bauxite extraction is illustrated in a Public Works Administration (PWA) mural now in the Saline County Courthouse (SA1).
Today, the region’s economy is based primarily on timber production and recreation. Thousands of visitors come each year to enjoy the Ouachitas’ stunning scenery and fresh mountain air, and tourists also flock to Hot Springs National Park, perhaps less for the spas than for the attractions of its architecture.
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