PETIT JEAN STATE PARK -- As the Arkansas State Parks system celebrates its centennial this year, Petit Jean is playing the starring role. That's thanks to the fact that back in the Roaring '20s, it became the first of today's 52 state parks.
A statue outside the low-slung new visitor center honors Dr. T.W. Hardison. He was a visionary rural physician and writer who promoted the state-park idea for years until the General Assembly finally created Petit Jean in 1923.
But the muscle that built much of the park's infrastructure enjoyed by visitors today came in the 1930s from hundreds of formerly unemployed men. As members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, they found federally funded work atop Petit Jean mountain during the Great Depression.
The CCC legacy is saluted in visitor center exhibits and elsewhere in the park. According to a posted comment from Hardison, "It took the Depression to bring about the park's development."
Drivers along Arkansas 154 can stop to view a park statue set just off the highway. The sculpture portrays a muscled CCC laborer. He stands bare-chested holding a chopping axe. A plaque records the dates of Corps deployment here: July 15, 1933, to June 6, 1941.
In 2023, Arkansans and out-of-state guests continue to use the CCC's stone and timber structures, most of which have been updated to improve amenities. The most prominent is 24-room Mather Lodge, whose restaurant offers a panorama of rugged Cedar Creek Canyon. Corps members also constructed cabins, bridges and trails atop this mostly flattop mountain, 1,207 feet above sea level at its highest.
The CCC's major role in developing the state-parks system before the 1950s is evident from a historical fact: Only one more park, Mount Nebo, was founded before the Franklin Roosevelt administration established the relief agency in 1933.
Along with improving Petit Jean and Mount Nebo, the Depression-era workers built facilities at four parks established in the 1930s: Devil's Den, Lake Catherine, Crowley's Ridge and Arkansas Post, as well as two sites that are no longer state parks.
One former park, Buffalo River, is now a National Historic Waterway. The other, Watson near Pine Bluff, was the only state park open to Black visitors during the Jim Crow era. It no longer exists. Also, the status has changed for Arkansas Post, now listed as a state museum and paired with the federal Arkansas Post National Memorial.
The development boom leading to today's 52 state parks began in the 1950s, when nine new parks were dedicated. In the 1960s, 12 more opened, many located around lakes created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams. The largest surge came in the 1970s, when 15 parks were added. Eleven more have opened since 1980, mostly recently Mississippi River State Park in 2009.
No additional state parks are on the drawing board, but improvements continue at Petit Jean and elsewhere in the system. That is thanks largely to Arkansas voters, who passed the 1996 Amendment 75 Conservation Fund, a 1/8 of 1 percent general sales tax for the parks and similar purposes.
Back in the 1930s, CCC members clearly took pride in their work at Petit Jean. But some of them also had doubts about what their efforts would achieve. That is pointed out on a visitor-center information panel:
"Though this was a beautiful location, the men of the CCC wondered who would ever come to such a remote location on a mountain to see the buildings and lodge their hand had created."
Nine decades later, Petit Jean is the most visited Arkansas state park year after year. That was true in 2022, and it is a safe bet again in 2023.