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Capital Cities Tour: Discover Little Rock, Arkansas

The Arkansas River, flowing northwest to southeast, divides
the state in two. Little Rock, the state’s capital and largest
city sits on a bluff on the south bank of the river. Founded in
1812, the city got its name from the French “la petite roche,”
or “little rock,” a stone outcropping on the bank of the
Arkansas River used as a landmark by early navigators.
Called “Little Rock” to distinguish it from a huge cliff
upstream called “Big Rock,” it became a convenient spot to
land before venturing into the Ozark and Ouachita mountain
ranges. Before the Civil War, the little rock outcropping was
larger, but the railroad chipped out a few tons of it to build a
bridge foundation. So, little rock is littler today.

Things to See in Little Rock:

o State Capitols

Little Rock has three state capitols. The original is in the
Arkansas Territorial Restoration, a collection of historic,
pioneer-era buildings.

The second Capitol–the oldest surviving state Capitol west
of the Mississippi and the first site of the state
legislature–is now the Old State House Museum, a classic
Greek Revival on the bluffs of the Arkansas River. It’s also
the site of President Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996
election-night celebrations. The museum houses Arkansas
state history, native art, a collection of Civil War battle flags
and the state’s First Ladies’ inaugural gowns.

The current Arkansas State Capitol, designed in 1899 and
completed in 1916, is a gold dome, quarter-scale replica of
the nation’s Capitol. It sits on a hilltop west of downtown
Little Rock at the former site of the old State Penitentiary.
Made of Arkansas white marble and granite, the building is
similar to the nation’s Capitol but with the unique distinction
of six, 4-inch thick, handcrafted Tiffany brass doors that
shine like six gold bars.

Check it out: . . . At Christmas the Capitol is ablaze in white
lights that reflect off the elaborately carved brass doors.
Amid all this twinkling white light is the word “Peace”
spelled out in a cool sapphire blue from five circular
windows above the main entrance. Beautiful.

Tip: Another seasonal feature is the 100 Christmas trees on
the lawn, representing Arkansas counties. Each tree is
decorated based on the unique feature of the county. A
festive way to learn about Arkansas counties.

o MacArthur Park Historic District or Quapaw Historic District

Downtown Little Rock’s oldest surviving neighborhood is
MacArthur Park Historic District (also known as Quapaw
Historic District, named after the Quapaw Indian tribe). The
focal point is MacArthur Park, located on 36 acres originally
set aside in 1837 for an arsenal to protect the fearful settlers
from Indian attacks, which never came. In the late 1800s
German immigrants settled around the arsenal, building
homes ranging from modest cottages to some of the most
elegant 19th century homes. The neighborhood is also the
birthplace of World War II hero General Douglas MacArthur
born in April 1880. The Quapaw Historic District preserves
these classic Victorian homes from Little Rock’s past, one
of which is the 1881 Villa Marre featured in the opening
scenes of the former television show “Designing Women.”

o Central High School National Historic Site

Now a national historic site, Central High School was the
scene of the 1957 school integration crisis in which nine
black students showed up to attend Little Rock Central High
School under a 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial
segregation. Although the city expected to be one of the first
southern cities to comply with the new law, the governor
called in state troopers to block the students from attending,
fearing violence and property damage from protestors. After
three weeks the troops were withdrawn and the local police
escorted the students through a side door, only to be
ushered out again four hours later. U.S. Congressman
Hays and Little Rock Mayor Mann appealed to the federal
government and President Eisenhower dispatched one
thousand soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division of the
U.S. Army to the site, and that settled it. The nine students
entered the school, stayed the full term and eventually
graduated. Central High Museum and Visitor’s Center
commemorates this historic event.

o The Old Mill

Fans of the movie “Gone With the Wind” will enjoy a visit to
the Old Mill in North Little Rock. A historic re-creation of an
19th century water powered grist mill, it was featured in the
early scenes of the classic film.