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Monday, April 15, 2024

Gateway Park in Fort Smith Brings Culture & History


If you get the chance, drive to downtown Fort Smith toward the Immaculate Conception Church.  In the curve there that divides Garrison and Rogers Avenue is a new park being finished. Gateway Park has been built where a multi-colored building that once housed AC Taylor Mobile Service Station on the triangle-shaped property. It is now a monument of sandstone steps and half-walls that lead visitors to three historically significant statues. The statues are in the likenesses of Judge Isaac Parker, John Carnall, and Mother Superior Mary Teresa Farrell.

The statues were created by a Kansas City artist named Spencer Schubert. Schubert created a 3:1 model of the statues to show what his vision was before completing the final ones unveiled last week.  He is known nationwide for his many works.

Judge Isaac Parker is the most recognizable of the three statues.  His likeness and life are known far and wide in this area of the nation.  He is depicted sitting in a chair and reading a law book as he faces Washington, D.C.  Parker served in the US Congress for two terms in Missouri and became interested in Native American issues.  Because of this, President U.S. Grant appointed him the judge over the United States District Court for Arkansas’ Western District.  He was the youngest federal judge west of the Mississippi River at 36 years old.

He and John Carnall worked together to provide schools in Fort Smith. Most know him as “the hanging judge’ but Parker was fair and honest, bringing civility to Fort Smith and the territory.

The second statue is of John Carnall (1818-1892).  Known as ‘the father of Fort Smith Public Schools,’ he was only twenty-two when he moved to Fort Smith and started the first free public school. Through Carnall and other civic leaders, including Judge Parker, government lands were sold and the money went to build schools, hire teachers, and buy supplies. He was also Sebastian County’s first county clerk and established a newspaper, The Fort Smith Elevator, at his own expense.  Carnall invested in land, creating subdivisions that expanded the city. Carnall Elementary is named for him.

The third and final statue is of Mother Mary Teresa Farrell who was born in Ireland (1821-1892). She was chosen to come to help teach and care for the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations. She is known for establishing the Sisters of Mercy in Arkansas, building the Mt. Saint Mary Academy, the oldest education institution in Arkansas today.  She and other sisters came to Fort Smith by steamboat and began educating many girls, especially girls from prominent Cherokee and Choctaw families.

During the Civil War, their ministry changed from education to health. The sisters closed the schools and turned them into makeshit hospitals for both Confederates and Union soldiers. Teachers became nurses. Mother Mary Teresa Farrell devoted her life to both education and health care in Fort Smith and Arkansas. Her statue faces the convent and the old Saint Edwards Hospital building just behind Immaculate Conception church.

“The Gateway Park is a private/public partnership” according to Ben Griffin. The $750,000 project, Griffin said, noting that the park will be built with privately donated funds. The cost of the statues themselves was around $342,000.The cost of the statues was around $342,000.

Griffin’s family donated $50,000 to the park at the unveiling. Less than $100,000 is now needed to meet the fundraising goal. The park is managed by 64.6 Downtown who is the group behind the mural paintings and other downtown promotions. 

Once finished, the park will be turned over to the city of Fort Smith.

Fort Smith is doing so much to keep history alive, improving tourism to all of the River Valley. Look for more projects coming in the near future.

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