REX NELSON: A Night in Jail

It’s quiet in Washington as I sit outside and enjoy a relatively cool evening after a scorching summer. I’m not talking about Washington on the Potomac, where I lived in the 1980s. It’s never quiet there. I’m talking about Washington near the Red River, the one in southwest Arkansas.

I am staying at the Jailhouse Bed & Breakfast. It’s a Tuesday night, and I’m the only one here. The Inn, which is part of the Washington State Historic Park, is lovely. It’s a perfect night to read outside as I take in the towering trees that dot this city. For decades, Washington was the seat of Hempstead County.

A one-story brick building with four prison cells was completed in 1873. An expanded two-story prison was completed in 1918 with six cells. This is the building now used for the hostel. Each of the eight bedrooms has a private bathroom. There is a concrete pillar in the dining room and in two of the private rooms on the second floor displaying the names of people who carved messages into concrete while in custody.

From 1910 to 1939, there were at least 27 prison escapees in Washington. All but one of the escapees were captured. The largest number of prisoners held at any one time was 17. When the county seat moved to Hope in 1939, the jail fell into disuse. It was then divided into apartments. In 1982 the prison was purchased and renovated by JB Summers for overnight stays. It operated as a private bed-and-breakfast hostel until 2010.

The old prison was purchased by the state in 2014 and reopened after extensive renovations. Washington is a city made for walking, and I do a lot the next morning. I whisper a “thank you” to the conservationists who began working decades ago to save a place that was a major stopping point in the early 1800s on the Southwest Trail, which connected St. Louis to Fulton on the Red River.

Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie all traveled through Washington to Texas, where they fought for independence from Mexico. It was in Washington that Bowie commissioned James Black to make what became known as the Bowie knife. Washington was also an assembly point in 1846 for troops heading south to fight in the Mexican-American War.

In 1863, the Confederate government of Arkansas fled Little Rock. The 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse served as the Confederate capital until 1865.

Nearby Hope was the product of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad, which was built in southwestern Arkansas in the 1870s. Hope was incorporated in April 1875. A fire on July 3, 1875 in Washington destroyed many many businesses in the city. Most of these businesses have reopened in Hope so they can be close to the railroad.

A long and steady decline began for Washington. For 60 years, a political fight ensued as Hope tried to win the county seat. In May 1939, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in Hope’s favor. It looked like Washington would cease to be an important point in southern Arkansas. The Conservatives had other ideas.

According to the State Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism: “The historic preservation movement in Washington began in 1929. Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were able to secure money from the legislature to fund restoration from the 1836 courthouse. In 1958, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was established to preserve the city’s structures and interpret its history.

“The foundation has hosted home tours for 15 years and was successful in having Washington’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places in June 1972. In 1973, foundation officials invited the state government to help preserve and interpret the city. The foundation donated property and antiquities. Old Washington Historic State Park became Arkansas’ 34th state park when it opened on July 1, 1973.”

At a meeting in September 2006, the State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission changed the park’s name to Historic Washington State Park. A new master plan has been adopted for 54 buildings on 101 acres. Nearly 30 of these buildings are of historical significance. Tours can be arranged at the park visitor center in the 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse.

The 1836 Federal-style courthouse sits at the corner of Franklin and Hamilton streets. It replaced a one-room courthouse. Both structures were built by Tilman Patterson. After serving as the Confederate capital during the Civil War, it again served as a courthouse until the third Hempstead County Courthouse was completed. The United Daughters of the Confederacy focused their 1929 efforts on the 1836 building, but it increased public awareness of the entire city.

The 1874 courthouse was built in the Italianate style with a low hipped roofline, square cupola, overhanging eaves with decorative brackets, and long windows. After serving as a courthouse, it was a school for a time.

There are also historic churches in Washington. There has been a Methodist congregation since 1821. The congregation completed a Greek Revival style building on Franklin Street in 1861. Meanwhile, the Reverend Alexander Robinson Banks organized the Washington Presbyterian Church in 1849. A building built the following year later burned down. A Gothic Revival style building replaced it in 1889. A 1907 tornado moved the church from its foundation but did not destroy the building.

Historic homes worth seeing include the Block-Catts House, the Grandison Royston House, the Sanders-Garland House, and the Trimble House. Lunch at Williams Tavern is recommended after this morning walk through what I consider Arkansas’ version of Colonial Williamsburg.

Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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