Arkansas Backstories: Lost Valley
By Joe David Rice
Newton County can claim more than its fair share of Arkansas’ iconic natural features — places such as Hemmed-In Hollow, Big Bluff, Indian Creek, Richland Falls, Whitaker Point and, of course, the Buffalo National River. To that impressive list can be added Lost Valley, a rough-and-tumble canyon southwest of Ponca formed over the eons by the erosive actions of Clark Creek, a minor tributary of the Buffalo. Named after Abraham Clark, one of the original pioneers who settled in the area during the 1830s or 1840s, this intermittent stream plunges some 1,200 feet in the 3-mile stretch from its source to its confluence with the river.
It was one of Clark’s descendants who guided a trio of government surveyors up the creek in 1898 to an enormous rock shelter. Deep in its dry interior, they noticed bushel upon bushel of tiny corn cobs left centuries earlier by Native Americans. Dubbed Cob Cave, the picturesque landform became known among the locals and provided an attractive setting for occasional Sunday afternoon picnics.
In 1931, a University of Arkansas expedition led by archeologist Samuel C. Dellinger bushwhacked to the cave, seeking Indian artifacts. Spending roughly three weeks digging through the dust, leaves and gravel in the deepest section of the shelter, Dellinger and his team uncovered, in addition to the ubiquitous cobs, an assortment of gourds, sunflower seeds and woven baskets — all of which had been preserved due to the site’s extremely dry conditions — but they failed to find the expected burials. Dellinger’s collections, made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, are still used today by researchers examining food and fiber practices of Native Americans.
Things remained fairly quiet along Clark Creek until the spring of 1945 when a resourceful state publicist by the name of Avantus Green brought Willard Culver, a staff photographer from National Geographic magazine, to Newton County. Green, who’d been given the task of presenting Culver with interesting subject material, had heard rumors of the cave and decided he’d take his guest to the remote location. Not only did they come upon Cob Cave after an arduous hike, they found a series of waterfalls beyond the rock shelter and also another cavern with an underground cascade. While the magazine opted not to use any of Culver’s photographs taken that day, Green was smitten with its spectacular beauty, naming it The Lost Valley.
Green’s releases about the isolated gorge caught the attention of Margaret Maunder, a feature writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Flying to Little Rock in April 1946, she was met by Green and Harold Foxhall, the Arkansas state geologist, who drove her to Harrison and then to the valley of Clark Creek the next morning. In its Sunday, June 2, 1946, edition, the newspaper ran a full-page article (with six photographs) describing Maunder’s adventure, beginning:
Oddly enough, in a country combed by the wandering footpaths of 140,000,000 people there still exist spots of rugged yet ethereal beauty, virtually unknown to present-day Americans.
One of these is the newly-discovered Lost Valley in the verdant, rocky wilderness of northwestern Arkansas, scarcely more than 325miles from the heart of St. Louis. Here, as recently as one year ago, mighty waterfalls cascaded over cliff-like palisades as tall as 40-storybuildings and pounded on ancient slabs of pure marble many feet below all without their thundering roar touching the eardrums or their sun-glistening beauty catching the eye of modern man.
Although Ms. Maunder’s piece took a few liberties with the truth, stating that Lost Valley had been unknown until the previous year and that mummies had been found in Cob Cave, it certainly generated additional interest in the narrow canyon. Meanwhile, Avantus Green continued to extol the beauties of The Lost Valley — a name which over time was shortened to Lost Valley.
Then, in the early 1950s, students from the University of Arkansas began making the 67-mile trek from Fayetteville to explore this special place they kept hearing about. One of them was Kenneth L. Smith, who in the summer of 1958 wrote two lengthy pieces on Lost Valley for the Sunday Magazine published by the Arkansas Gazette. Smith devoted much of his adult life to conservation of the Buffalo River watershed, to include writing The Buffalo River Country, a classic first published by the Ozark Society in 1967.
A 1960 timber sale yielded a bulldozed logging road and a stand of hardwood stumps within sight of Cob Cave, galvanizing public support for protection of the property. In late 1966, just weeks before he left office, Gov. Orval Faubus announced a 200-acre purchase establishing Lost Valley State Park. Imagine the public’s surprise when a front-page story in the Arkansas Gazette the following July revealed that Cob Cave, the waterfalls, and the towering bluffs weren’t included in the original acquisition, but instead were within an adjacent 80-acre tract owned by the former governor. Faubus, who’d quietly bought the land 60 days after leaving office, sold the property to Mr. and Mrs. Albert Heyden of Little Rock for $6,500 (allegedly only $100 more than he paid for it) — and they, in turn, generously donated it to the state. In 1973, this park, along with Buffalo River State Park far downstream were given to the National Park Service for inclusion in the Buffalo National River.
Today, Lost Valley remains a popular destination with an easy-to-moderate trail leading to Cob Cave and the nearby falls. The round-trip hike of a little over 2 miles is jam-packed with fascinating photo ops: caves, springs, waterfalls, bluffs, a rock shelter and a natural bridge. When Ms. Maunder described Lost Valley as being “one of the most scenically beautiful spots between the two oceans,” she wasn’t exaggerating.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.