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Resurrecting a Ghost Town

Resurrecting a Ghost Town

Davidsonville was little more than dirt and folklore for generations.

That changed when the Arkansas Archeological Survey began excavations at the state park in northeast Arkansas that bears the town’s name. Davidsonville was founded in 1816 but abandoned in 1829.

3-D rendering of the exterior of the Lawrence County Courthouse in Davidsonville. | Angie Payne, center for Advanced Spatial Technologies

A 3-D rendering of the exterior of the Lawrence County Courthouse in Davidsonville. | Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies

Davidsonville came back to life in recent years when the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas used historical documentation, found artifacts and foundation remains to digitally re-create some of the town’s significant structures to scale.

The CAST project, known as Davidsonville Interactive, features seven core structures: a post office – the first in what became the state of Arkansas – a courthouse, a jail, a tavern (shown in the featured image above), a blacksmith shop, a cotton gin and a wooden ferry landing/dock on the Black River. The visualization allows the viewer to see how Davidsonville likely looked in the 1820s.

“This is a wonderful way to present types of information gathered by archeological excavations for the public,” said Kathy Cande of the Arkansas Archeological Survey. “It helped my own thinking about what the town might have looked like when occupied.”

Now CAST is digitally rebuilding the town for visitors to Davidsonville State Park in Pocahontas. The center is putting the finishing touches on an interactive digital kiosk that will be featured in the park’s new visitor center.

A 3-D rendering of the courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse. | Angie Payne, Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies

The courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse. | CAST

“The kiosk will function similarly to Davidsonville Interactive,” said Angie Payne, a CAST research associate who, with Cande, created the original visualization. “However, the kiosk will feature more interior spaces, structures and educational information for school groups than the online visualization.”

Davidsonville was the first planned county seat in Arkansas. Spring flooding and the routing of a major road past the town are thought to be reasons for the county seat’s move west to Jackson, which led to the town’s demise. The Scott family operated the ferry for another century.

In 1979 and 1980, archeologists uncovered foundations of the courthouse, a tavern/residence and a second residence. More recently, from 2004-09, they recovered thousands of artifacts, found new information about the courthouse, revealed the base of a brick fireplace in a tavern, and collected hundreds of objects from a cellar or trash pit.

“The goal of all of this work was to expand our knowledge about the town site so that park staff can accurately interpret the history at the park for the public,” Cande said. “We also want more Arkansans to know about the rich early history of the territory and state. Davidsonville wasn’t a hardscrabble place with broken-down buildings. Many residents were professionals and they owned books and had nice furnishings for their homes. The artifacts form a very significant collection of frontier period objects unlike any found previously in Arkansas.”

Davidsonville Interactive includes the complete interiors of the courthouse and the tavern.

The common room on the first floor of he tavern. | Angie Payne, CAST

The common room on the first floor of the tavern. | CAST

In the tavern, CAST re-created the artifacts, such as a table setting, and placed them in their inferred context, Payne said. Photographs of the actual artifacts can be viewed in the CAST online catalog, where information including date, place of manufacture and function are included.

“Information is the key to visualization,” Payne said. “You start with any level of information that you have. For example, in Davidsonville we know from the foundation that a two-story structure stood at that location and it was made of brick. They made bricks more than likely onsite in a certain type of clay, which would have made them a certain color. We take that information and start from the ground up.”

Cande provided input throughout the process, based on fieldwork and lab results. She also provided information on archeological excavations at contemporaneous settlements in territorial Arkansas, such as Montgomery’s Tavern at Arkansas Post (1819-21) and the Hinderliter Tavern and William Woodruff’s home in Little Rock (1821-36).

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The post office. | CAST

“We were unable to find a period description of some elements,” she said. “For these, we chose elements based on our own opinions about what seemed to be best.”

Payne added, “There are always levels of interpretation. There are certain details that you can’t know from the archeology so you have to make those interpretive leaps.”

The Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council funded the visualization project. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism funded excavations in the spring of 2004.

About The Author

Chris Branam writes about research and economic development at the University of Arkansas. His beats include the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of History.

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