Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ghostly Tales Linger at Historical Museum

Photo of  "Tower Building," circa 1915, G1754, courtesy of the
Arkansas State Archives

When the weather gets cooler and the days get shorter, many people like to gather around a campfire and tell stories about ghosts and things that go bump in the night.

Often these stories have no connection to actual events, but sometimes, just sometimes, the most unsettling stories come from actual, historical places and events. One Arkansas building, perfect for a ghost story, is the Tower Building in Little Rock, which currently houses the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History.

The historical structure was built among worries of violence and war. On November 6, 1837, Gov. James Sevier Conway addressed the Arkansas legislature about what he perceived as dangers to the newly admitted state of Arkansas. He argued the geographic location of Arkansas put the state in peril because the newly established Republic of Texas, located in the southwest, was at war with Mexico. Even though the United States was at peace with both nations, Conway worried violence would spill into Arkansas.

Of even greater threat, Conway believed, were the Native Americans who were passing through Arkansas on the Trail of Tears on their way to what is now Oklahoma. Conway said, “We are weak in the number of our soldiery and almost destitute of munitions of war.” Because of these worries, Conway asked the federal government to establish a military arsenal in Arkansas. The U.S. Congress then appropriated $30,000 for the building.

The arsenal was constructed on a former racetrack, just outside of Little Rock’s city limits. The first building completed was the “Tower Building,” which was erected in 1840. The rest of the complex was built later. For the next several decades, the arsenal served as a defense installation.

Then, the Civil War broke out. The arsenal fell under both Union and Confederate control at different times. In 1861, the arsenal’s commander, Capt. James Totten, surrendered the facility to the state of Arkansas, and the Confederate government retained control of the arsenal until 1863, when the Union regained control.

In 1890, the arsenal was decommissioned as a military facility. The City of Little Rock took over the arsenal and surrounding grounds in 1893 and named it “City Park.” For the next few decades, the former arsenal served as the home of several organizations, including the Little Rock Aesthetic Club and the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities.

Then, in 1942, the museum and the park around it were renamed to honor Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a World War II hero who was born in the Tower Building in 1880. The building became the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in 2001.

Several people say the Tower Building, which is the only remaining building from the arsenal complex, is haunted. For years, visitors and staff have reported strange goings on – cold spots, strange shadows seen out of the corner of the eye and whispering voices. Some people say the ghost of seventeen-year-old David O. Dodd, who was hanged on the arsenal grounds for espionage in 1864, haunts the building.

Other strange occurrences have been reported. Helena Schulze, who worked as an office manager, reported seeing a ghost at the top of the main staircase. Cindy Barger, who worked as a staff member at the Arkansas Museum of Science and History in 1989, said she heard the sound of people walking on the top floor, even when no one else was in the building.

Once, when Barger went to investigate, she saw a “shadowy figure” in the theater room. She ran downstairs and told a coworker, and the two of them went back to investigate. As they climbed the stairs, the coworker saw the same figure, but now, it was lying on the ground.

Scared, Barger and her coworker fled back down the stairs. They went back to investigate a third time and attempted to touch the figure, but their hands went straight through as if it were a shadow. After that night, neither saw the figure again.

Barger and other employees have said they have heard and seen doors open seemingly on their own. By the early 2000s, the building had developed a reputation for the strange and unexplained.
That reputation led to ghost hunters deciding to investigate in 2006. The group reported orbs of light and recorded Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) – including one unsettling voice that demanded the team “Get out!” One investigator claimed he heard piano music where there was no piano. He smelled roses where no flowers were present. Another investigator said he made contact with a spirit named “Katherine,” then later made contact with a male spirit who was curious “to see what we were up to.”  At the end of their investigation, the team concluded the “MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History is haunted.” 

Shane Lind, museum program coordinator for the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, summed up the experience several people have had in the building by saying: “The Arsenal building is 179 years old, and throughout its incredible history, many people have worked in, lived in or visited it. There is a special energy that remains from those who have been here before, and from those spirits who never left.” 

Whether you believe in such ghostly findings, it is indisputable the building has a long and fascinating history that is ripe for a ghostly tale. For more information on Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall in Little Rock or visit archives.arkansas.gov.

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