The newly opened Gateway Park offers those who visit a chance to look backward and forward, city leaders say.
The park, which on Thursday morning was dedicated and turned over from 64.6 Downtown to the city of Fort Smith, features a concourse with bronze statues of Western District Judge Isaac C. Parker, Sisters of Mercy founder Mother Superior Mary Teresa Farrell and Fort Smith Public Schools founder John Carnall. Mayor George McGill at the dedication said the park will be both “something new” for residents to enjoy and something to highlight the city’s “amazing history.”
The roughly $750,000 park was constructed at the intersection of Rogers and Garrison avenues as a public-private partnership. It sits in place of the Universal Chapel, which was a project by muralist Okuda San Miguel in The Unexpected.
The park features a brick walkway around the three statues and views down Garrison Avenue and of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.
“I cannot tell you how beautiful this looks relative to what it looked like in the beginning,” statue sculptor Spencer Schubert said of the park.
Schubert at the dedication said “layers and nuance” capture the essence of the three historical figures portrayed through his statues at Gateway Park. Former Sebastian County Circuit Judge Jim Spears noted Thursday at the park dedication that Parker, who is known for signing off on the hanging executions of 79 people, was also instrumental in establishing education, healthcare and a financial sector during the latter half of the 19th century in Fort Smith.
Several of Parker’s descendants were present at the dedication.
“His contributions went way above his legend as a frontier judge,” Spears said. “He made a difference.”
On the Garrison Avenue side of the park is the statue of Farrell, who with the Sisters of Mercy established a healthcare network in Fort Smith after migrating to the United States from Ireland in 1851. Farrell and her fellow sisters provided medical aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War and would nurse the sick in the community.
“They would go into the homes and find the needs and help take care of those who would need to be taken care of in their homes and provide for other needs,” said Mercy Sister Chabanel Finnegan.
On the Rogers side of the park is the statue of John Carnall, who in the 1840s established Fort Smith Academy. He also used the money from the sale of unused federal land inside the city to benefit local schools. In 1887, Carnall used this money to pay for the construction of Belle Point School, according to the Fort Smith Historical Society.
“Mr. Carnall had a passion for the education of the youth,” Finnegan said of Carnall.
The park in addition to its educational and historic value also creates a space in downtown Fort Smith to drive economic development, 64.6 Downtown Director Talicia Richardson said. She said San Miguel’s initial “activation” of the space through Universal Chapel ties into this mission.
“Any time we inject our communities with artworks, it’s always for a purpose,” she said.
“Fort Smith is clearly experiencing a renaissance, and it is a beautiful thing to behold,” Schubert said. “We are so honored and proud to be a part of that.”