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When you cross the bridge over the Arkansas River from Oklahoma into Fort Smith, the first sight you’ll see is the Park at West End. It’s sort of hard to miss a 56-foot Ferris wheel.
This little vintage amusement park is the creation of Phil White, an area businessman who acquired the property years ago. He was working to restore the building there, but it caught fire and burned to the ground sometime around 2006 or 2007. He tried to think for a long time about what to do with the property. He said “I saw clubs and bars and museums downtown, but I wanted to add fun. Something family oriented. Something for kids. I like old stuff, and I started collecting different things. The park is just a collection.”
And it’s quite the collection. The centerpieces of the park are the Ferris wheel and carousel. White says the Ferris wheel, which was built in the 1930s, is the oldest running Ferris wheel in the country. He bought it, spent time restoring every part, but then had to figure out how to put it all together. He explained, “I found an old carnival guy out of Fort Worth. He was in his 80s. He came up from Texas with a friend and showed us how to put the whole thing together.” For just $1, you can ride this Ferris wheel and get beautiful views of the river, downtown, and the Fort Smith National Historic Site.
Next to the Ferris wheel is the carousel, which comes all the way to Arkansas from Treviso, Italy. “It’s a Bertazzon,” White proudly exclaimed, “which is like the Cadillac of carousels.”The carousel features beautiful paintings, horses and other ride-ons. With its origins in Treviso, for $1, you can ride a real Italian stallion right here on the border.
Also in the park is a 1960s British Leyland double-decker bus which houses the concession stand. White found this bus in a barn in Cedarville. After he made the deal to purchase it, he realized it wouldn’t start. They used a tractor to pull it to start, but once he set out driving to Fort Smith, he realized it didn’t have any brakes! He had to down shift it the whole way home! He took it to his warehouse, restored it, and then they used a crane to set it inside the fence where it now sits.
Next to the bus is an old train car turned diner. This car was delivered to Fort Smith from Texas via the Kansas City Southern train tracks near the river. The train pulled up on the tracks and then a crane brought it all the way to the park where it was transformed into a location of the Boomarang Diner.
As you look around the corners of the park, you may notice statue critters such as a giant chicken, hippos, zebras, or a cowboy riding a horse. These are just pieces of White’s collection that he’s acquired over the years. So are the other fixtures in the park.
He told me about all of the pieces that came together to create a unique setting for the rides. The entrance with the brick walkway is from the old Jewish temple that used to be on 11th and E Street. The iron work is salvaged from different parts of the city. Bricks, steel posts, and columns are from buildings that were destroyed in the 1997 tornado. The park repurposes many items from all around the area with history in every corner.
While White builds and maintains the Park at West End, the City of Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Department operates it and keeps the income. About the park, White said, “It may have been the poorest business decision I ever made. But it wasn’t about that. It was about making people happy, about making an impact on the city. And I did that. I’m proud of that. It’s all about having fun.”
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