Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Ruins of Fort Chaffee

After leaving Charleston, there was one place I really wanted to visit, which I thought would look neat in the thick fog that was still hanging around. That place was Ft. Chaffee, which is still used by the Arkansas National Guard but was once a large army base. It was established just before the start of World War II as a training facility for soldiers and also as a POW camp, housing about 3,000 German soldiers. In 1958, the fort was the temporary home of Elvis Presley, who had his first army haircut there.

The main part of the base that you would always see from the road was the huge number of army barracks - you'd pass by rows and rows of old barracks and buildings while driving toward Fort Smith. In the 1990's, the government gave the base to the state, which declared the old barracks and land to be excess property. They had been sitting empty since World War II, used occasionally as processing centers for Korean and Cuban refugees. The old buildings were also used as the backdrop for the movie Biloxi Blues, which was filmed there.
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All of the old buildings are slated to be demolished, but that has been delayed since they contain asbestos and lead paint. The land they sit on is now a redevelopment district, with a proposed freeway near the old base. A large fire last year destoyed a lot of the old buildings, about 150, and is thought to have been caused by high winds knocking down a power line. The high winds carried the flames from building to building, and now all that remains of them are brick chimneys. Luckily, the building where Elvis got his haircut did survive the flames, but a good number of the old barracks are gone.

With the desire to develop this land for commercial purposes, the future of the rest of the base is in doubt. I'd love to see the state step in and preserve some of the buildings as some sort of museum, preserving just a bit of what remains. It'd be a shame to lose these great historical buildings so they can only be replaced with strip malls and gas stations in the name of "progess."

But anyways, the fog that morning was still thick, which gave the ghostly ruins of the burned and still-standing buildings an eerie look. The overgrown grass had a sheen of frost on them. Looking at the charred chimneys and old buildings, it felt more like I was taking pictures of Dresden during World War II or Atlanta after the Civil War instead of an old army base in Arkansas.
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The old buildings that still stand are fenced off with signs saying something like "hazardous material, do not enter." I was tempted to jump the fence to get some pictures inside the buildings, but thought I could get in trouble for it, since it's still next to an army area.
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These were taken at the edge of the base, near some buildings that had been rennovated and converted to commercial use. They housed a few random buisnesses, like a pest control company and even a massage place. As I was out there taking pictures, a large dog let it be known that it did not like me being there. It barked loudly and started to get walk closer. But as it got close, it decided I wasn't a threat and that I was its new best friend. It tried to jump up and lick my face. After that it stood nearby on guard duty, wagging his tail and happy to next to a new friend who would tell him it was a "good dog" and pat it on the back.
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The cold icy weather left some frost on all the plants out there. This tree branch was covered in frost.
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The ruins of Fort Chaffee still stand, but who knows for how much longer. I hope that the remaining buildings here will be preserved somehow. It is a shame that we allow so many of our historic buildings to be torn down and destroyed, only to replaced with parking lots and empty fields. The soldiers and heroes who lived and trained here deserve better than that.

10 comments:

Bob said...

Great post Brian!! I've spent many of nights in those barracks back in the early 90's while in the National Guard. It's been probably 15 years since I last stepped onto the base.

You've done a great job capturing the aura and essence of an old past!

wondy said...

I gave you an award. Check it out. :-)

I understand if you don't play along. You have a photoblog, so not really the right format for awards and stuff. I wanted to nominate you anyway though.

Jonw said...

This looks like a spot I'd like to visit...looks like many ops for detail abstract bliss! Nice treatment on the B&W/Sepias, and the fog adds to that aire of abandoned mystery.

Cormackphotos said...

Thanks Bob - I have family that lives near the base and I always thought it was an interesting place!

Thanks Wondy for the award! Thanks for looking at this little blog.

Thanks Jon - This was one of the more amazing photo places that I've been to in awhile. But I just barely cracked the surface there...

Simon said...

I spent 4 months there 1957-1958 for Artillery training by being in the 6 months National Guard program. I do not have any special memories apart from it being cold. But the photos are excellent.
Thanks Brian

Anonymous said...

I get on my computer and look up the pictures of the Fort Chaffee Fire and it makes me feel rather sad that the base is in the shape it is from the fire and being mostly abandoned. I took 16 weeks of basic training at the then "Camp Chaffee" in 1954, to qualify for Airborne Jump School at Fort Bragg, N.C. I would like to drive by the area before it is lost completely.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pics, brought back memories. I was stationed there 1956-1957, and Ft. Sill before. I was a training cadre there on 105mm howitzers, and used to drive ammo trucks to a firing range. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Rick said: I was stationed there for 8 weeks in early 1954 and trained on 105s. Spent Christmas 1954 alone. Then went to Fort Carson, Colorado.

donald wood said...

second 8 basic, spring 55. +5 cold as I have ever been but good times.

Lorie Robertson said...

You will be interested to know that Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority has created a vibrant, thriving economic development now known as Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith and Barling, Arkansas, from the 7,000 acres deeded through the 1995 BRAC. The development project features industrial, commercial, residential, historical and recreational areas. Fourteen hundred jobs have been created by major international companies such as Graphic Packaging International, Mars PetCare, Umarex USA, Walther Arms, Glatfelter, Phoenix Metals and more, some declaring this as their national/regional headquarters.

Most recently, Chaffee Crossing has been selected as the site of the new Arkansas Colleges of Health Education with the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine slated to open its doors to the first 150 medical students in the fall of 2017. A short distance away, publicly-traded ArcBest Corporation (formerly ABF Freight) has begun construction on a new corporate headquarters with plans to create 975 jobs (600 new) over the next couple of years. The immediate proximity of Interstate 40 and Interstate 49, the Arkansas River, two Class I rail lines and a commercial regional airport make the area especially attractive to industrial developers.

Nineteen residential developments are built, planned or under construction. Amenities include golf, soccer, softball, miles of multi-use trails, fishing, hiking, cycling and museums.

Of significant interest to this blog is the Chaffee Crossing Historic District which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. approx. 60 buildings are on the listing. These are being preserved and renovated for various museums and business uses. You can see photos and learn more on our website, www.chaffeecrossing.com, or on our facebook page, www.facebook.com/chaffeebarbershop.

Of particular interest is the Chaffee Barbershop Museum, renovated to look exactly the way it did when Elvis A. Pre3sley walked in the door on March 25, 1958 to receive his world-shocking G.I. buzzcut. This museum and the Museum of Chaffee History are open Monday through Saturday, 9am to 4pm. Visitors from around the world are making this a stop on their "must see" trips.

As a testatement to the success of the redevelopment, Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority has now received the John Lynch Base Redevelopment Excellence Award from the ASsociation of Defense Communities in 2012 and 2016. These is a very prestigious national award recognizing the tremendous economic impact the project is having on Arkansas' economy.

Please come for a visit!