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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Ruins of Monte Ne.

The dreams of an American entrepreneur deteriorate by and under the waters of Beaver Lake

A monolith stands on the shore of Beaver Lake. The tower rises three stories above the shoreline, seemingly serene and calm from a distance. On closer approach, the colors shout out, obscenities and names and other graffiti spattered across the face of the structure. If the light hits it just right you can see the graffiti is apparent both inside and out. You can approach it from land or lake, walk right up and inside, where generations of paint have layered the walls in the name of art and defacement.

But why is the structure here? What caused it to be abandoned on the lakeshore? The answer lies between the waters of Beaver Lake and the dream of an entrepreneur with ideas about Utopia.

***

I have heard whispers of Monte Ne all my adult life, but mostly from people who had heard it from others. An old friend who scuba-dived said he had been meaning to get up there for years. An acquaintance told me there was a resort under Beaver Lake that was part sanitorium, part summer camp. It sounded like “The Road to Wellville,” the 1994 movie about a 1920s health resort. A little research and a personal visit would banish those myths and solidify what Monte Ne really was in my mind.

***

The tower is a prominent feature from the ruins of Monte Ne, a resort built just past the turn of the 20th Century, a vision of one William Hope “Coin” Harvey. The entrepreneur came to this area of the Ozarks to build the resort. He purchased 320 acres of what was then called Silver Springs and renamed it Monte Ne -- a name he conjured up from Spanish and Omaha Indian words for mountain and water.

He used some revolutionary ideas in the construction of his resort -- including the utilization of slabs of concrete in many of the structures on the site. He combined this with more traditional construction methods. The two hotels constructed at the resort that made it to completion
were made from logs with tile roofs. These two structures called Oklahoma Row and Missouri Row were at the time the longest log cabins in the world.

He financed the building of the resort through the sale of his writings regarding free silver. His nickname, “Coin,” comes from his most popular work, Coin’s Financial School. He sunk $100,000 dollars (half his own, half from investors) into construction at the site. It wasn’t just about building the hotels. He had retaining walls built along the creek and lagoon and walkways constructed and even had a railroad assembled to run between the resort and Lowell to bring in guests. Those guests would disembark from the train and be escorted by gondola to the resort itself.

He built Arkansas’ first indoor pool in a bathhouse on Silver Creek across the lagoon from the resort. The downtown area he laid out had a livery stable, a bank (which used Harvey’s own scrip instead of American dollars), a grist mill, general store, and post office. His son Tom even ran a newspaper, the Monte Ne Herald, in the town.

The resort was something else in its heyday. I sat down with Shiloh Museum director Allyn Lord to talk about Monte Ne. She literally wrote the book on the subject; her Historical Monte Ne book came out a few years ago and is a great read with lots of photos from the old resort. “Monte Ne was a great destination back in its heyday. This was back before air conditioning. It was really cool down in the valley, even in the summertime.”

But some of Harvey’s ideas just didn’t take well with guests. He had a lights-out at 10 p.m. policy and reportedly wouldn’t allow sick children at the resort. He was a wiley sort. “He wasn’t crazy,” Lord told me. “Some folks think he was, but those were different times.”

It was a great dream, this nirvana in the Ozarks, but it was not to be. Harvey’s bank failed. The railroad went under. His son Hal died and his son Tom took off and left for good. Harvey tried unsuccessfully to run for Congress and his friend Williams Jennings Bryan wasn’t able to find a place for him in the Woodrow Wilson administration. These sort of things could turn anyone’s mind dark.

In February 1920, he published Common Sense, announcing his intention to leave a message for the future in the form of a pyramid. His plans called for a structure that would have been 130 feet high and which would have contained artifacts from the age preserved for the future -- a globe, newspapers, domestic items and things like record players and such. Harvey had a 165 foot retaining wall built, but that’s as far as he got on the structure.

He did, however, complete an unusually shaped amphitheater he planned to rent out to bring in more money for the pyramid’s construction. The twenty foot high, 140 foot long semi-circular structure was built without an architect. It was very irregular but could seat anywhere from 500 to 1000 people at a time.

The Great Depression pretty much ended Harvey’s pyramid dream. By that point he had sold off the hotels, which continued to do business under other operators. The Oklahoma and Missouri Rows spent time as the Ozark Industrial College and School of Theology until 1932.

Harvey wasn’t quite done yet, though. He formed The Liberty Party and gathered together a presidential convention at Monte Ne in 1932, the only presidential convention ever to be held in Arkansas. He expected 10,000 people -- he got just 786 delegates who nominated him as their presidential candidate. The party ended up merging with the Jobless Party and Harvey ended up running independent, coming in 6th in the election with just 800 votes.

He was done. He continued to write his newsletter, The Liberty Bell, until his death in 1936. He was entombed along with his son Hal (who had died in 1903) in a concrete structure, along with many of his books and papers.

The buildings were sold off and used for other purposes -- such as training facilities for the Arkansas Guard and facilities for a girls’ camp.

What truly took out Monte Ne, though, was the encroachment of Beaver Lake. The Corps of Engineers determined in 1960 that the lake would inundate Monte Ne and made moves to buy up the land all around there. The log structure portion of Oklahoma Row was purchased and moved north, where it can still be seen, sagging by the side of Highway 94.

However, the Corps expected Beaver Lake to cover all of the old resort. Those levels fell short, which is why you can view much of what’s left behind today.


***

So what’s left of Monte Ne today? I’d heard my share of rumors, from “it’s completely submerged” to “it’s not worth your time.” But curiosity got the better of me. I did my research, looked up the site on Google Maps and figured out how to get down to it off the highway.

Photographer Grav Weldon joined me for the journey to northwest Arkansas. We passed through Rogers and out Highway 94 to the community that is Monte Ne today. It’s not much -- a collection of houses and mobile homes clustered around the Monte Ne Inn Chicken Restaurant at the intersection of Highway 94 and the Highway 94 Spur -- though we did sight an old fashioned windmill on a lawn.

But where were the ruins of Monte Ne? We found what we thought might be the most accessible point as we came in view of Beaver Lake. With a severe drop-off from the asphalt and no discernible shoulder, Grav asked if I’d stand in the road and divert any traffic that might come around the corner as he went down the bank to capture shots of the tower he could see in the distance.

I was excited about that tower. Being able to see it so clearly meant we had a chance of getting something visual to go with our story. A quarter mile further we found a gravel parking area off to the right side of the road -- and several cars, too. Out we went, out down the most obvious path over a guard rail. There was a sign, undoubtedly something along the lines of “Keep Out” or “No Parking” or something, long painted over.

Usually this would be the point where I’d carefully stand by at said sign while Grav took the big camera and went about his job chronicling places he probably shouldn’t go… but not this time. There were half a dozen people scattered along the path ahead, the path that stretched on to the tower.

Footpaths have been forged in the grass for some time here… and more gives way to concrete, not a sidewalk or roadbed but what turned out to be the roof of the basement section of what was once Oklahoma Row. There was one hole I noticed, big enough to trip into but not wide enough to allow one to fall all the way through.

You can stand on a corner of the building, no guardrail or safety net in place, and potentially trip off and hit the rocks below. The vantage point overlooks what was once Silver Springs below. Now you see houses on the opposite bank, a boat dock and water.

I followed Grav out to the tower. The sun was heading towards a setting in the southwest, nearly behind the tower itself, very bright and blinding. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t see the graffiti until I got close.

There’s all sorts of tags on the outside of the building, mostly around the base of the structure but a few high up around the windows overhead. Daredevils must have taken great pleasure at pointing out how far they got from the portals when they managed to tag out at such precarious angles. It still didn’t prepare me for the inside.

It was like stepping into a kaleidoscope, paint in places a half inch thick where vandals had sprayed their thoughts on the wall. The ceiling, the floor, even the fireplaces had not been spared. Much of the interior was splattered with profanities and crude images -- in fact it took much work to find things to shoot that could be included in this magazine. Through the pane-less windows the far shores of Beaver Lake could be seen, populated with trees and homes. Water light echoes flickered on the ceiling in the front rooms.

There were no staircases -- but through a hole between floors I could see more paint above. Some taggers had obviously taken great joy in climbing up into the top of the structure. “Climbing is discouraged,” Shiloh Museum director Allyn Lord later told us. Yet I found several shots on the internet while compiling this story of people -- even church youth groups -- who see climbing up into the tower as a goal to achieve.

It’s a shame, really. The tower is on the National Historic Register, but there’s no money to restore it or even keep vandals out. “There have been efforts to have it made a state historic site, with no success,” Lord told me. We shared a similar notion, that it would be fantastic if the state could come in and take over the acres currently owned by the Corps of Engineers and make it into some sort of park.

After exploring the rooms inside the tower we walked around the base. It was apparent that people had crawled far under the structure, considering the proliferation of trash and the remnants of a sleeping bag. I would later learn that the old crawl space is usually inundated with water. I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in crashing underneath.

Off to the west side of the point, we could look back and see what we had been standing on. With the water down we could actually walk right up to what was once the basement of Oklahoma Row.

We waited until a couple managed to come back up from their inspection, then took a look inside. The basement level rooms weren’t used for housing -- except for a small room on the north end of the structure. That room contained a fireplace, a small room with plumbing that had apparently once been a bathroom, and much rubble all over
the floor. We’d later discover that access to that section was usually unavailable.

After that exploration we walked back along the shoreline to the east, passing the tower and following a long pipe that I assumed had once been underground. Time and erosion had washed away the dirt around it.

We came upon an inlet, and while Grav darted down to shoot what was left of the base of the wall I walked back into the woods and found what I assume was once the fireplace for Missouri row. It and a few short staircases are all that remain of the row. You can tell by looking at it how the different mantles sat, all at different angles and all, I assume, with their own conduit through the chimney. This structure too has been tagged with spray paint, though not to the extent of the Oklahoma Row tower.

And next to this remnant in time? A boat ramp into the lake. There were another half-dozen people along the landing, fishing or talking to people who were fishing.

We’d discover later on that we missed one important sight -- that of the tomb of William Harvey and his son Robert, sitting on private land on the opposite side of the boat ramp. The tomb itself is cracked, apparently from being moved when the lake was created to avoid being inundated.

The problem with the location of the ruins is that it’s impossible to shoot them well from the land. Grav and I set off to see if we could find out way around to the other side of the inlet so he could get a better shot.

We doubled back along the highway until we came to a side road. It took us up a decently steep hill on a narrow band of asphalt. The first view through the trees came at a house hanging onto the land above the lake bank. Grav jumped out, went and knocked on the door and asked permission to shoot.

The light was starting to fade, and there were lots of branches in the way, so we looked for another spot to try our luck again. We drove further along and found a side road that ran close to the lakeside. But there still wasn’t a good shot.

Finally Grav asked me to stop -- he’d seen something unusual way out on what appeared to be a peninsula. I sat with the car, watching the neighborhood dogs smell at the wheels and give friendly barks while he jogged through a yard and down a good ways. I caught sight of him later almost a half-mile away right on the edge of the water.

Turns out the little peninsula he was on is usually an island, and if the water was lower you could actually see the top of what was the amphitheater. However, the Corps of Engineers rarely lets the lake get even as low as on that particular day, and there was not much for him to shoot in the fading light of the afternoon.

But what he was able to capture was the vision of the remaining tower, standing on its own in the pinkish glow of the sunset on the point, a final reminder of what Harvey tried to accomplish. It’s not a resort, but it is a remnant of a different time. Will it be saved? That’s a question only more time will answer.

***

Tip: The water levels for Beaver Lake on the day Grav photographed the ruins were at 1120 feet. The top of the amphitheater is clearly visible at 1113 feet. In December, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a notice of low water levels, and those levels fell to 1113 feet the week of Christmas. If you’re interested in viewing the amphitheater and would like to monitor the water levels, you can review a daily water level report here.

***

The Rogers Historical Museum has both an exhibit on Monte Ne at its facility and an on-line exhibit to peruse. Tour “Buried Dreams: ‘Coin Harvey’ and Monte Ne” at the museum, open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday at 301 W. Chestnut in Rogers. Call (479) 621-1117. You can find the online article here.

***

Read this story and much more, including The Birds, in the February 2011 issue of Arkansas Wild.





1 comment:

  1. Spectacular use of natural lighting on your shots. I though that the whole place can really use industrial strength cleaning services, especially if the damage done has accumulated over the years.

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    ReplyDelete

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