William O. Darby Junior High School has experienced some trauma over the years! It was first called Fort Smith High School and was built in 1897 but was only three months old when it was destroyed on Jan. 11, 1898 by a devastating tornado. It was rebuilt and then expanded in 1910 to accommodate the growing town, but the extension was destroyed by fire on Sept. 2, 1912. The old part of the school was barely saved. The final section, auditorium, gym, swimming pool and classrooms were built in 1918-1919. The school split in 1928, with the high school moving in 1928 to North 23rd and B Street. In 1955, the name was changed to William O. Darby Junior School in honor of the general who led troops in Africa and Italy during World War II; he was killed in action leading the Fifth Army assault in the Po Valley in 1945. The athletic temas were renamed the Rangers after the famous Darby Rangers. The school was expanded again in 1967, but much of it was demolished; only the section built in 1918-19 remains of the original. The student population was 578 in 2008.
This moderately-sized town in America's heartland was founded as a western frontier military post in 1817, and, believe it or not, really WAS located on the frontier of the "wild west" for many years, as Indian Territory lay directly to the west just across the Arkansas River! The settlement was reportedly founded as a military installation to keep the peace between the Osage and emigrating Cherokee, who were being relocated to the neighboring Indian Territory (now comprised of the state of Oklahoma) from the east coast. Land speculator John Rogers later purchased the land and promoted the growth of a new civilian town, but the US government later re-established a military presence at Fort Smith during the Mexican War. Fort Smith is named for General Thomas Adams Smith (1781-1844) who commanded the US Army Rifle Regiment in 1817. It was headquartered near St. Louis, but General Smith had instructed topographical engineer Stephen H. Long to find a site where a fort could be founded on the banks of the Arkansas River. Interestingly, Smith himself never visited the town or the forts that bore his name. Sebastian County was formed in 1851 when it split from Crawford County. The army finally vacated the town in 1863, and federal troops followed shortly in 1871.
Some famous figures associated with it include Judge Isaac Parker and William Henry Harrison Clayton, who was appointed US Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas by Ulysses S. Grant. Due to a lamentable lack of law enforcement, the town had at one point become "a haven for runaway slaves, orphans, Southern Unionists" and later brothels, saloons and outlaws who ventured into town from an even more lawless area across the river. Isaac Parker served as US District Judge from 1875-1896 and was the strong arm that was needed to keep things running smoothly. He was nicknamed the Hanging Judge because he reportedly hanged 8 people for murder his first term. Over the course of his career, he sentenced 160 people to death and executed 79 of them on the nearby gallows, which can still be seen today. The courthouse is now a National Historic Site where reportedly "more men were put to death by the US Government... than in any other place in American history."
Despite its rather lawless past and colorful history, Fort Smith underwent something of an economic boom during World War I when the Fort Chaffee Military Reservation was established on the east side of the city. It's now Arkansas's second largest city with about 84,000 inhabitants. The population has increased over the past few years, partly because of the founding of the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith (previously WestArk community college), designated as such officially in 2002. The city has a total area of 53 square miles. The town has been struck by three major tornadoes (1898, 1927 and 1996), the last of which caused great damage to the old downtown area, but much of it has since been restored.
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