Belmont (Pulaski County)

Belmont was a small entertainment hub that developed just outside of the World War I U.S. Army training center at Camp Pike in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). This short-lived boomtown was active between 1917 and 1922, although the exact dates surrounding the final business closures are unknown. The history of Belmont is interwoven with the story of the St. Joseph’s Home and farm in Levy (Pulaski County), and the city of Belmont became a physical representation of the social reform movements and how they intersected with America’s involvement in World War I.

Belmont was created specifically to provide “clean and wholesome” entertainment venues for the estimated 65,000 incoming soldiers training at Camp Pike and their visiting families. Military training centers prior to and during this point in history had a reputation of association with certain vices, conflicting with the sweeping moral and prohibition reforms gaining popularity in the early 1900s. Families expressed their worries over the potential exposure of their sons, brothers, husbands, and friends to gambling, prostitution, and saloons. Worries over the conditions and culture at army training camps prompted concerned citizens to write impassioned letters to the government, expressing such sentiments as “it is not the thought of battle that saddens the homes as much as the fear of what might happen in the camps at home.” Social activist groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union placed pressure on the federal government to protect the physical bodies as well as the moral well-being of soldiers and the communities they were traveling to and through.

Responding to other social problems, the Catholic Church supported the third bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock, John Morris, in his plans to establish a home for children and disabled or elderly adults in Arkansas, and in 1908 construction started on the St. Joseph’s Home/Orphanage. The 720 acres of land and 56,000-square-foot building that Bishop Morris secured and built eventually provided the setting for Belmont.

During World War I, the War Department established committees to oversee the entertainment and recreational outlets of soldiers, such as the Commission of Training Camp and Activities. Belmont was developed and designed to meet these needs and became a draw to the local community for entertainment and hospitality.

The War Department awarded the bid for one of sixteen new Army Training Centers to the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce in 1917. New railroad lines, improved and new roads, a water system, and other infrastructure investments created a perfect location for additional development near the camp. Additionally, Bishop Morris had completed the main building for the St. Joseph’s Orphanage and continued to work and add to the existing farm on the property. Some 320 acres of the bishop’s original 720-acre lot were converted into tracts that could be leased by individuals or businesses in the new city of Belmont through the Belmont Development Company.

The company submitted articles of incorporation in 1917, listing Judge Allen Hughes, Robert G. Allen, Sheriff W. G. Hutton, T. I. Davis, W. L. Smith, and Washington Gordon Erskine as founding members. The company leased land from the War Department, which had leased the land directly from Bishop Morris and the new orphanage building. The orphanage was converted for hotel and restaurant service, and the nuns and residents relocated to the recently vacated seminary building on State Street in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Newspaper advertisements in the Arkansas Gazette in 1917 called for local businesses and entrepreneurs to come out early and select the best lots, saying that a “high class business operation” and a “rare opportunity” were at hand.

At least thirty-five different businesses are known to have opened in Belmont. Described as “Little Rock’s Coney Island” by the Gazette in 1919, Belmont featured popular attractions of the period. There were at least three pool halls, several cafes and lunch counters, a cigar shop, a candy store, souvenir shops, photography studios where soldiers could create picture postcards to send home, a skating rink, a baseball field, a tailor, a branch of Pfeifer’s Department Store, a watch store, a shoe store, a movie theater, a live action theater, an auto garage, and the Hotel Belmont. The Military Officer’s Club was built and was described as being one of the “premier clubs in the United States.” The building was destroyed in a fire a few years after it was built. There was also a post office, a branch of the Army National Bank, and a Missouri Pacific train stop. Any residential portions appear to have been located within or near the businesses as a back portion or second story to the buildings. All of the businesses focused on providing soldiers and their visiting families with safe, convenient, and wholesome pastimes. Non-alcoholic beverages were featured at all the cafes and pool halls, and shows and movies were coordinated by the Committee for Training Camp Activities. Ensuring control over the type of leisure activities soldiers participated in had been the driving force behind Belmont, and for a short period, local businessmen were able to capitalize on the captive audience.

Camp Pike was decommissioned as an active training camp on December 3, 1918, reducing the influx of new soldiers to the area. The Hotel Belmont began to change the services it offered, putting ads in the local newspapers for rooms to rent to civilians and Sunday dinners. The reduced population slowed traffic into Belmont, which hit the businesses hard. Advertisements for the sale of buildings and equipment began to appear in the Gazette around 1919. Bankruptcy notices or liens against Belmont business owners became more frequent as well. The nuns and children returned to the orphanage building in 1921. It is unclear how many, if any, of the business buildings remained at this point. The exact fate of the structures is not known, but it is likely that they were dismantled, sold, or removed as part of the settling of accounts and bills owed by business owners. In the twenty-first century, concrete and mortared stone foundation remnants can still be located in certain spots, but little else remains of Belmont beyond pictures, articles, and newspaper advertisements.

For additional information:
Whitehead, Laura. “Belmont Boom: The Rise and Fall of Little Rock’s WWI Coney Island.” Arkansas Military History Journal 13 (Winter 2019): 5–16.

Laura Whitehead Fuentes
Flat Earth Archeology


No comments on this entry yet.