One of the most pivotal wars in the history of the United States was the Civil War, and one of the most important strongholds in the South was located in the business-savvy town of Camden, Arkansas.
The trading center for southern Arkansas because of the Ouachita River and steamboat service from New Orleans, the city of Camden presented an economic and geographic advantage to whichever side held it. But one of the most important buildings in Camden during the turnover of military hands from the Confederate to the Union army was the McCollum-Chidester House, located on historic Washington Street. Which, by the way, many say is visited by the ghosts of the city’s past.
The history of the McCollum-Chidester House predates the Civil War.
“The McCollum-Chidester House was built in 1847 by business man and merchant, Peter McCollum, who was from South Carolina. McCollum and his six children lived in the house. He and his family contributed to the growth and prosperity of Camden and by 1860, it was the second largest town in Arkansas,” wrote Glendle Griggs, a board member of the Ouachita County Historical Society, to AMP. “The McCollum family hosted many famous visitors to Camden, including politicians, steamboat captains, ministers, prospective business owners, and brought education and culture to Camden.”
The Arkansas Gazette described the home in an article from 1934, noting a host of notable guests in the house:
“Culture and hospitality were among Mr. McCollum’s largest contributions to Camden’s early days. He built a home for his family, fitting it with every convenience procurable at that time. Wallpaper was unknown in Camden until 1857 when Mr. McCollum imported some of a dull grey design from New York City for the parlor walls of his house. In that same year he brought from New York for his home the first cast iron cooking stove in Camden, a luxury and a novelty. Illustrious men and women of the times were guests and visitors at the hospitable McCollum home, including Gen. Albert Pike, General Royston, Judge Edward Cross, Judge Somerville, Hon. J.K. Jones, Judge Lewis B. Fort, Capt. Len Moore, Capt. John W. Tobin, Capt. Lloyd Tilghman, Gen. John Dockery, the Rev. William Stout, who established St. John’s parish in 1859; Father Martin, a Roman Catholic missionary and Bishop Capers. Brilliant evening parties were given at the McCollum home.”
Griggs emphasized the importance of the city’s location for travel and economics.
“You could travel from New Orleans, bringing supplies and goods on a luxury steamboat in just three days, and ship cotton, agriculture, woods and other manufactured products on the return trip to New Orleans.”
Danny Harrell of the Ouachita County Historical Society Museum, office manager at the McCollum-Chidester House, concurred.
“The McCollum-Chidester House is located right on the edge of the historical district. Of all of these historic homes, our house was the oldest house in Camden. The house helped build up business because it lodged important business people and industries. Butterfield Stagecoach Operations’ headquarters moved here in 1863.”
Camden was as pivotal to the state’s development as the McCollum-Chidester House was pivotal to Camden’s. In 1863, John T. Chidester became the second owner of the historic home.
“Chidester purchased the home from McCollum in 1863 for $10,000 in gold. The Civil War was in progress, and McCollum was pretty wise in not accepting payment in [Confederate] money,” Harrell said.
Chidester’s past would end up playing a pivotal role in the way that he helped shape the city.
Chidester was born in 1816 in Middlefield, New York, and found a job at an early age with the Robertson Circus, caring for its animals. This job is where he discovered his love for horses. At age 16, Chidester began driving a stagecoach from Washington, D.C., to Cincinnati. Later in life, he moved to Tuscumbia, Ala., to start his own stagecoach line, where he carried both passengers and U.S. mail, which created a profitable business. He was a major contributor in the John Butterfield Overland Mail Company (1858-1861) as a subcontractor for Butterfield to transport mail across Arkansas from Memphis to Fort Smith.
Chidester began operating his stagecoach lines in Arkansas in 1858, but he and his family did not move to Camden until 1863. When Chidester purchased the house from McCollum, he and his wife remodeled the home by adding two more bedrooms and enlarging the dining room.
Two of Chidester’s sons would die defending the Confederacy, not far from the house where they grew up. Shortly after the home remodeling was completed, the Civil War would change the face of the McCollum-Chidester House’s history and leave the paranormal behind with it.
As Union troops occupied Little Rock, the Confederate rendezvous point was moved to the west of Camden. Union Gen. Frederick Steele began to make his way to Shreveport with 12,000 Union troops but frequently found himself encountering Confederate resistance. This series of skirmishes and the troop exchange of Camden became known as the Red River Campaign of the Civil War. As supplies dwindled, Steele decided to regroup in Camden in 1864 for 11 days.
The McCollum-Chidester House was initially occupied by Confederate Gen. Sterling Price.
“Union forces soon entered the town to use as a resting spot,” Harrell explained. “They didn’t destroy anything here and sent scouting parties east and west trying to find supplies. People moved everything out of stores because they knew troops were coming.”
Outnumbered, the Confederate troops retreated to the outskirts of town while Union troops occupied Camden. Bullet holes and damage by cannon fire can still be seen in the McCollum-Chidester House.
“The house was the first on the outside of Camden that troops would have encountered. They wanted officers to stay in the houses because families would feed and shelter them, but nothing was destroyed. The officers were being treated well,” Harrell said. “As long as there was a Union officer in the house, there were no problems.
“A story passed down through word of mouth in the city is that some Union troops raided the nearby smoke house, and they stole as much meat as they could carry. When the officers in the house were told by residents about what had happened, the supplies were promptly returned.”
After 11 days, with no luck of finding supplies outside of the town, the starving Union troops decided to return to Little Rock.
During the Civil War years, there was little to no stagecoach business for Chidester. After the war ended, he rebuilt his stagecoach operation with one particularly successful line that stretched 1,560 miles from Fort Worth to Yuma. After the railroads began making a major impact in the transportation sector, Chidester sold his business in 1881 as four different railroads passed through Camden. The house was purchased by the Ouachita County Historical Society along with all of the belongings inside.
But Harrell said that folks still live in the house — folks from a century and a half ago.
Officers stayed in the east bedroom of the house during the Civil War, and it’s assumed that Gen. Steele did as well. In the mirror on one of the dressers, called the cathedral dresser, is where the house’s first recorded paranormal activity took place.
“Photographer Elmer Lee did a photo shoot in the house during the late 1980’s. After receiving the developed film back, a photo showed a person in the mirror wearing military clothing — tall boots, pants tucked down into the boots and a possible sword or sabre by his side,” Harrell explained. “It is unknown if this is a Union or Confederate soldier. This was before photoshop technology, and the photographer was wearing tennis shoes and coveralls that particular day. The museum manager was also present in the room.”
Harrell explained that multiple paranormal investigations have taken place ever since.
“In a November 2020 paranormal investigation by Natural State Paranormal, they set up cameras and their equipment in [the east bedroom with the cathedral mirror]. In three hours of video recording, orbs and anomalies were present in the room for a span of about three minutes,” Harrell said. “We had placed some Civil War swords from our collection on the dresser, and there was lots of activity near the dresser. At the end of the investigation, a spirit was later caught on an SLS camera at the foot of the bed in the room, and it appeared to be holding on to the bedpost.”
Harrell reassured AMP that the entities that still occupy the McCollum-Chidester House are friendly and pop in sometimes to say hello.
Today, Harrell gives tours of the McCollum-Chidester House Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. He’s eager to share the house’s history with the rest of the Natural State. And there is plenty of history to share: the McCollum-Chidester House summarizes the history of Camden with its age, elegance and pivotal role in Arkansas’ past.