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Courtesy: Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

No matter how many times superlatives are overused to the point of being almost meaningless nowadays, there's still something about the descriptive phrase "one-of-a-kind" that, when used in its truest sense, grabs our attention. It's like being let in on a secret or being able to witness history.

New developments during the past year or so, plus a centuries-old one, have put The Natural State on the "one-of-a-kind" map. Several others, both old in age and new in development, have the distinction of being one of only two in the world. All are described below, listed in alphabetical order.


Crater of Diamonds State Park, Murfreesboro: The best-known one-of-a-kind in the state - and one of the oldest - the state park is the only diamond-producing site in the world open to the public. The crater is old in that the plowed field is the eroded surface of an ancient volcano and old in that it has been a tourist attraction since 1949, when the first serious attempt made to open the diamond deposit to the public took place. Several companies over the years tried to commercially mine the valuable gemstones, and there was even attempt by industrialist Henry Ford to purchase the property for commercial mining. It also passed through several people's hands who wanted to operate a tourist attraction on-site before the state bought the plot of rare dirt in 1972.

The largest diamond found at the crater since becoming a state park is the Amarillo Starlight, which weighed in at a whopping 16.37 carats in 1975. Since then, 24 stones five carats and over have been unearthed here. This number doesn't include the Strawn-Wagner Diamond since it was 3.03 carats when discovered. What sets this sparkler apart is that is was deemed "the most perfect diamond" ever certified by the American Gem Society. Awarded the perfect grade of O/O/O (Ideal cut/D color/ Flawless), or "Triple Zero," it is the highest rating a diamond can achieve. The stone is now on permanent display at the park visitor center.

For more history, hours of operation, admission prices and details on other facilities at the park, go to www.craterofdiamondsstatepark.com/.

The Gann Museum, Benton: Upon first sight, the structure doesn't look much different than others except that it has two front doors, each of which is topped by gable, making it architecturally pleasing to the eye. That in itself doesn't make it unusual; it's what the building is constructed of that makes it eligible for the list. The museum is the only known structure in the world made completely of bauxite.

Simply defined, bauxite is another name for aluminum ore and is most commonly formed in deeply weathered rocks. The ore was named after the French village of Les Baux de Provence where it was discovered in 1821 by the geologist Pierre Berthier. The only place in the United States where it has been feasible to commercially mine the aluminum is Saline County in central Arkansas. The industry took hold in this area in 1899 with top output coming during World War II, when demand increased because German subs were sinking foreign ore ships. The mining thrived for many, many years before the high grade, low silica bauxite ore gave out.

Originally the office of Dr. Dewell Gann, Sr., the structure was built in 1893 by patients who couldn't afford to pay the doctor for his services. At the time, they didn't know what the ore was - they thought it was some sort of clay plentiful in the area. All the blocks were cut with handsaws and had to air dry for six weeks before being used. The bricks are a colorful mix of tans, browns, rusts, yellows and oranges with a touch of pinkish-red.

After the building was completed, it was determined by engineers that bauxite wasn't a stable enough material to be used for construction. According to Executive Director Bernard Barber of the Gann Museum of Saline County which is now housed in the building, in spite of the dire warnings, the structure has held up amazingly well and is quite strong.

To learn more about this fascinating piece of construction history, visit the Gann Museum of Saline County at 218 Market Street in Benton. Call (501) 778-5513 for hours of operation and more information.

Over the Jumps Carousel, Little Rock: Rare even when it was built, this priceless antiquity is now even rarer in that it is the only one still in existence in the world. Less than 150 carousels survive today from the approximately 8,000 that were made during their heyday of 1887 to 1935 and even fewer are being restored. The Over the Jumps, also called the Arkansas Carousel, is even rarer with its undulating track. It was constructed in 1924 as a traveling carousel by the Herschell-Spillman Engineering Corporation of North Tonawanda, New York. Very few were constructed to begin with and, even though they were extremely popular with the public, the undulating track carousels had mechanical problems and often spent as much time being repaired as operating. Officials with the Herschell Carrousel (sic) Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, New York, believe less than 10 of the "over-the-jumps" rides were constructed with the Arkansas Carousel in Little Rock the only one left.

Now fully restored, the colorful piece of Americana will center the new welcoming complex at the Little Rock Zoo, currently under construction. Tentatively scheduled to open later this spring or early summer, the facility will also house a gift shop, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, visitor services, formal gardens, and a replica of "Laughing Sally," a coin-operated fortune teller long associated with the carousel when it was at Little Rock's War Memorial Park. For more information contact the Friends of the Carousel organization via e-mail info@arkansascarousel.org.

The Parachute Inn Restaurant, Walnut Ridge: Those who travel by plane have noticed the decline of meals being offered to passengers over the years. Those who would like to experience dining aboard a plane now have that chance in the northeast Arkansas community of Walnut Ridge. Owner Donna Robertson has taken her eatery one step further by expanding her seating to include a retired Southwest Airlines Boeing 727. Robertson painstakingly restored the interior to the original "Southwest" look and the plane's seats have been reconfigured to fit tables. Diners can stash their coats in the overhead bins. It is one thing to have an unusual setting but if a restaurant doesn't have good food the novelty wears off rather quickly. The reviews from pilots across the country who land their aircraft at the door of the restaurant when coming for meal have been raves. A full menu of Southern-style dishes and a loaded buffet await diners. "Catfish Friday" and "Seafood Saturday" with frog legs highlight the buffet on weekends. Breakfast and lunch are served Tuesday through Friday with a 5 p.m. dinner on Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is located at 10 Skywatch on the Walnut Ridge Airport grounds. Call (870) 886-5918 for more information.


Crowley's Ridge, Eastern Arkansas: This unique geological formation is believed to have been created by water, ice, and wind action over a 50-million-year period. It is unique on this half of the world; the only known land form similar to it is found in Siberia. The ridge extends for 200 miles from southern Missouri south through eastern Arkansas to Helena-West Helena. The only uplifting in the otherwise flat Arkansas Delta, the anomaly rises 200 feet and is just 12 miles across at its widest point. The landmark is composed of deposits of an ultra-fine silt called "loess" and distinguished by forests of predominately hardwoods and rolling hills.

A national scenic byway runs across the top for 198 miles and features numerous natural attractions along the way: Crowley's Ridge, Lake Frierson, Lake Poinsett and Village Creek state parks and the St. Francis National Forest. Other attractions include the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center and the Karl and Matilda Pfeiffer Museum, both at Piggott; Chalk Bluff historic site, Arkansas State University Museum at Jonesboro, Parkin Archeological State Park, the antebellum and Blues history at Helena-West Helena, not to mention numerous community and county museums. More information can be found on www.deltabyways.com.

EpiSphere Digital Dome Theatre: Located at the Arkansas Aerospace Education Center and IMAX Theatre in Little Rock, this 150-seat facility was the first single-projector full dome video system installed in the world when it opened in 2005. According to Director Ken Quimby, a second one has since opened in London. Described by Quimby as "the world's largest erector set," the dome was put together by the center's staff and consists of 225 individual sheets of aluminum. Once constructed, employees then had to paint the 18,000 rivets holding the panels together so the dome surface appears to be solid white.

Through various programs shown on a regular basis, visitors can study systems within the human body, tour the universe, or whirl into the center of a tornado from their seats. The facility, where cutting-edge technology and impressive immersive virtual reality are combined to offer this one-of-a-kind experience in a multi-use theater, includes the latest full-motion, 360-full dome video with unparalleled digital Dolby sound.

"What sets the digital dome apart from other planetariums is that they could only show the night sky from Earth. The advanced technology of the dome allows the dark heavens to be viewed from anywhere in the universe," Quimby said. He describes the new facility and all its advances as "a planetarium on steroids." Another feature which sets it apart from others is that the chairs are actual race car seats which especially appeals to children. Call (501) 376-4232 for more information or visit www.aerospaced.org.

X-Coaster, Hot Springs: "This ride is definitely not for the faint of heart," is how Horst Ruhe, managing director of Maurer Rides, the German manufacturer, describes it. A new addition in 2006 to Magic Springs & Crystal Falls Theme Park in Hot Springs, the X-Coaster is the first of its kind in the U.S. and only the second in the world. Built at a cost of four million dollars, the coaster is the highest upside down inversion in the world at 150 feet. Riders leave the loading platform taking a vertical ascent of 150 feet, at which point the car performs a slow quarter-loop backwards, that leaves the riders hanging upside-down. Then the riders go on a 360-degree corkscrew roll, followed by a plummeting vertical drop at more than 65 miles an hour. At this point it appears the riders will return to the starting station, but instead they rocket past the station, stop on the lift hill, drop backwards through the station at high speed, stop upside down and rocket forward through the station again. Then, just when it seems the ride is to return to the station, it heads up the lift hill and is taken over the top for a second time. More information on the theme park can be obtained by phoning (501) 624-0100 or checking www.magicsprings.com/.

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