Fort Smith? Pine Bluff? What’s the Difference?

Fort Smith is Pine Bluff

Unless you also live in the American state of Arkansas, you may not have even heard of Fort Smith and Pine Bluff. For those who grew up in this state, though, they’re considered (by our peculiar standards) to be major cities. Fort Smith is on the far West side of the state, on the Oklahoma border, while Pine Bluff is in the Southeastern part of the state, also known as the Mississippi Delta.

I didn’t learn Arkansas geography in school. Instead, when I was a child, my family traveled, mostly within the state — a lot. By the time I was ten years old, I’d been in all 75 counties of Arkansas, and knew quite a bit about where things are here . . . except for these two cities, Fort Smith and Pine Bluff.

If you’re from Arkansas, you know these two cities are nothing alike. What I noticed in childhood, above all else, was the fact that the two cities smelled so different from each other. The reason is simple:  Pine Bluff has a lot of paper mills, and the smell near paper mills is not entirely unlike being locked in a small closet with several dozen rotten eggs. Fort Smith, by contrast, is relatively odorless.

What perplexed my parents, though, is the fact that I would consistently confuse these two cities. I’d refer to the “horrible smell of Fort Smith,” or, if I knew we were going to Pine Bluff, I might ask if we’d be crossing the border into Oklahoma. My parents always corrected these mistakes, but I kept making them, repeatedly, which is not like me at all. When young, I never had more than a 50% chance of correctly identifying either of these cities. Once I figured out what I was doing, though — at around age twelve — this repeated error made perfect sense.

When I try to understand something, I examine it, and consider it, mathematically. Often, I’m not even conscious I’m doing that — it’s simply how I think. Both Fort Smith and Pine Bluff are two-word city names. To make matters even worse, the first word of each city-name has four letters, and the second word in each has five. Once I realized these parallels, though, it all made sense:  no wonder I couldn’t tell these places apart, with names which, examined through the lens of childhood mathematics, looked exactly alike.

To my knowledge, no one else has ever had a long-term problem confusing these two Arkansas cities. However, when those who know me well hear this story, they are never surprised that I would do such a thing.

Why Is Arkansas Political Geography Such a Mess?


Why Is Arkansan Political Geography Such a Mess?

Technically, we live within the city limits of North Little Rock, but we’re surrounded by Maumelle, and also live in the Pulaski County Special School District, not the North Little Rock School District. Telling people we live in NLR causes confusion, so we say “Maumelle” instead, but mail won’t reach us unless it includes “North Little Rock” in the address. What’s more, that’s all in one county, Pulaski, near the center of the state.

The weirdness doesn’t stop there. Nearby is a city named Conway. I went to college there. It isn’t located in Conway County, though; that’s further West.

Head Southwest on I-30 from Little Rock, and you’ll soon encounter Benton (not in Benton County, although at least Bentonville is), and then get a chance to take an exit to go visit Hot Springs — but you won’t find it in Hot Spring County. Van Buren is right next to Oklahoma, and a long drive from Van Buren County. Is the City of Jacksonville to be found in Jackson County? Of course not — not in this state. Boonville, similarly, is not located in Boone County.

We have a Mississippi County here, and it borders two other states. We also have a long border with the state of Mississippi. However, Mississippi County, Arkansas isn’t one of several counties which do border the State of Mississippi. Instead, it borders Tennessee and Missouri.

Even things which seem intuitively obvious about my state’s political geography end up being wrong. Ask someone familiar with a U.S. map which state(s) you can find South of Arkansas, and they’ll almost certainly answer with Louisiana, perhaps including Texas, as well. However, the states of Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi also include land that is South of carefully-chosen points in Arkansas. Here’s visual proof, which you can enlarge with a click:


Yes, all six states which border Arkansas are technically South of us, in a sense.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Arkansan political geography is that the town of Lonoke is actually in Lonoke County. It’s even their county seat. What are they trying to do there, confuse people?