The name of this city is not pronounced like the nearby state of Arkansas, but rather as "Ar-Kansas" (the final "s" is pronounced). Over the years there has been much confusion about the regional pronunciation of "Arkansas," which locals render as "Ar-KAN-zus" rather than "AR-ken-saw." Throughout much of Kansas, residents use this alternate pronunciation when referring to the Arkansas River, as well as Arkansas Street in the city of Wichita. Very few people from other states, and even much less from the state of Arkansas (which has a law that mandates the French pronunciation), use or have ever heard the anglicanized pronunciation. Because of this, and for the sake of brevity, Arkansas City is most often referred to as simply Ark City.
White settlers first congregated in the area where Arkansas City now stands in the 1860s. The natives referred to the place as "Nichonka," which roughly translates as "place between the waters" — a reference to the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut rivers.
The settlers established a town in around 1870, but had difficulty choosing a name; at first they hoped to flatter U.S. Postmaster General John A. J. Creswell (and win a highly-sought-after post office) by naming the town Cresswell in his honor. Unfortunately, numerous other cities had already taken that tack. Next the town fathers, swooning with high expectations for their nascent community, briefly contemplated naming the city Delphi. Walnut City was considered and discarded. Finally, Arkansas City was chosen as the official name of the town.
Though the people of the young settlement believed their community should be the county seat, neighboring Winfield just 10 miles away was given the honor.
Arkansas City grew steadily through the latter part of the 19th century, and enjoyed a population explosion starting in 1891, when thousands of people moved into the area in anticipation of the Cherokee Strip Land Run. It has been estimated that the city's population swelled from 5,000 to 150,000 (most living in temporary encampments) as the nationally-hyped federal land giveaway approached, and shrank back to 5,000 in its aftermath.
The James-Younger Gang of outlaws famously hid out in a cave west of town when they rode through the area.
At the turn of the century, Arkansas City was a rival to Wichita in size and enterprise, boasting several busy rail lines, an elegant opera house, numerous fine hotels, a manufacturing base and a bustling agricultural economy. There was even a famous sanitarium (health spa) at nearby Geuda Springs, served by an electric railway running a triangular route from there to Ark City and Winfield. A popular swimming hole called Paris Lake was located west of downtown; the lake — and the hot springs at Geuda as well — was mired with silt in a flood in around 1919. Nearly 20 years later the WPA would build the Paris Park pool in the same spot. African Americans were not allowed to swim in the Paris Park pool during segregation and used a separate facility colloquially referred to as "the black pool" by local residents.
In 1928, the city's official fall festival, Arkalalah, was inaugurated. This annual event still draws thousands of visitors each October, and features a queen, a carnival, dozens of homegrown fair food vendors and a spectacular parade typically lasting three hours or more. During the 1955 Arkalalah celebration, a retired Santa Fe locomotive was driven on temporary tracks down the city's main street, Summit, to the spot in Wilson Park where it remains today.
The city prospered through much of the 20th century, but by the 1980s, the community was facing economic challenges. The railroads shifted many of their crews to other stops, the old Rodeo meat packing plant closed as well as Total Petrolem. By 2003 other large employers in Cowley County, Binney & Smith (Crayola plant) and Winfield State Hospital in nearby Winfield, were also shuttered. However, the community is resilent and entrepreneurial.
Arkansas City is now home to state-of-the-art meat processor Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC which employees over 700 workers. Several smaller manufacturing companies are expanding their operations while new start ups are finding a home in Cowley County due to the great workforce supplied by the two local colleges in the county. Both cities, only ten miles apart, now have large Wal-Mart stores (A new Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in Ark City in March 2006, and another is being constructed in Winfield); conversely, both towns' movie theaters recently closed and were replaced by a single facility halfway between the cities, just south of the Strother Field industrial park. B & B Theatres donated the two downtown buildings to non-profit organizations in each of the respective communities. The Ark City Burford Theatre and Commercial Building is undergoing a transformation/renovation that will become a new community arts center and gathering space. Construction began in Spring 2006 on the planned downtown revitalization streetscape.
Arkansas City is located at 37°3'55N, 97°2'23W (37.065267, -97.039608). The city is situated along the northern bank of the Arkansas River and to the west of its confluence with the Walnut River. It is located at the junction of U.S. Route 77 and U.S. Route 166, only four miles north of the Kansas-Oklahoma state border. Winfield, the county seat, is 13 miles north of Arkansas City along US-77, and Strother Field, a general aviation airport, is about eight miles north.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 7.5 square miles (19.5 km²), of which 7.5 square miles (19.5 km²) is land and 0.04 square miles (0.1 km²), or 0.27%, is water.
Arkansas City's population was estimated to be 11,581 in the year 2005, a decrease of 392, or -3.3%, over the previous five years.
As of the U.S. Census in 2000, there were 11,963 people, 4,855 households, and 3,102 families residing in the city. The population density was 615.0/km² (1,592.5/mi²). There were 5,628 housing units at an average density of 289.3/km² (749.2/mi²). The racial makeup of the city was 87.15% White, 4.51% Black or African American, 2.69% Native American or Alaska Native, 0.64% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 1.95% from other races, and 3.04% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 4.47% of the population.
There were 4,855 households out of which 30.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.2% were married couples living together, 11.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.1% were non-families. 31.7% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.9% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.36 and the average family size was 2.97.
In the city the population was spread out with 25.7% under the age of 18, 11.2% from 18 to 24, 24.3% from 25 to 44, 20.9% from 45 to 64, and 17.9% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 88.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 84.8 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $29,158, and the median income for a family was $39,962. Males had a median income of $30,665 versus $19,919 for females. The per capita income for the city was $15,933. About 12.4% of families and 16.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 20.5% of those under age 18 and 14.5% of those age 65 or over.
Cowley College, formerly Cowley County Community College, is located between 1st and 4th streets and Washingtion and Central. Its primary buildings are the Brown Center, the original building, and the auditorium/gym, recent additions have increased the number of buildings over the years. The college also owns one of the old high school buildings, which houses its cosmetic college. The most recent building is located on the Eastern corner of 3rd and Washingtion.
Actress Elizabeth Taylor's parents both hailed from Arkansas City.
Frank Denton (whose childhood home is now the Arts Center) lived in Arkansas City. He was chosen by Andrew W. Mellon, then Secretary of the Treasury, as the youngest bank examiner in the United States. Frank befriended Andrew’s brother, Dick Mellon, and went on to become the Chairman of Mellon National Bank in the 1960’s.
Automobile businessman Robert James Eaton grew up in Arkansas City.