FORT SMITH — A ceremony to break ground on the estimated $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum was held Wednesday along the Arkansas River in Fort Smith, an event attracting a boisterous crowd of more than 600 and included state and local dignitaries and the director of the U.S. Marshals Service.

FORT SMITH — A ceremony to break ground on the estimated $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum was held Wednesday along the Arkansas River in Fort Smith, an event attracting a boisterous crowd of more than 600 and included state and local dignitaries and the director of the U.S. Marshals Service.


"Today is a celebration marking one more magnificent milestone in the journey to build the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith and on the banks of the Arkansas River," Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders said during opening remarks.


Wednesday’s ceremony coincided with the 225th anniversary of the formation of the U.S. Marshals Service, the oldest American federal law enforcement agency established by President George Washington.


"Their story, which will be preserved and chronicled in the museum, must be passed on to future generations," Sebastian County Circuit Judge Jim Spears said during opening remarks. Spears is chairman of the Marshals Museum board.


Those who spent time in the Marshals Service said they appreciated the event.


"This showcases the history we have, where we came from and where we’re going," said Roxanna Irwin of El Paso, a retired chief deputy who served as the chief of the southwestern border and Indian country.


Ernest Tachihara served 10 years as a deputy marshal in Washington D.C., before he retired in the 1980s. He said the ceremony was significant to honor the past, present and future of the Marshals Service.


"All of us who serve or have served or will serve, we all come from different walks of life, but we’re all the same when we’re a marshal," Tachihara said. "This is for those before us and those after us. It’s a great day and very significant for our history and our future."


The ceremony also resonated with family of those who have dedicated their lives to the Marshals Service, such as Pat Kortekaas of Waterford, Mich., whose husband is a retired marshal who served in witness protection detail.


"It’s fantastic to be here, to see the history of the Marshals Service, to absorb it all," Kortekaas said. "We can use this museum to make the service more known to the public. It’s not a thing of the past, it’s still around."


During her remarks, U.S. Marshals Service director Stacia Hylton reiterated that fact, noting that the service still apprehends more than 110,000 violent fugitives a year and that over a five-year span, marshals have captured nearly 60,000 violent sexual offenders and sexual predators.


"We will still protect our children and our country," she said.


The ceremony was another in a line of recent big events for the museum. In July, the designs of three much anticipated coins commemorating the 225th anniversary were unveiled. The museum is set to receive up to $5 million from the sales of the coins, which go on sale in 2015. The funds raised through the surcharges will help construct the museum.


Last week, museum officials announced a $5 million anonymous gift for the facility, to be received by 2016. Once the gift is received, the museum will have raised more than $19.5 million.


Museum President and CEO Jim Dunn said fundraising efforts are still a priority and appreciated the support of the community and beyond to get the museum built.


"It’s a big day for us; we’re overwhelmed by the amount of support shown," Dunn said in an interview prior to the ceremony. "Today is about celebrating the birthday of the Marshals Service and completing the first stage of this project."


In January 2007, Fort Smith was selected as the site for the museum, beating out Staunton, Va. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe also took office that month. Beebe spoke Wednesday of the "first half" of the process in which land was donated and monetary gifts and donations were received, and he applauded the cooperation and assistance of the Marshals Service and congressional delegation to move the process along. He said he feels confident the second half of the process will be even smoother.


"I have every confidence that this is going to work and that you will all be able to see rising from this beautiful spot, a museum that will be unique, the best law enforcement museum in the country," Beebe said.


U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., spoke of the significance of Fort Smith and its link to the Marshals Service and how the museum would effectively represent the organization’s rich history.


"This is the home of Bass Reeves … in those years with the western expansion, this was a very volatile area, as you all know, and in many cases the U.S. marshals were the only officers with any jurisdiction in the west," Pryor said. "… (Marshals) are an essential part of U.S. history, and that story has to be told. And that’s what this museum is about."


Hylton said it was difficult to express what the museum will mean to the Marshals Service but that placing it in Fort Smith seemed a natural fit.


"When you think of Fort Smith, you think of folklore and the image of Americana. This museum brings to life not only the Marshals story, but that of America," she said. "… Fort Smith is a part of our DNA. All of us are proud to serve you."


The estimated 50,000-square-foot museum is expected to open in 2017.