By Carla Charter
Hot Springs National Park, the first piece of property ever put aside by the federal government for recreational use, boasts Hot Springs, hiking and a dip in a bath house. Maybe even more fascinating is its history herself.
The Thermal Springs, which gave the park its name, are artesian and have been flowing for thousands of years. “The thermal water we are experiencing today fell as rain in the springs’ recharge area when the Great Pyramids in Egypt were being built. The thermal water cycle here at Hot Springs takes about 4,400 years, according to Tom Hill, curator of the Hot Springs National Park. There are over 40 springs grouped on the west face of Hot Springs Mountain. producing about 700,000 gallons of pure water every 24 hours.
The average temperature of these springs is 143 degrees with the water being heated by the geothermal gradient meaning the deeper you go into the Earth, the hotter it gets. “Our water comes up from about 6,000 to 8,000 feet below the surface, where it attains a temperature of about 150 degrees before it finds its way back to the surface along a fault line,” said Hill
The original native inhabitants of this area used the cold and hot springs in the area to survive, he continued. However, he continued, they were most likely coming to the immediate area to quarry Novaculite, a type of stone they used for making tools and weapons. “The indigenous peoples probably realized the cleanliness and usefulness of having so much water flowing freely from the ground. However, there is no archaeological or historical evidence of exactly how they used the water or what they thought about it,” Hill said.
The first Europeans to explore what would eventually become Arkansas arrived when the Spanish expedition led by Hernando De Soto crossed the Mississippi River in 1541. However, there is no evidence that De Soto came to Hot Springs.
The French were exploring this region about 100 years later. The springs were part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and were ceded to the US by the Caddo and Quapaw nations soon thereafter.
When the Dunbar and Hunter expedition was sent to the area in 1804 by President Thomas Jefferson, they discovered the springs were already well known and well frequented by European people, although no permanent settlers came here until a few years later.
The land around the Thermal Springs was set aside by the Federal Government as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832 and renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921. “We were the 19th National Park created by the United States,” Hill said.
The springs are located on the west side of Hot Springs Mountain in the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
and are grouped in an area of about a half-mile radius. “Some are higher up the hill than others, some are enclosed within the bathhouses,” he said.
People had been coming here for medical reasons since the early 1800s, Hill said. The first bathhouse was began accepting customers in 1830. Large wooden bathhouses graced Bathhouse Row during the Victorian Era and each gave hundreds of baths every day. The government even operated a bathhouse for the indigent, serving hundreds of thousands of people each year. Masonry and tile bathhouses replaced the old Victorian buildings in the early 1900s. There were over 1 million baths given in the city in 1947, the peak year of the bathing industry.
Besides the bathhouses within the park, there were African-American bathhouses on Malvern Avenue, a Jewish hospital and bathhouse on Prospect Street, and other bathhouses inside the larger hotels all over town, all of which used the thermal spring waters from the park.
The War Department built a giant veterans hospital here to use the thermal water for healing therapy. Even baseball spring training got its start in Hot Springs due to the thermal waters.
Originally, people attributed medicinal qualities to the spring water, attesting that bathing in and drinking the thermal water was a curative for many ills, with doctors who even prescribed the bathing for their patients. “The medical profession certainly believed in the restorative powers of the thermal mineral water,” Hill said.
Railroad magnate Samuel Fordyce came to the springs for the treatment of wounds received during the Civil War. He was so rejuvenated that he moved his family there and invested heavily in the development of the city, building bathhouses, hotels, the country club, an opera house, and a large home. “He swore the waters saved his life and many other people have said the same thing,” he continued.
Historically, people coming to the area and drinking and bathing in the clean, pure spring water were partaking of a healthful activity. They exercised on the nearby trails in the hills, relaxed in nature, and socialized in the lively Hot Springs area. I am sure they felt better when they left, even if they weren’t cured of anything. “It has not been scientifically proven that the water cures anything, but people to this day swear that the water makes them feel better. There are local residents that come frequently to the park’s jug fountains to fill containers with the water and they say it’s the only water they drink,” he continued.
Among the countless numbers of visitors who have come to bathe and relax in the surrounding Ouachita Mountains include Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover, and Bill Clinton (who was from Arkansas) and Entertainers Kate Smith, Marjorie Lawrence, Lily Pons, George Raft, Liberace, Tony Bennett, Sarah Bernhardt, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Phyllis Diller and Rudolph Valentino. Visiting sports stars have included Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby. Even the infamous have visited, including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Seagal, and Owney Madden.
Today, Hot Springs National Park covers 5,500 acres and attracts about 1.5 million people annually.
Visitors can bathe in two bathhouses on Bathhouse Row and in several other locations in hotel bathhouses, however, they cannot bathe in the springs themselves. There are Display Springs and Fountains where visitors can interact with the water but cannot get in it. There are also jug fountains and drinking fountains where they can obtain the water for their own use.
There are over 20 miles of hiking trails in the park. The longest, Sunset Trail, traverses the highest points in the park and crosses West Mountain, Music Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, the Fordyce Hills, and North Mountain. People can stroll the Grand Promenade on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain or walk the world-famous Magnolia Promenade along Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue.
“Our park campground is located along Gulpha Creek in the gorge between Hot Springs and Indian Mountains which features an amphitheater where visitors may attend a ranger-led activity or talk. The Fordyce Bathhouse on Central Avenue serves as our visitor center and museum, where people can tour the most ornate of the bathhouses and see what bathing was like in 1915 when the building opened. The Quapaw and Buckstaff Bathhouses are open for bathing and spa treatments and the Ozark Bathhouse is an art gallery operated by the Friends of Hot Springs National Park.
The park store, the Bathhouse Row Emporium operated by Eastern National, is located in the lobby of the Lamar Bathhouse. The Superior Bathhouse is a craft brewery and restaurant. The Hale Bathhouse is currently being remodeled to be a boutique hotel with 9 rooms, each with its own thermal water spa.
The city of Hot Springs also offers a wide variety of outdoor activities and there are three large recreational lakes along the nearby Ouachita River, which offer fishing and boating activities.
More information on Hot Springs National Park can be found at www.nps.gov/hosp/index.htm