Hot Springs is Hot Again

Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.

And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.

In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.

No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.

70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.

Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.

Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.

But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.

But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.

Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…

and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.

Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.

The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.

There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…

But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…

Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,

each one designed with classic architectural details.

and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.

Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.

We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.

Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,

and continued to the Mountain Tower,

offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.

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