Our visit to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas in late December tagged Park #45 out of the 59 National Parks on our bucket list. We enjoyed our visit – strolling Central Avenue and the Grand Promenade, touring the museum and asking lots of questions of the rangers, hiking trails on North Mountain – and left still somewhat perplexed.
Hot Springs National Park is unusual and just a little difficult to figure out as a national park. The National Park Service’s own definition of National Park states, “Generally a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.” Hot Springs National Park is a highly-developed park in a small city surrounded by low-lying mountains and physically is the smallest national park at just a little over 5,500 acres. It doesn’t exactly fit the “large land area” designation and was conceived originally to “reserve” one resource – the springs – for the nation.
In 1832 the federal government took the unprecedented step of setting aside four sections of land. This was one of the earliest land-conservation efforts in US history, but boundaries were not marked, nor was there any real federal presence, control, or oversight. By the mid-1800’s individuals had filed claims and counterclaims on the springs and surrounding land. Many believed in the curative powers of the spring waters, and more and more people were attracted to the springs.
There are two stories or rather two directions of stories here: the one that is the history prior to 1832 and the one that follows 1832.
One generally thinks of volcanic action creating hot springs but Hot Springs, Arkansas, is not in a volcanic area. The water that emerges from the springs has been heated by the process of gravitational compression and the breakdown of naturally occurring radioactive elements. The water percolating downward eventually meets faults and joints leading up to the surface from which it emerges as hot springs.
There are 47 springs on the lower west slope of Hot Springs Mountain and all that steam rising led to the valley’s nickname, “Valley of Vapors.”
Old documents show that Native Americans knew about and bathed in the hot springs during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s and archeological evidence shows human habitation for almost 10,000 years. There is reason to believe that the Hernando de Soto expedition visited the springs in 1541 as the de Soto Chronicles detail “hot lakes” and, since there are no hot lakes, it is presumed they meant the springs. In the Fordyce men’s bath hall is a large fountain depicting the explorer receiving a cup of thermal water from a young Native American woman.
French trappers, hunters and traders were familiar with the area during the 17th and 18th centuries. The United States acquired the area in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, and in 1804 President Thomas Jefferson dispatched William Dunbar and George Hunter to explore the springs. Their publicized report stirred up interest. More and more people came to soak in the waters, leading to the federal reservation designation in 1832. Federal designation but without federal power.
The first facilities erected to accommodate bathers were quite primitive, often little more than tents over individual springs. Likewise, lodging facilities were very basic and often indigent visitors camped out on the hillsides. The government took active control in 1877 after all the private claims on reservation land were settled. Federal regulation of bathing establishments and business practices tightened when the first reservation superintendent was assigned to the area. Bathhouses and hotels became more elaborate. The government even operated a free bathhouse and public health facility for those unable to pay for baths recommended by their physicians.
“The American Spa” was a health remedy destination and was state-of-the-art at the time. The U.S. Superintendent’s office registered licensed physicians authorized to prescribe the Hot Springs baths. The 1917 Cutter’s Official Guide to Hot Springs, Arkansas explained fees, services, facilities, and even local climate, listed authorized physicians and cautioned visitors about self-prescribing the water treatments. Copies were mailed free from the various bathhouses and hotels. It was apparently an effective public relations tool.
The Reservation over time evolved from a place primarily for those seeking medical treatment to a pleasure vacation destination. Bathhouses and hotels were built, destroyed by fire, rebuilt, or simply replaced with more modern and permanent facilities. Trails were developed and many leisure amenities were added. Hot Springs had its share of ups and downs, including the dubious distinction of having the first park ranger murdered in the line of duty. James Alexander Cary was killed by bootleggers while on patrol on West Mountain.
The use of “the waters” for medicinal purposes was augmented by other treatments, including: electrical treatments, use of the innovative Zanger mechanical therapy equipment (looked similar to much of the equipment in today’s gyms except prettier as it was made of mahogany), physical therapy, prescribed physical activity. The extent and variety of treatments were amazing.
Hot Springs Reservation became Hot Springs National Park in 1921. Monumental luxurious bathhouses along Bathhouse Row catered to crowds of health-seekers. The Army and Navy Hospital opened in 1933. Treatments reached a zenith in 1947 but by the 1950’s changes in medicine and the increased mobility of the public precipitated Hot Springs’ decline and one by one the bathhouses closed. The Buckstaff Bathhouse which opened in 1912 was the only bathhouse that remained open and is still in operation providing the traditional therapeutic bathing experience.
For decades, the once-grand bathhouses sat neglected and deteriorated. Through restoration and repurposing, these revitalized historic buildings are once again grand edifices, looking as they did in the early 1900’s. The Quapaw Bathhouse has reopened as a modern-day spa, the Lamar serves as national park store, the Ozark as a cultural center and the Superior as a restaurant and craft brewery. In keeping with the mission of maintaining the springs for the people’s use, there are several fountains where anyone can fill water containers to take away.
The Fordyce Bathhouse was restored to become the visitor center and park museum.
It is configured as the Fordyce was when it opened in 1915 with historic artifacts and furniture. The self-guided tour allows a view of the variety of treatments (some look somewhat like they belong in a torture chamber), various amenities and original splendor. The sheer size and complexity of the bathhouse is impressive.
With just a little imagination, walking beneath the huge magnolia trees along Bathhouse Row and strolling along the Grand Promenade with a side trip up one of the many trails on the landscaped grounds one can be transported to 1915 and the heyday of “The Health Resort with a National Backing.”
Hot Springs National Park is in the Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern edge of the Oauchita Mountains. These are some of the oldest mountains in the U. S. The highest point of elevation in the park is 1405 feet. Overlooks and trailheads on both Hot Springs Mountain Drive and West Mountain Drive offer a chance to enjoy the natural beauty of the area. We were also very pleased to learn that our dog was welcome on a leash on the trails in this park so we took advantage of that.
Each of our national parks is unique. Hot Springs National Park is no exception, just unique in a very different way. It is based on a single natural phenomenon and heavily leans toward the history and culture of hot springs bathing rather than the springs themselves.