Dry Tortugas National Park


For our 48th national park out of the 59, we visited Dry Tortugas National Park in February. In the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, a bird and marine life sanctuary, the park includes seven small low-lying islands and 100 square miles of sea. Towering incongruously on Garden Key is Fort Jefferson, a relic of 19th century military strategy.


The only way to access Dry Tortugas is either by seaplane or boat so we booked a day-long trip on the Yankee Freedom III. Since there is only one boat a day, you must book well in advance to secure a space. The tour included breakfast, lunch and narration, as well as a guided tour of the fort. The boat ride each way was two hours so we were hoping it would all be worth it. We were not disappointed. In fact, we found Fort Jefferson really fascinating as we are both American history buffs.


Dry Tortugas National Park was established in 1992 but has a history dating back to 1513 when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León dropped anchor there. Upon arrival, he and his crew found the area teeming with wildlife. There were large numbers of birds and sea turtles, all of which were important sources of food for early mariners. Ponce de León named the islands “Las Islas de Tortugas” (The Islands of Turtles) for the hundreds of turtles found there. Later “Dry” was added to the name on charts to warn mariners that there was no fresh water on the islands.

Once discovered, the Dry Tortugas became a landmark for sailing ships passing through the Florida Straits. Treasure fleets from South and Central America discovered this route was the fastest way back to Europe. Shallow reefs, combined with strong currents and frequent storms proved the undoing of many vessels. There are over 250 documented shipwrecks in the Dry Tortugas, dating from the 16th century to the present. The first lighthouse was built on Garden Key in 1826 – a taller lighthouse was built in 1857 on Loggerhead Key.

Arriving at Garden Key, the first thought is that Fort Jefferson covers the entire island and maybe even a little bit more. We were told that the plan for the fort was a standard plan used in the 1800’s for coastal fortifications and that it did not actually fit the island so they “built more island” to accommodate. Surrounded by a moat and accessible only through a drawbridge, Fort Jefferson was intended to be defended well.


We took an hour-long guided tour of the fort which not only provided a lot of information but also roused our curiosity for even more. So, after having lunch back on the boat, we set off on our own self-guided tour. There are numerous explanatory exhibits. With more questions, we then cornered a ranger. He was most helpful and his knowledge, love of, and interest in this park were obvious. Of course, I also bought a book about the park – mandatory in my mind whenever we visit a park.


Possible disruption of the shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico by hostile nations was an initial motive for building a 450-gun, 2.000-man fort on this tiny remote island although there was never more than 200 guns and approximately 1,000 soldiers. The fort was also to provide a safe harbor for warships, facilities for repairs, and a station for water, supplies and munitions. The intimidation factor of this massive fort rising out of the sea was also important.

In 1845, President James K. Polk proclaimed Garden Key a military reservation. Begun in 1846, building on the fort continued for about 30 years and was never completed. The fort is an elongated hexagon, rising 45 feet above the sea, built of masonry and brick and surrounded by a 70-foot wide moat. Unfortunately, the enormous weight of the structure proved to be a problem and one can see where the fort has settled. We were told much of the upper portion was never finished because of the weight issue.


A half-mile walk on the moat seawall provides a perspective on the massiveness of the fort. There are two distinct colors of brick used in the fort. The lower orange brick was manufactured in Pensacola, Florida, but when Florida seceded from the Union in the Civil War this was no longer available for a Union fort and the upper red brick was shipped in from Maine. Materials and supplies for this fort always were somewhat of a logistical nightmare.


The elaborate architecture containing over 2000 arches and the superb workmanship of Fort Jefferson are captivating. Given the location, hot and humid climate, generally miserable working conditions, and lack of many amenities, it is impressive. At the same time, the fort was never finished and when we inquired about the overall cost of the thirty years’ worth of building the answer was that no one really knows as records were sketchy.


Given the fact that the fort was never actually involved in a battle, it seems that this massive government project never really fulfilled its purpose. However, the intimidation factor was important as was its value for other purposes.

The huge fort with massive Parrott rifled cannons that could fire a 250lb. cannonball over three miles gave pause to any passing ship. The fort also boasted 25-ton Rodman cannons. There are only 25 of these smoothbore civil war cannons known to still exist and six of them are at Fort Jefferson.

Fort Jefferson was built with over 100 cisterns to catch and store the rainfall with a total capacity of nearly two million gallons. Later water distilling plants were added of make fresh water from the sea to supplement the rainwater


During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a military prison. One of the most famous prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after his assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. After serving selflessly during yellow fever outbreaks at the Fort, Mudd was later pardoned and released.


In 1889, the Army transferred the fort to the Marine-Hospital Service as a quarantine station. During the Spanish-American War, Fort Jefferson served as a disinfection station and supply depot, and a coaling station was constructed. It became part of the Naval Station of Key West in 1900. The fort was permanently abandoned in 1907.


In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a marine research laboratory on Loggerhead Key, which continued until 1939. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside the “Tortugas Keys Reservation” as a bird sanctuary. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the park as Fort Jefferson National Monument under the National Park Service. In 1992 an act of Congress changed it to Dry Tortugas National Park, with the purpose being protection of marine animals and natural resources as well as protecting cultural resources and shipwrecks.


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Everglades National Park


Everglades National Park in south Florida is very different from any of the other national parks we have visited. Established in 1947, at 1,507,850 acres Everglades is the third largest national park in the Lower 48. Although most U.S. national parks preserve unique geographic features, Everglades National Park was the first created to protect a fragile ecosystem which supports more than 350 species of birds and over 1,000 species of plants, including 120 species of trees.

A subtropical wilderness of saw-grass prairie, junglelike hammock, and mangrove swamp, Everglades was originally created to reserve a portion of this vast ecosystem as a wildlife preserve. Although short-term visitors don’t see most of them, more species of flora and fauna exist in the Everglades than in any other national park. Most commonly seen are alligators and birds. During our visit, many migratory birds were present.

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The popular image of a quicksand-filled swamp is far from the reality of the Everglades. The floor of the Everglades is rock hard but porous as a sponge. During the summer, the limestone bedrock in the fresh-water Glades is well underwater but by spring, jagged eroded limestone stands dry and white in the hot sun.

There are two seasons: wet and dry. The diverse life in the Everglades depends upon a rhythm of abundance and drought. That balance has been increasingly threatened by land development and agribusinesses around the park which divert precious water.

Our first exploration began at Flamingo in the southernmost part of the park. There we boarded a boat for a backcountry tour

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The tour took us from Flamingo north on Buttonwood Canal, through Coot Bay and Tarpon Creek to Whitewater Bay on a portion of the Wilderness Waterway. Intrepid souls can travel the whole length of the park by canoe or kayak, carrying absolutely everything they need for the trip of roughly two weeks. There are elevated platforms, called chickees, at strategic spots for camping. We met a couple of canoers who were on the ninth day of their trip. They were still smiling.

Buttonwood Canal was built to provide rangers a shorter route from Flamingo to patrolling the backcountry. It is three miles long and cut off about 40 miles to reach Whitewater Bay. Unfortunately, the resulting inflow of salt water from the bay wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. It took about 25 years before a system of locks was instituted to restore the balance.


In this part of the park, fresh and sea water mix creating brackish water. This is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist. We did see alligators but no crocodiles. Alligators thrive in fresh water while crocodiles prefer salty and brackish. A variety of birds appeared during our tour.

We learned there are three types of mangroves – red, white and black – which grow here. They look somewhat like they are on stilts with roots extending out and down in tangled masses. Tannic acid from fallen mangrove leaves gives the water its red-brown color. The root systems provide a nursery for many marine animals and their branches serve as rest stop for migratory birds.

We did several short hikes to hammocks. These hammocks appear as humps of trees emerging above the flat landscape. The hammocks are “tree islands” where hardwoods such as mahogany, live oak and gumbo limbo grow on limestone mounds. Many are surrounded by “moats” created by runoff from the island. These hammocks serve as homes for a variety of animals and were where the Indian residents of the Everglades lived and grew their crops.

The Anhinga Trail, near the visitor center, a half mile long, boardwalk constructed above water, was the most crowded trail we hiked. Neither of us had ever heard of an anhinga – turns out it is a water bird which fishes with its sharp bill and then spends time spreading its wings in the sun to dry and reheat the water-cooled blood racing through the thin wings. Sometimes called the water turkey or snakebird the anhinga swims with its long sinewy neck sticking out of the water. We enjoyed watching them, including a nest of young. This area also was home to a variety of other birds.

At one point, we were observing a heron and an alligator “co-existing.” It really looked like we were about to see nature in the raw but the bird very calmly and slowly moved away as the gator moved, also very slowly, closer. The alligator takes a meal only once or twice a week so maybe this was the heron’s lucky day and the gator wasn’t hungry.

In the northern part of the park, we arrived at the Shark Valley entrance before the gates opened but were treated to sightings of an alligator and numerous birds while we waited. The purple gallinule has large feet which enable it to walk across aquatic plants hunting for insects.

On the two-hour narrated tram tour in Shark Valley, we were told you don’t call the Everglades a swamp – it’s a “river of grass.” The overwhelming feature of the Everglades is its flatness – the 1.5 million acres of the park average an elevation of 11 feet. The “river of grass” is roughly 75 miles wide and over 100 miles long and the water from Lake Okeechobee flows southward at about ¼ mile per day which means that water from the northern part takes over a month to get to the gulf.

During the tram tour, Tom counted more than 50 adult alligators as well as numerous juveniles and hatchlings. In addition to all the alligators (some extremely near), we saw countless wading birds and several turtles. The alligator is an important part of the balance in the Everglades and is a provider as well as a consumer of life. Female alligators guard their nests but even so, the eggs and hatchlings often become food for other animals and birds. Although the alligator itself eats just about every other animal in the Glades and can strike lightning fast, it does eat rarely. In dry times, the alligator roots out mud and plants from depressions in the bedrock until reaching water, creating the “gator holes” to which all other living things gravitate for water, thus helping maintain the delicate balance of life in the Everglades.


Everglades National Park is a truly unique and fascinating place.


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National Parks Travels

An update on our bucket list goal of visiting all 59 U.S. National Parks — we have now visited 49 of them!

List of National Parks * We’ve been there + Yet to visit

+Acadia National Park, Maine
+American Samoa National Park, American Samoa Territory
*Arches National Park, Utah
*Badlands National Park, South Dakota
*Big Bend National Park, Texas
*Biscayne National Park, Florida
*Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
*Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
*Canyonlands National Park, Utah
*Capitol Reef National Park Utah
*Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
*Channel Islands National Park, California
+Congaree National Park, South Carolina
*Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
+Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
*Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada
*Denali National Park, Alaska
*Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
*Everglades National Park, Florida
*Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
*Glacier National Park, Montana
*Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
*Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
*Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
*Great Basin National Park, Nevada
*Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
+Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
*Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
+Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
*Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
*Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
+Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
*Joshua Tree National Park, California
*Katmai National Park, Alaska
*Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
*Kings Canyon National Park, California
*Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
*Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
+Lassen Volcanic Park, California
+Mammoth Cave Park, Kentucky
*Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
*Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
*North Cascades National Park, Washington
*Olympic National Park, Washington
*Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
*Pinnacles National Park, California
+Redwood National Park, California
*Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
*Saguaro National Park, Arizona
*Sequoia National Park, California
+Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
*Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
*Virgin Islands National Park, US Virgin Islands
+Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
*Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
*Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
*Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
*Yosemite National Park, California
*Zion National Park, Utah

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Fort Smith National Historic Site


On our trip from Hot Springs National Park, we made a very slight detour to visit Fort Smith National Historic Site. From the little information I had found earlier, I thought it would be a very brief stop with perhaps a quick tour through one building. I was wrong. Fort Smith had a very good museum, lots of information, walking paths to various sites and extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic rangers.

Fort Smith was one of the first U.S. military posts in the Louisiana Territory. It has quite an interesting history as the site of two frontier military posts and a federal court. In many respects, Fort Smith itself was a series of repeated, largely unnecessary, and short-lived exercises but the city of roughly 87,000 exists today because of those early efforts.

With the vast land acquisition of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson wanted southeastern American Indians to move west of the Mississippi River, opening their traditional lands to white settlement. The notion that this would be a haven for the tribes presumed the western lands to be vacant when they were in fact occupied by other native tribes. Jefferson thought it would take 1,000 years for whites to settle the West but, in fact, it only took 50 years.   These presumptions and actions were bound to lead to conflict.  

The first Fort Smith was built in 1817 at Belle Point which overlooks the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers. Its purpose was to keep peace in the Arkansas River Valley between the native Osage and newly arriving Cherokees. By 1824, the frontier had pushed west, the army followed, and Fort Smith was abandoned. The Army returned briefly in 1833-34 to work with Indian Department Agents but today stone foundations are all that remain of the original small fort.


Due to an unfounded fear of Indian attack and following persistent lobbying by Fort Smith commercial men, the second Fort Smith was authorized in 1838 and building began in the spring of 1839. This fort was to be huge consisting of walls twelve feet high and two to three feet wide enclosing an area of six hundred feet by four hundred feet with massive bastions at each angle.


Fort Smith had the design of a coastal fortification able to withstand enemy man-of-war ships. The likelihood of an enemy man-of-war on the Arkansas River was nonexistent. Many army officers, including one future president (Zachary Taylor), were baffled. Despite questioning, the work continued. It was also interesting to note that the gun emplacements faced the city rather than the river.

The fort was finished and occupied by troops in 1846. By that time, the army had spent about three hundred thousand dollars on the project which would roughly equate to over nine million dollars today. Pretty much an early example of a federal boondoggle. The fort, however, did prove valuable as a supply center for forts on the Southwestern frontier and for troops bound for Mexico during the War with Mexico.  The old Commissary Building, stocked with Mexican War era quartermaster goods, offers a peek into that time period.

Sentiments in Arkansas were divided prior to the Civil War but in 1861 Arkansas seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. On April 23, 1861, acting on orders to avoid confrontation, the Union forces evacuated Fort Smith. Fort Smith was occupied by Confederate troops and served as a base for non-conventional warfare by guerilla and partisan bands until 1863 when Major General Blunt and his Union troops retook the fort. It remained in Union hands the rest of the war but was held under siege by Confederates for a time in 1864. Fort Smith ceased to be an army post in 1871.

The U.S. Army turned over the buildings and grounds to the federal court when the dire need for law and order in Indian Territory led Congress to reposition the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas closer to the territory. From 1871 to 1874 Judge William Story presided but resigned under threat of impeachment for improper use of federal funds and appointments. Interim judge Henry J. Caldwell presided until 1875.

The basement of what had been the soldiers’ barracks was converted into a jail. Outlaws and innocents falsely charged were all stuffed together into the two unlit, sordid rooms. Conditions were so bad that it gained fame throughout Indian Territory as a dungeon or a hell hole, hence the sobriquet for Fort Smith as “Hell on the Border.”


If the crime was rape or murder and the accused was convicted in the federal court, the sentence was death by hanging. Since only the President of the United States could pardon or commute a sentence from the federal court, there was little hope of appeal. This changed in 1889 when Congress acted to allow a convicted defendant to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The gallows was erected in 1873 and six men died on the gallows during Story’s tenure.


Judge Isaac Charles Parker, a former congressman, arrived in 1875 and presided over one of the largest, deadliest, and busiest federal court districts. He heard over thirteen thousand cases in a twenty-one-year period. Crimes of violence accounted for about one in five. The criminal judgements made Parker famous with sentences to hang given to 156 men and four women. Of those, seventy-nine men actually went to the gallows. Parker really had no choice under federal law but to impose hanging. During his tenure, a high fence was built around the gallows to prevent executions from being public spectacles. Parker and the U.S. marshals badgered Congress for funds to improve the basement jail and finally, in 1888, a three-tier cell block was opened. This cell block is used today for interpretative exhibits.


Parker publicly denounced capital punishment and commented “it is not the severity of punishment, but the certainty of it that deters.” He also vowed to “let no guilty man escape.” Deputy marshals were appointed by the U.S. marshal to serve summons and warrants and bring back fugitives.


Parker’s court was instrumental in bringing law and order to the “wild west” that was Fort Smith and Indian Territory in the late 1800’s. After 1880, the Justice Department established more federal courts further west and thus diminished the jurisdiction of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The court’s jurisdiction over Indian Territory ended in September 1896 and Parker died at the age of 58 in November of that year. Judge Parker was buried in the Fort Smith National Cemetery.





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National Parks Project

arches-cover-shot2    Once a teacher/learner, always a teacher/learner! I’m collaborating with Kathy Price on a new project and we are introducing the first two in our series of National Park downloadable learning activities books. They are perfect to take along on vacation to enhance the national park experience, to use as part of a unit about our great National Parks or just for the fun of learning.Take a look at what we’ve developed and stay in touch for additions to the series.








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George Washington Carver National Monument


A bit off the beaten path in southwestern Missouri, we discovered the George Washington Carver National Monument and learned a great deal. From our American history classes, we knew that George Washington Carver discovered many uses for peanuts and that he did much of his work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But there is so much more to this story!


George Washington Carver National Monument, established in 1943, was the first unit of the National Park Service to honor an African American scientist, educator, and humanitarian, and the first honoring an individual other than a U.S. president.

The Monument encompasses the original Moses and Susan Carver farm near Diamond, Missouri, on which G. W. Carver was born a slave in about 1864. There is a one-mile loop trail past the Carver family cemetery, through woodlands, across streams, to the restored 1881 Carver House and past the birthplace site. The museum in the Visitor Center is extensive and very interesting.


During the Civil War, guerrilla warfare was a constant along the Missouri-Kansas border. At one point, outlaws kidnapped young George and his mother Mary. George was found in Arkansas near death with whooping cough and returned to the Carvers but his mother was never found. During the post-Civil War racial violence, George and his brother Jim remained on the farm, sheltered and raised by the Carvers. George left the farm about 1875 but visited occasionally.


George developed his interest in and love of plants early, as well as a talent in art. Prior to 1865 it was illegal in Missouri to teach African Americans (enslaved or free) to read and write. Even with legal public access to education, the young black man found it difficult as many communities did not allow black students. With the Carvers’ encouragement to gain an education, George left to go to Neosho, Missouri, to attend a black school. Throughout his quest to obtain an education, George had to work to support himself which was often very difficult. In the late 1870’s George migrated to Kansas, first to Fort Scott, then to Olathe and to Minneapolis, Kansas, where he attended high school. He applied to Highland College by mail and was accepted but arrived to be denied admission because of his race.

He enrolled in Simpson College in Winterset, Iowa, to pursue studies in art. He transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (which later became Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa, in 1891. Carver became the first African American to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, the first African American member of the faculty, and the first African American to receive a master’s degree at Iowa Agricultural College.


In 1896, Carver accepted Booker T. Washington’s offer to join the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Expecting to stay a few short years, Carver’s career at Tuskegee spanned the next forty-seven years. Feeling very strongly about service to mankind, Carver said, “No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.”

Carver taught self-sufficiency and sound conservation practices. When poor farmers were unable to come to Tuskegee for instruction, he proposed a traveling agricultural school and the Jesup Agricultural Wagon was initiated in 1906. It delivered instruction in farm life to thousands and was adopted by the USDA and expanded.

Carver developed over one hundred uses for sweet potatoes and three hundred for peanuts but did not patent any of his inventions as he felt that they should all be free and accessible to everyone. Carver was part of a movement called Chemurgy in the 1930’s. Chemurgy is the use of organic materials – especially farm products – to make industrial products. Henry Ford supported chemurgy and his plants produced hundreds of tons of soybean plastic car parts while other moguls began producing corn-based gasohol. Then something put the movement to a stop. Some implicate oil industry sabotage while others point to mass production complications and World War II. I couldn’t help but wonder where we would be today if chemurgy had continued.


George Washington Carver was a symbol of interracial cooperation in a time when that was rare. He received numerous awards and honors throughout his lifetime. A modest man who credited God as the source of his scientific revelations, Carver felt strongly about being of the greatest good to the greatest number. Carver died January 5, 1943 at Tuskegee and is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University.


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Hot Springs National Park



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.



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