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The Double Life Of Hot Springs

May 2024
15min read

Its waters were so precious it was made a federal preserve in 1832. Ever since, it has been both a lavish spa for the robust and an infirmary for the frail.

The fifty-five-mile drive south and west from Little Rock on U.S. 70 leads into oak-and hickory-covered hills known as the Zig Zag Mountains. Road cuts reveal the great folds of sandstone and novaculite underlying this terrain, ancient seabeds, compacted and pushed upward in tightly arching swales, then eroded down to these steep ridges of the most resistant rock. It is pretty country, itself worth the trip, but the very source of this beauty made, in earlier times, the pilgrimage to Hot Springs difficult, especially for those, who, because of illness or injury, were most desperate to reach the place. What takes little more than an hour today was in the 1830s a two-day effort by stagecoach, and as late as the 1870s the road was frequented by highwaymen.

The city and national park at the end of this journey represent a peculiar mixture of impulses. The present-day city conveys a sense of both decline and development; its greatest attraction is a past glory that cannot be rekindled but only visited as a sort of historical curiosity, and at the same time there is evidence of a boosterism anticipating a tourism generated by lake developments and retirement condominiums. Contradictions are everywhere. Central Avenue, the street that passes Bathhouse Row, is flanked by an aristocratic hotel, the Arlington, replete with brass fittings and Moorish archways, and at the opposite end, something called the IQ Zoo, which entices the passer-by with the opportunity to play tick-tack-toe with a chicken. On the same side of the street, Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum looks across at elegantly fronted bathhouses that belong on the set of some Mediterranean film. At the fringes of the bathing district can be seen the trappings common to resorts from the Wisconsin north woods to Southern beach towns: the required fudge shop, a palm reader, tour buses, and stores dedicated to kitsch.

In January 1878 Harper’s Monthly ran an article called “The Hot Springs of Arkansas,” by A. Van Cleef. Well written and straightforward, it describes the town and region, discusses the history and geology, tells how to get to the place, and does, in short, all the things I should do in this article—and did it 112 years before I even got started. And much of what Van Cleef told his readers remains pertinent today. The surrounding hills are still beautiful and pine-covered, Hot Springs Mountain affords a magnificent view, “stores of all kinds” are, now as then, “abundant,” and the bathing process continues much the same as when Van Cleef took the waters. Despite the fact that the buildings on which Van Cleef remarked have long since been lost to fire and progress, their replacements serve the same purposes: water therapy, lodging for visitors, amusements for people with time on their hands.

The bathhouses that line the Row strain after a splendor suitable for the most cosmopolitan of guests.

But the most poignant testimony to continuity as well as to change has to do with what the springs represent and why they still attract travelers. Van Cleef suggested that it was Arkansas, in fact, that Ponce de Leon was seeking in 1521 when he settled for Florida, that the hot springs were the “waters of life,” the reality that became fabled as the Fountain of Youth. The possibility that Hernando de Soto saw the springs in 1542 continues to be celebrated in promotional literature, often confusing de Soto with the more commercially attractive Ponce de Leon and even suggesting that de Soto’s death, a few months after his ‘Visit” to the area, would have been averted had he stayed beside these waters.


The old Fordyce Bathhouse, opened in 1915 and now restored by the National Park Service as a visitors’ center, emphasized the “Fountain of Youth” connection in its advertising and gave it expression in a stone fountain where an armored and elegantly plumed de Soto accepts a gift of water from a kneeling Indian maiden. This reconstructed discoverer, the imaginative creation of nineteenth-century commerce, projects a greater appreciation of Arkansas’s watery prize than did the real de Soto, and shows no inclination to push ahead toward his awaiting demise. That, of course, is the recurrent message of the place, one unchanged through time, the idea that there is something in these waters that can help keep death at bay, something healing and recreational. John Cyrus Hale, an early bathhouse operator and promoter, asserted the claim most unabashedly in an 1847 advertising poem that concludes:

Let each come here, for here alone, Exists the power to save; Here tottering forms, but skin and bone, Are rescued from the grave.

And so it is that landmarks of a different sort dominate central Hot Springs, that the amusement houses are shadowed by physical-therapy facilities: the multistoried Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center, descendant of what, until 1960, was the federal government’s Army and Navy hospital; the Levi National Arthritis Hospital; and the Libbey Memorial Physical Medicine Center and Health Spa. This other Hot Springs concerns itself with infirmity, with the perversity of our own bodies. If we are offered a good time elsewhere in town, the promise of the therapy centers is relief from that which cannot be repaired, treatment for arthritis, paralysis, postpolio trauma, multiple sclerosis.

The history of Hot Springs revolves around a belief in the curative power of warm water and in the government’s duty to make it available to all.

In a country filled with rivers and springs, the remarkable occurrence in this valley, one that attracted the attention of the United States government as early as 1804, was springs that bubbled up from the ground too hot to touch, water that required cooling before it could be consumed. It is true that long before the arrival of Europeans in the New World, Native Americans valued the area for its novaculite, a metamorphosed sandstone whose hardness and capacity for sharpening made it valuable for a variety of tools, including whetstones, for which it continues to be quarried. And it is true that crystal hunters have been drawn here for the elegant quartz deposits in the area’s layered rock, an industry that has been lively for more than a century.

But it is the water, warmer than anything flowing from the tap marked “H” in our bathrooms and kitchens, that has drawn visitors since the first appearance of people in the region and that has given Hot Springs its very existence as well as its name. In our own day of plumbing and water heaters it is hard to imagine the luxury hot water must once have been. The opportunity to submerge one’s body, especially in cold seasons, in such warmth belonged solely to the wealthy and even to them only at great cost and effort.


The first settlers came for relief and then stayed on as entrepreneurs catering to fellow sufferers. That Thomas Jefferson had heard of the springs as early as 1804 suggests how widespread was the reputation of this remote curiosity, and the fact that in 1832—long before the concept of national parks began to take hold—the United States government set aside the springs and four sections of land (twenty-five hundred acres) as a federal reservation demonstrates how seriously their potential benefits were regarded.

That Jefferson himself should have great hopes for the benefits of any treatment involving heat is indicated in a 1801 letter to William Dunbar, the friend later charged with the first official exploration of the “Hot Springs of the Washita.” In the midst of a discussion in which he mentions a low temperature recorded in Quebec, Jefferson volunteers: “I have often wondered that any human being should live in a cold country who can find room in a warm one. I have no doubt that cold is the source of more sufferance to all animal nature than hunger, thirst, sickness & all the other pains of life & of death itself put together.”

In contrast with other natural curiosities held in national ownership because of their scenic value, the prevailing interest in Hot Springs has always been practical rather than aesthetic. The dramatic Valley of Vapors has been short on vapors ever since all but two of the springs were capped to prevent pollution, at the end of the last century. The National Park Service clearly understands that Hot Springs was created to be—as the present assistant superintendent of the park, Dale Moss, told me—“used rather than observed.” In this spirit the waters have been prescribed for nearly all persistent disorders and many incurable diseases.

In part the history of Hot Springs revolves around the belief in the curative power of warm water and in the federal government’s responsibility to make such a natural resource available to all citizens. As owner of the springs the government controls the water, leasing bath sites and supervising nearly every aspect of the treatments, from fees to acceptable music in the lounges (jazz was once forbidden). As the bathhouses grew more elaborate and access to the springs more difficult, the government provided for indigents’ bathing through a series of structures culminating in a free bathhouse that operated until 1953, when it was replaced by Libbey Memorial Center.

But spas are more than clinics, their clientele more than the indigent infirm. The people served by the elegant Arlington and its departed peers, while perhaps not always in the best of health, were hardly poor. And the bathhouses that now line the Row strain after a splendor appropriate to the most cosmopolitan guests, a grandeur that rises above the tubs and drains around which they are built.


Dating from the early part of this century, these palaces project a variety of architectural styles that scarcely refer to their actual location or function: the white-painted Ozark with its twin Spanish-style towers and red-tiled roof; the Buckstaff—the only house on the Row currently in operation—boxy but enhanced by two-story columns topped by Grecian urns; the Quapaw, with its Xanadu-style dome and intricate Byzantine designs; the Hale, replete with French Quarter wrought iron; the Georgian-style Superior; the Maurice, white-stuccoed and red-tiled, with a Mediterranean flair; and the Fordyce, now wonderfully restored by the Park Service, complete with a Grand Central Terminal-style canopy and topped by brickwork in a quilted diamond design. The grandiose mixture of details and flamboyant disregard for immediate circumstances give the Row the air of a colonial encampment, the unreality—though it is on a smaller scale—of compounds of wealth during the Raj or in contemporary Palm Beach or Palm Springs. Or perhaps even more to the point, the style suggests Las Vegas and Atlantic City, early casino on a less than Trumpian scale.

Elegant niches in the hillside behind the Row, the little water parks with alcoves where a spring briefly breaks forth or a decorative drinking fountain is ensconced in a high wall, all add to this exotic flavor. The Grand Promenade that curves through landscaped grounds at the base of Hot Springs Mountain exploits the natural beauty of its environs even as it looks onto the backs of the bathhouses. Picturesque even from this perspective, the fanciful structures here reveal their plumbing, firmly rooted in the Arkansas soil, the pumps and pipes that make possible all the front-door fantasy. And beneath everything the indestructible native novaculite provides a foundation sufficient against even such disasters as the 1990 flood.

Inside the restored Fordyce the lobby and veranda and the long music room connecting the ladies’ lounge with the men’s billiards room all are decorated with wicker furniture arranged into leisure areas for writing and conversation. A beauty shop once helped restore coiffures damaged by the baths, and day rooms used to be available for those who wanted more time to recuperate and required the service of maids. The place has the air of the old resorts of privilege and of mansions like George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore; ever, the gymnasium, with its punching bags, Indian clubs, and climbing ropes, seems more a playroom for Teddy Roosevelt and his affluent friends than a center for serious therapy. But the other rooms give the secret away.


In addition to steam chambers and bathing tubs to facilitate the purging of unclean fluids and the intake of the purifying waters of the springs, there is on the third floor a room once used for treating syphilitics with mercury and later given over to a deep Hubbard tub designed for treating polio patients. The elevator in the hall, the monorail suspended from the ceiling, and the hydraulic lift inside the tub made these facilities accessible to wheelchair-bound patients and even today are reminders of grim determination. Rooms devoted to less dramatic ailments also have a disturbing look, mostly because of the array of machinery in which at one time or another so much hope and advertising were invested: “tissue oscillators” and other instruments designed to enliven worn or damaged bodies with electric shock or light or sound.

Bathhouse promotion mingles science and magic, chemical analysis of the water’s composition side by side with legendary accounts like the Maurice’s insistence that it is built over a sort of Aladdin’s cave where the most beneficial waters flow. So too the exteriors’ suggestion of magic is matched on the inside by technology, and the pretentious buildings convey a sense to all patients that heretofore exclusive luxuries are about to be theirs. The Buckstaff, though never so opulent as the Fordyce, continues in operation today, offering bathing and massages. Visitors register in the lobby, leaving their valuables, including the appropriate fees for the bath, before entering the changing areas. From this point on, dress consists only of a sheet, draped toga-style over one shoulder, and that only for transit between stations along the pilgrimage.

Early visitors often described their bathing experience in ambivalent terms. “Crowds swarm in these baths,” the novelist Stephen Crane wrote. “A man becomes a creature of three conditions. He is about to take a bath—he is taking a bath—he has taken a bath. … In the quiet and intensely hot interiors of the buildings men involved in enormous bathrobes lounge in great rocking chairs. In other rooms the negro attendants scramble at the bidding of the bathers. Through the high windows the sunlight enters and pierces the curling masses of vapor which rise slowly in the heavy air.”

Now, as then, the first stop is the tub. A bathing attendant assigned upon entry to the bathing area—a large room with skylights, open in the center and with cubicles along the walls—prepares a deep tub in one of the enclosures. The bather lies back, nearly neck-deep in hundred-degree water that jets in from beside his feet. The overall effect is similar to that of a whirlpool and a hot tub combined—except for the isolation. For roughly twenty minutes you lie in a narrow room that is devoid of any official decoration except for a clock (conveniently placed so that you have to look at it), a room that—rarity of rarities in this Muzak world—offers no piped-in “entertainment.” The only sounds are those of the water and the calls of the attendants checking on their charges: “How you doing, my young man?”—this especially to the oldest clients.

The Spartan austerity of the sweat chambers would satisfy John Calvin, but all around are sinful delights more appropriate to a sultan‘s palace.

My attendant, a native of Hot Springs named Bobby Howell, a bathhouse attendant for seventeen years, left me with the instruction “I do the work; you do the relaxing,” a charge that not only made me feel guilty at being waited on but also made me pursue relaxation with an industriousness that was exhausting. Bobby also left cups of warm springwater, telling me to drink, that this would be a purifying replacement for the fluids I was sweating out. (The Hot Springs waters are sterile and were used to hold the first of NASA’s moon rocks back in the days when we worried about contamination from outer space.)

I dutifully drank and, tired of looking at the plumbing (that of the establishment as well as my own) and the clock, I craned my neck to see the unofficial decorations Bobby had hung on the wall behind me, cutout reproductions (two) of Jesus Praying on the Mount —pictures I remember from the walls of rural Baptist churches—a bathhouse calendar, illustrated with two children sitting, of course, on a dock, and a picture of a little girl at prayer. All this is clearly didactic, a reminder that more than the body is in need of purification, a nudge to suggest it was profligation that brought us here in the first place. But Bobby’s pictures are vaguely reassuring as well, a humanizing touch amid all this sterility, a hint that someone is caring for you.


After the big tub there is the sitz bath, a perch in a narrow, shallow trough that offers relief for everything from hemorrhoids to lower-back pain. Next come two minutes in a private steam bath, where, in the intense heat, you count off the seconds, leaving the compartment early if you wish but called out by the attendant if you count too slowly.

Outside the bathing cubicles narrow tables have been drawn side to side. Delivered here from the steam, the bather is wrapped mummy fashion, with hot compresses applied to troubling joints and areas of chronic discomfort, then left to sweat and relax some more. The warmth in this phase differs from that of the tubs and steam room and spreads more slowly, working its way into knees and shoulders.

The last stop in the bathing area is the needles, a narrow stall with horizontal jets that spray cool water from your neck to your feet. This is preparation for the cooling room, another line of tables, where, removed from the humid bathing area and cooled by fans, you await the masseur. And the massage is the ultimate indulgence, a concentrated movement of flesh and muscles in which you lie still and someone else moves your body.

All this touches on two contrasting worlds: the world of the infirm seeking relief for failing limbs and the world of the athlete, vital, physically secure to the point of narcissism. The smells of the bathhouse are those of the YMCA as much as of the rehabilitation center, of the training room as much as of the physical-therapy wing of the local hospital. The messages come from both sides to the middle-aged man wandered in off the street, messages both of youth and of old age, of the body triumphant and of the body in defeat.

Outside, afterward, where I felt drained by the sweating and invigorated by the massage, the experience seems representative of Hot Springs more generally, in part because the desperately ill and the exuberantly healthy have historically crossed paths in this valley. At the free bathing pools, in 1885, a not untypical year for the spa in its heyday, the two most common complaints were rheumatism and syphilis—the latter disease bringing a host of paying guests over the years, including Al Capone. At the same time Hot Springs was a favorite training site for boxers, entertaining on various occasions John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Jess Willard, and Jack Dempsey. Several baseball teams came here for spring training, most notably the Pittsburgh Pirates, who began their seasons in Hot Springs from 1901 to 1933. A number of players, including Babe Ruth, came on their own, so great was their regard for the conditioning power of the waters.

In our own day of plumbing and water heaters, it is hard to imagine the luxury hot water must have been, when such warmth belonged solely to the rich.

But the double life of Hot Springs runs deeper than the relative health of its visitors. Like all spas, it was called upon to entertain as well as to heal, to fill the idle hours between baths. This it did—and does—in a variety of ways. A number of ambitious theaters once provided boxing matches, opera, Shakespeare, and minstrel shows. There was hunting in the surrounding mountains, and fishing remains a favorite activity. There has been an alligator farm in operation since 1902, though its older ostrich equivalent has long been closed. All these endeavors and myriad others provided diversion for spa visitors with time on their hands, helping combat boredom even as the waters combated disease, but the most popular and persistent diversion, greater even than ostriches and reptiles, was gambling.

The history of gambling at Hot Springs is a subject unto itself, a cycle of corruption and reform continuously repeated until the 1960s, when the resort was forced, at last, to comply with the same antigambling laws that governed the rest of Arkansas. But what is of interest here is how that activity fits into the peculiar mixture of impulses that Hot Springs represents, a place where people came to conserve their health and gamble their substance. The Spartan austerity of the sweat chambers would satisfy John Calvin, but all around are sinful delights appropriate to a slightly tacky sultan’s palace.


Our notions of health and of happiness seem to alternate between the principles of subtraction and addition. On the subtraction side there is the notion that disease is the result of too much of some troubling element. So throughout time we have sweated, dieted, limited our intake of this or that—the same pattern that the baths represent. On the other hand, we also tend to think of our health as the victim of something absent, the want of some curative that can make us what we ought to be, some fountain of youth or balm of Gilead that we can ingest into ourselves. A thriving spa serves both principles.

When water therapy lost its medicinal reputation, pushed aside by modern drugs and new technologies, and gambling was outlawed, Hot Springs lost its old trump cards and suffered. Still, the town—and all it represents —persists, thanks in part to the National Park Service’s impressive series of improvements, among them a renewed bathhouse area and the continual purchasing of land in the surrounding mountains. Lucky in its geography, Hot Springs has—in addition to the traditional waters—beautiful terrain and a cluster of man-made lakes on which to build a future. Attractions ranging from places to dig for diamonds to horse racing and an aquarium offer a wide range of vacation activities.

But the heart of Hot Springs is a national park oddly situated in the middle of a town, the place Jefferson sent envoys to confirm and where Jackson and his Congress placed our reservation all those years ago. And it has been rejuvenated by more than the Park Service improvements. Fifty-year leases have been picked up for five of the empty bathhouses by a developer who plans to restore at least two of the buildings to spas and to convert the others to museums. The same person holds leases on twenty storefronts across the street to help accommodate the new trade. Last spring’s devastating flood seriously delayed progress, but work continues. And recreational bathing still draws visitors, with 1,272,771 baths counted by the park in 1989 alone.

The future appears promising for a forward-looking Hot Springs and an energetic Park Service as they plan for changing circumstances, but the place’s most poignant appeal will inevitably continue to grow from its past and the way its history intersects with our own lives. It provides, among the crystal shops and the palm readers and the revival tents and the sitz baths and the tissue oscillators and all the other promises of a better life and a more complete being, evidence of the ways, sometimes venal and sometimes heroic, by which we confront our own limitations.

At one end of the Row the most spectacular of the uncapped springs tumbles, steaming, out of the hillside. It is a dramatic exit for water that began a journey four thousand years ago from the earth’s surface, seeping through breaks and pores in the underlying rock down into a highly heated zone only to be driven back upward to where we see it now. Four thousand years is not so long an absence in geologic time, but for us it is nearly beyond imagining. Ground water that departed during the height of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom returns in the last days of the twentieth century. Our changes are more rapid. This water, valued by our grandparents for being warm, for its mineral content, even for being “radio-active,” we view differently. (The 1917 guide to the area that praises it as “radio-active” presented this as a virtue and seems to have associated it with carbonation.) In our world hot water is commonplace and the chemical composition of the springs has been coolly reevaluated by scientists; it is no longer thought especially beneficial, and radioactivity is, of course, viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Its presence, from radon gas emanation, is relatively common, and its levels at Hot Springs are in no way health-threatening.


What is remarkable today, the principal reason that people carry water from the Hot Springs fountains by the bottleful, is purity, even in nature. The old irony continues. What our ancestors marveled over for the special things it contained now seem miraculous for what is missing.


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