|View of Oachita Mountains from Hot Springs National Park.|
Hot Springs stretches along a narrow valley in southwest Arkansas’ Oachita Mountains. The springs begin as the earth warms rainwater seeping downward. Thousands of years later the water, heated to 143 degrees, thrusts upward onto the earth’s surface, the velocity so rapid the water does not have time to cool.
The historic town deserved our time and of course our tourist dollars. The idea of soaking in hot springs charmed.
Native Indians enjoyed the springs probably thousands of years before French and Spanish explorers ‘discovered’ the thermal waters. Americans hoping for miracles began seeking out the hot springs in the early 1800s. Doctors touted the curative powers of the waters for aches, pains, and debilitating diseases. The springs became so popular growth threatened their survival. President Andrew Jackson, in cooperation with Congress, created the Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, later designated a national park.
The arrival of the railroad in the 1870s increased tourism. Gangsters showed up with the railroad, and the town earned a reputation as a gambling mecca. Baseball teams held spring training in Hot Springs in the early 20th century. A powerful and corrupt political machine ruled from the 1920s until the late 1940s.
But alas, the easy money and high life did not last. Like so often in life, change came to Hot Springs and spoiled the party. Tourism declined, bathhouses closed, and the population plunged. By the 1990s grand Victorian-era buildings, hotels and bathhouses were falling apart.
Three near-death blows doomed Hot Springs:
* A new generation of state and local politicians closed the casinos.
* The medical community no longer hyped baths as a medical treatment.
* Air travel expanded vacation possibilities, allowing people to visit places all over the planet.
But before decline made Hot Springs another American ghost town, change again impacted the area in the guise of the National Park Service and area businesses. Public and private initiatives launched the town’s revival, hoping to rejuvenate the tourist industry.
Eight bathhouses served clients in the early 20th century, but only one remained open by the 1990s. Today two offer bath and spa services. A third serves as National Park headquarters, a visitor’s center and museum. Other renovated bathhouses contain administrative offices, a gift shop, and a craft brewery and pub.
Hot Springs today is in transition. Boutique shops, tourist sites, restaurants and art galleries exist alongside crumbling buildings. Thoroughbred racing and a casino draw an adult crowd while recreational facilities attract families.
No one may believe in the medicinal effects of the hot springs anymore, but a plunge in the waters sure feels good.
I could not leave town without dipping in the waters and sampling spa services. A massage and facial, affordable compared to elevated East coast prices, prepared me for the next leg of our American odyssey.
Although not ardent blues or country music fans, hub and I journey on to Music country…
|View of the Hot Springs area from the Hot Springs Mountain Tower|
in the national park.