Friday, March 11, 2016

Baths, massage and a facial, oh my!

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.


  1. I used to visit Steamboat Springs and bathe in the warm water, along with a few others within a short drive from Boulder, Colorado. I know it sure feels good to soak in those waters. Thanks for reminding me; I didn't know the history of the town of Hot Springs, either. :-)

  2. We took the grandkids to Steamboat and they loved playing in the warm water pool. Older folks (like myself) like the soothing feeling on our stiff, sometimes aching body.

  3. I'm quite familiar with the Hot Springs area as it was in the late 1940s to mid-1950s. I forget the route number, but the road to Malvern (Actor Billy Bob Thornton's hometown, I think -- also, think the brother of Pres. Kennedy's assassin lived in the same town) had some interesting sites. Vacation cabins, businesses selling & shipping water from their natural mineral springs including sulpher (phew!), magnesium, others. A secluded huge house on a hill above that hwy was purported to have been a hideout for Al Capone & gangsters. Little Rock and other community folk built homes off that route on Lake Catherine whose waters were fed by a large river with Ouachita Nat'l Forrest along distant shoreline. An even more popular, reputed to be more upscale, Lake Hamilton was outside another Hot Springs route.

    The main drag through Hot Springs was very busy though the bath houses had closed down. Water drinking fountains, each spewing a different natural mineral water and/or hot water were along one side of the street. Across the street were art gallery auction houses, each selling expensive jewels, watches and items to a room full of visitors who could wander in and out at will -- catering to wealthy folk -- purportedly many from Chicago who especially came each winter to escape the cold and snow (not the gangster crowd). Within walking distance at one end of Bathhouse Row where those who could afford it stayed was the elegant Arlington Hotel -- featuring a string instrument group playing in the lobby evening for guests (generally older people). Sat. nights dancing upstairs in one of ballrooms with live band for guests staying in hotel. I was recently told the Arlington continues to thrive. Of course, there were numerous other hotels to accommodate those who came to spend the winter.

    Former President Bill Clinton went to high school in Hot Springs. Among other jobs, his mother was a sometime mid-wife there.

    Hot Springs and area was also where at Jr. High School age I experienced a culture shock I've never forgotten -- segregation in full bloom -- separate seating for black and whites everywhere including buses, waiting rooms, rest rooms.

    There was much more there and was told there still is, but interesting you observed it to be in a state of transition as I would think they'd need to offer more to attract people in these days.

  4. Lucky you! Taking the waters is something that is hard to do in my neighborhood/city. The one spa nearby,well, it's like a dungeon. I've never been to Hot Spring but I think I need to.
    Carol Cassara

  5. I left another comment but it disappeared. Nice post about the springs. Thanks

  6. I would like to visit there and enjoy the hot springs. I have visited hot springs in California and enjoyed that, they are relaxing.