Friday, July 27, 2012

Hot Springs AR - Our ‘First’ National Park

OK… Most of us believe that Yellowstone was America’s first National Park.  But to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s all about how you define ‘first’.  The US Congress set aside the hot springs and adjacent Ouachita Mountains as ‘The Hot Springs Reservation back in 1832…40 years before Yellowstone was designated as a National Park.  The ‘Federal Reservation’ title for Hot Springs wasn’t changed to National Park until 1921.  At 5,500 acres, Hot Springs is our smallest National Park.

This pretty view of the city of Hot Springs is from part way up one of the mountains adjacent to the city.  Most National parks cover thousands and thousands of acres, far from city streets…but not Hot Springs.  The heart of this park is right in town.  Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue is the main attraction.   There are 8 remaining bathhouses, 2 of which are actually still in the business of providing the ‘healing mineral-rich waters’ of the Hot Springs to visitors.

The spring waters flow from Hot Springs Mountain.  The park preserves the ‘recharge zone’, slopes where rain and snow soak into the ground, as well as the ‘discharge zone’, which contains 47 springs belonging to the park.  The water flowing up from at least a mile under-ground dates back about over 4,000 years.  About 700,000 gallons of 143 degree water flows from the springs into a complex piping and reservoir system.  Then it’s distributed to the spas and free ‘jug fountains’ where the public can fill their containers with the odorless chemical-free water. 
When an 1804 expedition arrived at the springs, they discovered a log cabin and several rudimentary shelters for people seeking the healing waters.  Subsequently, the first bath houses were little more than tents perched over individual springs or reservoirs.  Wooden structures followed but they weren’t well built.  During the Civil War, the town was basically burned down…but by 1873, there were 6 bathhouses plus 24 hotels and boardinghouses.  The Federal Government’s channelizing of the Hot Springs Creek allowed for the establishment of today’s Bathhouse Row.

Laurie took the following photos as we rolled along Central Avenue.  This is the Larmar Bathhouse.  It opened in 1923, replacing a wooden Victorian structure.  It was named in honor of former US Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, who was the Secretary of the Interior when the first bathhouse was built back in 1888.

The Lamar was unique in that it offered a range of tub lengths…from 5’ to 6’6”…for people of various heights.  It also had a small coed gymnasium.  The lobby, featuring a long counter of Tennessee marble, was the largest of the 8 houses on the Row.  Decorative embellishments include murals, stenciling, marble accents, ornamental balustrades and silver glass interspersed with red panel wainscots. 
Factoid: Hot Springs Ranger James Cary was the first National Park Service Ranger in our nation’s history who was killed in the line of duty.  On 3/12/27, he was on patrol on Hot Springs Mountain when he was shot and killed by bootleggers. 

This is the Buckstaff Bathhouse.  It was named for its controlling shareholders.  The Buckstaff was built in 1912 on the site of 3 previous bathhouses, the earliest of which, a brick bathhouse, dated back to the late 1850’s.  Because it has been in continuous operation for 100 years, it is one of the best preserved of all of the bathhouses.  Colorado marble is used throughout the interior, particularly in the bath halls.  All levels may be accessed by way of the building’s original elevator, with an ornate interior reminiscent of the Golden Age of Bathing.  The capacity of this building is 1,000 bathers per day. 

Should you be interested, this is one of the 2 bathhouses on Bathhouse Row that still offers baths and other spa services.  For more information, go to

From the early 1870’s until the great Hot Springs fire of 1878, the Weir and George Bathhouse occupied the site of the Ozark Bathhouse.  That fire basically destroyed the town of Hot Springs.  (Another fire in 1913 destroyed about 60 blocks of the city) The first Ozark Bathhouse was named after the surrounding mountain range…then considered to be part of the Ozark Mountains but now known as the Ouachita Mountains.

The present brick and stucco Ozark Bathhouse was completed in 1922.  Three earlier designs had been rejected as being too grand and expensive.   The Ozark was relatively small, with only 14,000 square feet and 27 tubs.  It catered to a middle economic class of bathers unwilling to pay for frills.  The Ozark ceased operations in 1977.
Factoid: Former President Bill Clinton as well as actors Alan Ladd and Billy Bob Thornton were born in the Hot Springs area. 

The Quapaw Bathhouse was built in 1922 on 2 lots that had previously been occupied by 2 Victorian style bathhouses.  When a tufa, (a type of limestone), cavity was discovered during excavation, the owners decided to promote the cavity as an Indian cave.  The Quapaw Indians had briefly held the surrounding territory after the Louisiana Purchase was completed.  In 1818, the tribe ‘ceded’ the land to the Federal government.

The Quapaw’s lease provided water for 40 tubs, making it the largest business for bathing, its main service.  It did offer some other services such as massages and electro-therapy.  The Quapaw closed in 1968, but it reopened under other management and then closed again in 1984.  It was recently reopened and it is now the 2nd bathhouse offering baths and spa services.  For more information, just go to  

The Fordyce is the largest bathhouse on the Row.  It has 3 main floors, 2 courtyards and a basement under most of the building.  The interior features marble walls, benches and stairs; terra-cotta fountains; stained glass skylights and windows; a wood-paneled coed gymnasium, and; private staterooms.  There was a bowling alley in the basement. 

The building was completed in 1915 and it closed in 1962.  It is now a historically furnished museum. 
The Fordyce provided more services than any other bathhouse on the Row.  In addition to the standard hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, massage, and mercury treatments, the management offered a full range of chiropody services, a beauty parlor, a shoe shine stands, an assembly room with a grand piano, a pool table, iced thermal water, Zander exercise machines, a roof garden and many other amenities. (For more on the early Zander exercise machines, you can just go to
Factoid: The entire Bathhouse Row has been designated as a National Historic Landmark District.

When the Fordyce was completed in 1915, William Maurice set about renovating and upgrading his father's bathhouse, aptly named The Maurice.  It had opened only 3 years earlier, in 1912.  With a total space of 23,000 square feet, this facility had ample room for the complete range of services and amenities.  The Maurice had a gymnasium, staterooms, a roof garden, twin elevators and, at one point, it was the only bathhouse to have a therapeutic pool.

Factoid: From shortly after the Civil War until 1967, Hot Springs was a hotbed of gambling and prostitution.  The police department was on the take and the mobs controlled the city.  At one point, there was a gun battle between the mob's city police department and the county sheriff's department.  Four officers were killed.

Factoid: Al Capone was a frequent visitor, staying at the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa.  This massive hotel, built in 1925, is still in operation and, as per Esquire Magazine, its lobby bar is one of the best bars in America.  For more on this historic hotel, or if you might want to stay there, go to

Factoid: Hot Springs was cleaned up and the mobsters moved on when a new governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, declared war on the the gambling and prostitution.  His predecessor, Orval Faubus, had avoided any such efforts, turning a blind or convenient eye towards the problem. (Governor Faubus is better known for his stand against the desegregation of the Little Rock Arkansas public schools.

The current Hale Bathhouse is at least the 4th building to use this name.  The first Hale Bathhouse was built in 1854.  This is the oldest bathhouse on Bathhouse Row, as it was completed in 1892.  It closed for business in 1978.  This building has 12,000 square feet.  The lobby arcade was used as a sunroom where guests could relax in rocking chairs.  In 1917, one of the hot springs was captured in a tiled enclosure in the basement and this feature is still in place. 

This bathhouse was also connected with a thermal cave carved out of the mountainside and used as a ‘hotroom’ in the 1890’s.  This cave was rediscovered during the completion of a 1993 drainage project and it’s now a federally protected archeological site.
Factoid: From the 1880’s through the mid 1940’s, Hot Springs was the major training site for Major League Baseball.  The Chicago Cubs, the White Stockings, the Reds, the Pirates and the Red Sox all trained here at one point or another.  It wouldn’t have been unusual to see Babe Ruth walking down the street. (Interesting…major league baseball…gambling…prostitutes…mobsters…)

The last of the Bathhouse Row facilities is The Superior.  The style of construction is much different than the other bathhouses.  The business’s name was supposed to be derived from it’s offering of superior service but it may have also been meant to appeal to the many health seekers from the upper Midwest.  This bathhouse opened in 1916.  The smallest bathhouse on the Row, the Superior also had the lowest rates.  It offered only basic hydrotherapy, mercury and massage services.  It closed in November of 1983.

For more on Hot Springs National Park, including some great old photos, just go to  To learn more about the city of Hot Springs, which has a metropolitan population of almost 100,000, you can go to,_Arkansas or you can check out
Just click on any of the photos to enlarge it...
Thanks for stopping by and sharing part of our roadtrip...and America's history with us!
Take Care, Big Daddy Dave 


  1. You sure put a lot of research into this, which I didn't do when we visited, so I enjoyed reading it.

  2. You're so sweet Dave, thank you so much for the birthday wishes!
    In fact I also thought Yellowstone was the first national park...isn't that where Yogi Bear comes from?:) Thank you for the picture tour!

  3. Dave, this was fascinating and I'm leaving your blog knowing more than when I came. Have a wonderful weekend. Blessings...Mary

  4. so interesting. we have never been to that part of the country, and know so little about it or any of this stuff really...someday . very informative..thanks!!

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