Before there was Disneyland, there was Hot Springs, Arkansas. And it still has that amusement park feel. But it’s a National Park.
People have been taking the waters from time immemorial. The hot water, over 143 degrees, flows from the hills to offer soakers a cure for whatever ailed them. Later, entrepreneurs built crude cabins to visitors had a place to stay. In 1832, the federal government set aside sections of land to protect the water. This was the first time that the government protected a resource. Because of this early date, some boosters call Hot Springs the first national park. Not quite. It was a reservation, which became a national park in 1921.
By then, the town offered luxurious hotels and bathhouses. It was the golden age of bathing. For some, invalids, it was the “last hope to be cured.” Besides vacationers and health seekers, the area attracted gamblers, bootleggers, and criminals. Hot Springs National Park has the dubious distinction of being the first national park to have a ranger killed on its site.
The public now knows that soaking in hot water, with or without minerals, isn’t going to cure syphilis, diabetes or other diseases. But if it encourages you to relax and exercise as well, maybe that isn’t so far-fetched.
Now you can walk on Bathhouse Row and see the beautiful houses, which have been preserved. Most of being used in one way or another: the visitor center, park bookstore, cultural center, when it’s open, and even a café and brewery. That last was a surprise. But why not? If you can graze cattle on battlefields, why not have a thriving restaurant in a bathhouse?
What did we do?
The first day, we went to the visitor center. The museum told the story of Hot Springs and the baths. We walked through a preserved bathhouse with its tubs, change rooms, and pools. Not surprisingly, the men’s area was much more luxurious than the women’s. I posed for a picture in a needle shower. The water would be coming at you from all different levels, not just from the top.
The museum also described the history of bathing and spas in the U.S. and Europe. It displayed various equipment for physical therapy and exercise that had been available in the 1920s.
The gymnastics equipment shown in the picture is not much different from what I used in high school gym in the early 1960s. The park is preserving the story of bathing and spas as well as the actual hot water.
We didn’t just see the bathhouses; we also took the waters at Buckstaff bathhouse. Buckstaff, in continuous operation since 1912, boasts a traditional bathing experience. Lenny and I chose the traditional package and went our separate ways.
A woman greeted me and asked me to get undressed and put all my clothes in a locker. She wrapped me in a sheet, toga style, and ran a whirlpool mineral bath for me. The bathtub was huge and I kept floating around. Later Lenny reported that this large bathtub fit him just fine.
She scrubbed with a loofa mitt and I moved on to the hot packs. By now, I felt that I was in a hospital getting a bunch of tests done. I laid on a bed with hot towels under my back, legs and neck and a cool towel on my forehead. I was supposed to relax; the other women closed their eyes and seemed asleep. Sitting in a sitz bath felt good on my back. I declined the vapor cabinet as just too hot.
Finally the needle shower! Yippee. I was a wet noodle when I finished but I slept very well.
Today, we took a hike up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower and continued on a network of trails. This is considered the foothills of the Ozarks. Most wildflowers were new to us but I recognized coneflowers. We’re going back downtown on Bathhouse Row for one more evening of street life.
In 1893, one visitor said that Hot Springs is “better than a circus.” She had that right.