Bathed in history: Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas turns 100

Nestled in the lush, green hills of central Arkansas lies a 100-year-old, 5,500-acre national park where history and conservation meet tourism and urban living.

It's a bustling city with no direct interstate access. A place where urban development of the city that grew up around the park nestles next to the natural beauty of the landscape and bits of history that shaped our country. 

Located 50 miles southwest of Little Rock, Hot Springs National Park is a unique entry in the national park system.

You can spend the morning hiking one of the many mountain trails where you might meet deer up close, then spend the afternoon immersed in the history of what was once a major cultural hub while enjoying unique shopping and dining along a downtown road that is reminiscent of a bygone era. Finally, you settle down for a refreshing dip in one of two still functioning thermal bathhouses.

America's most-visited national parks:Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and more

Going to a national park? Now you need a mask. Here's what to know about new NPS rule.

You can even live in the park, as the borders encompass some historic residential areas. 

Steam rises off one of the many springs that made Hot Springs, Ark., famous.

The Valley of the Vapors 

It's said the Native American tribes called Hot Springs the Valley of the Vapors. Legend has it that several tribes agreed to put aside their weapons to partake of the healing waters in peace. 

"That's largely mythology," explained Larry Foley, chair of the journalism department at the University of Arkansas. Foley produced the documentaries "The Forgotten Expedition" and "The First Boys of Spring," chronicling the history of Hot Springs. 

The land would go on to be explored by Hernando de Soto, Father Marquette and Joliet. When President Thomas Jefferson sent explorers William Dunbar and George Hunter in 1804, there were already small cabins built by those who would visit to enjoy the springs. 

Dunbar and Hunter were sent out at the same time as Lewis and Clark, with the goal of reaching the source of the Arkansas River, a goal sidelined when Jefferson pulled the explorers back out of fear they would be killed by the Native American tribes further north. 

"They probably heard about it through trappers and such," Foley said. "They begged Jefferson to let them explore the waters." 

"They had their 15 minutes of fame because the other expedition wasn't back yet," Foley said of Hunter and Dunbar, who were the first to publish their findings. "Once Lewis and Clark got back, everyone forgot about Hunter and Dunbar."  

The town built by spring water

A view of downtown Hot Springs, Ark., from the Grand Promenade walkway.

The area that grew up around the springs would eventually become the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Older than the state of Arkansas, it was already becoming a settled area by the time the territory was established in 1819. 

In 1832, President Andrew Jackson declared it Hot Springs Reservation, the first of its kind, specifically to protect the area's natural spring waters, which boast minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. This makes Hot Springs older than the National Park Service by 84 years and one of the oldest federally-protected lands in the country. 

"They wanted to make sure an individual or a company couldn't come in and exploit the springs," park superintendent Laura Miller said.

President Andrew Jackson declared an area in central Arkansas as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832.

The thermal water in the springs emerges from Hot Springs Mountain. Rain enters cracks in the brittle rock formations at the tops of the mountains, and gravity slowly pulls it into the Earth. It springs out of the ground on the west slope of the mountain. The NPS preserves 47 thermal springs with an average temperature of 147 degrees.

On March 4, 1921, the reservation became Hot Springs National Park, officially the 17th park in the system, even though as a federally protected land it predates Yellowstone. The park service collects and distributes thermal water to the bathhouses and public fountains.

"They made people feel good," Foley said. "Hot Springs motto was 'We bathe the world.'"

The town published all kinds of different claims that bathing in its waters could cure everything from alcoholism to "conditions of women."

A bath attendant bathes a patron in one of the baths in 1938.

"Basically, you would go in, sit in the waters for a while, then go into another area and cool off and sip the water," Miller said of the bathhouses, though other services were offered, including massage and mercury rubs, the primary treatment for syphilis until the advent of penicillin. 

Now, the eight bathhouses that make up the famed Bathhouse Row offer guests everything from a craft brewery to a visitors center and a boutique hotel, with two facilities still functioning as bathhouses.

The birthplace of spring training

Babe Ruth (in street clothes) gets in a little spring training at Whittington Park in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1921.

In 1886, Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings to Hot Springs to train, hoping the thermal waters would help sober up the players following the winter.

"They found a goat pasture and cleared out a baseball field and soaked in the baths, and they won the pennant," Foley said. 

The White Stockings would eventually become the Cubs, and Hot Springs would become the first home for baseball's spring training, drawing legends of the sport including Cy Young, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron. 

Before he was traded to the Yankee's, Babe Ruth would travel to Hot Springs with the Red Sox. 

Take a lap around Whittington Park, which sits in between the baseball field and the alligator farm in Hot Springs, Ark.

On St. Patrick's Day in 1918, Ruth was pitching during a spring training game, when he volunteered to bat. Not yet considered the powerhouse hitter he would become, he surprised everyone when he belted the ball over 500 feet into a pond at the nearby alligator farm.  

"Babe loved to go to Hot Springs because he could gamble and carouse – which he did," Foley said.

Even though the greats no longer train in Hot Springs, visitors can still follow in their footsteps along the "Hot Springs Baseball Trail," a self-guided tour full of baseball history. 

The age of the gangster

Al Capone sits outside The Ohio Club bar, greeting guests to one of his favorite venues in Hot Spring, Ark.

Prohibition saw the arrival of gangsters and bootleggers to Hot Springs.

"I can't imagine them wanting to be on federal lands, but they certainly were here," Miller said. 

The most notable of the legendary crime lords to enjoy Hot Springs was Al Capone, who had visited as a child and would eventually own a suite in the famed Arlington Hotel, which housed a secret passage through tunnels that ran underground and allowed him to pass between the hotel and the Ohio Club, Arkansas' oldest bar. 

The Ohio Club in Hot Springs, Ark., was once a favorite haunt of Al Capone. Now, guests can enjoy a drink and dinner in one of the oldest bars in the state.

Capone would strike moonshine deals while in Hot Springs and bring his product back to Chicago in clear glass bottles labeled Mountain Valley Water, mimicking the legitimate business Mountain Valley Spring Water that bottled the thermal spring water in green glass bottles. Mountain Valley Spring Water is still in operation today. 

A Capone statue sits on a bench outside the Ohio Club, welcoming guests to one of his favorite haunts. 

The Black-owned bathhouses

During the Jim Crow era, Black Arkansans who worked in the bathhouses were not allowed to use the facilities they staffed. 

"Segregation wasn't allowed on federal lands," Miller said. "But we were in Arkansas, so it certainly was practiced." 

For a time, Black people could purchase a ticket to use the services, such as massages or thermal baths, but were not allowed to use them at the same time as white patrons. 

Bath attendants were a key component of the bathing experience in Hot Springs, Ark. They would fill the tubs, bring patrons water to drink, wrap them in cooling towels and assist them throughout the entire bathing experience. For a time, Black attendants could not use the bathhouses they worked in.

The government opened their own bathhouse, which was not segregated; but as a medical facility, those who used it had to claim to be indigent.  

"This put a lot of people in a place where they had to lie just to get medical care," Miller said. 

As a response, Black-owned bathhouses began popping up. The most famous becoming the National Baptist Hotel. 

Built in 1923 as the Woodmen of the Union Building and designed by Tuskegee Institute architect W.T. Bailey, it would become a hotel, bathhouse and performance venue known as the center of Black culture in Hot Springs.

The building contained a 100-bed hospital and nurse training school, a 75-room bath hotel, bank, a 2,500-seat auditorium, printing plant and executive offices.

It hosted nearly every great Negro League player and entertainer who visited the city, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

"Satchel Paige, about as long as he played, he went to Hot Springs," Foley said of the pitching great, noting ballplayers visiting Hot Springs predated the major leagues.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who was a close friend of Babe Ruth and part owner of the New York Black Yankees, stayed in this hotel/bathhouse. It's said he would lead parades through town, dancing the entire route.

The African American National Baptist Convention bought the Woodmen of the Union Building in 1948, and it hosted the annual National Baptist Association Convention until the early 1980s.

Hot Springs National Park now

The Lamar Bathhouse now holds a gift shop for visitors to Hot Springs National Park.

Though the myths, legends and history surround Hot Springs are larger than the second-smallest national park, visitors can still find something to enjoy. Follow the baseball trail, enjoy the bathhouses, hike the trails, fish, bike and just enjoy the natural beauty and history.

The March 4 anniversary kicked off a series of planned online and in-person anniversary events to celebrate the centennial of Hot Springs National Park, including a parkwide BioBlitz in May, a 1921-themed Block Party in June, a B.A.R.K. Ranger Day celebration in July, a Junior Ranger Day celebration in August, a Thermal Springs Festival in September, an Archaeology Day celebration in October, and a Park Rx weekend in November.

While the park is looking forward to hosting in-person events as the year progresses, events and details are subject to change as necessary due to the coronavirus pandemic. After all, well-being is at the core of Hot Springs' history. 

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published