Image above: Lithograph, courtesy Library of Congress, of a dandy and his girls in Victorian bath garb. Right: Vintage Hot Springs poster.
The remnants of a lost age, when Victorian baths at 143 degrees would draw visitors from the midwest and southern stratus of society to the town in the Ozarks known for those pure and healthful hot baths. Today we wouldn't necessarily think of Arkansas as the place where the rich, as well as other classes, would spend their summer days, but that's just where they went, and still do, with over one million visitors to the national park each year. And today, the actual remnants of those baths sits in one of the most unique national parks in the nation, Hot Springs National Park.
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Hot Springs Then
Take a gander at the print at the top of the page, from Woodward and Tiernan in 1888, showing what Hot Springs looked like then. It was a resplendent Victorian resort with an Ozark mountain backdrop, glorious hotels, and those bathhouses. You can almost feel the old-time guys and gals walking from the houses. The first bathhouses were crude, wood, and hovered over the springs themselves. All of these are gone, replaced in the early part of the 20th century by the larger and more elaborate structures which remain today.
The springs have been used for nearly two hundred years and during a period of time from 1880-1940, were also a top spring training site for the baseball teams of the Chicago White Stockings, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, and others.
Timeline of Bathhouse Row
Late 1700s - Local Indian tribes used the hot springs water to bath. The origins of the waters are reported to be 4,000 years old.
1803 - The United States purchases the Louisiana Territory and sends an expedition by William Dunbar and George Hunter to explore the springs.
1832 - U.S. Government buys hot springs land as the first federal area protecting a natural resource.
1877 - Private claims to land settled.
1884 - Hot Springs Creek is channeled and now runs under Central Avenue.
1921 - Hot Springs Reservation is made a National Park.
Image above: Sketch of Hot Springs, 1873, James E. Taylor. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Tulips between the Maurice and Hale bathhouses at Hot Springs National Park. Courtesy National Park Service.
Hot Springs Now
Although many think of the park as the row of bathhouses, you'd be surprised to know how large a national park Hot Springs is. Nearly 5,000 acres are owned by the Park Service and it includes twenty-six miles of hiking trails, a great amount of places to take a leisurely drive, plus a tower that rises above the area and gives out a great view. But of course, the most unique part about this place is those baths and bathhouses, and in some of them, you can still partake in one. In 2008, the Quapaw Bathhouses reopened, joining the Buckstaff on Bathhouse Row as places to enjoy the present and past. Several of the other bathhouses are under restoration, too. You can take a ranger guided tour of them, see park staff for times, as well as view the exhibits in the visitor center, which is housed in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
Bathhouse Row and the Bathouse Row Historic District - Eight historic bathhouses, a visitor center, orientation movies, and guided tours.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower - Located on Hot Springs Mountain Drive, this is the third tower to occupy the sight since 1877 and provides a great view of the mountains.
T-Shirts and Souvenirs
Hot Springs National Park T-Shirts and Souvenirs from the official gear of America's Best History.
Things You Should Not Miss
1. Take a bath along Bathhouse Row. Both the Buckstaff, which has been open since 1912, and no reservations are necessary. Reopened in 2008, the Quapaw was built in 1922, and is the newest option for a leisurely bath in the park.
2. Take the Fordyce Bathhouse or one of the other Ranger guided tours, including the Bathhouse Row Insider's Tour, and Discovering the Waters Tour. They may be the best source of information about the Victorian era and the height of bathhouse days. Lots of famous people have visited the Fordyce, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor.
3. Take a drive or hike through the hills above the bathhouses and explore what the rest of Hot Springs National Park has to offer.
4. Take a stroll down the promenade. There are eight bathhouses in the historic district of the park, although I'm not sure you want to dress like that fellow and his girls, top center, today.
Photo above: Hot Springs National Park, courtesy National Park Service.