Hot Springs, AR Part I: Bathhouse Row
Hot Springs, AR
The city of Hot Springs takes its name from the 47 springs of thermal water that flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain. About 1 million gallons of 143º water a day flow from the springs. Through carbon dating, scientists have determined the water that issues from the springs today fell as rain 4000 years ago.
It was once thought the water was heated by volcanic activity the way it is at Yellowstone, but there is no volcanic activity near Hot Springs. The water percolates slowly down through the rock where it is heated by the naturally-occurring thermal gradient deep within the earth. The water then moves fairly quickly back to the surface through cracks and crevices.
Most national parks are hundreds of thousands of acres in size, much of which is wilderness. But at an area of a little less than 5,550 acres, Hot Springs National Park is our smallest national park, and the heart of the park lies in the middle of the historic section of downtown Hot Springs.
Hot Springs didn't become a national park until 1921, but it was designated as Hot Springs Reservation by Congress in 1836 - 36 years before Yellowstone became our first national park in 1872.
We started off our tour of Hot Springs with a visit to Bathhouse Row, which is a group of opulent bathhouses built in the early 1900s. Bathhouse Row is along the eastern side of Central Avenue, which is the main street of the historic district.
Parking spots in the historic district are relatively easy to find and relatively inexpensive. There are a few free, on-street spaces with a two-hour limit, there are private lots that charge $2 an hour ($4 minimum, $10 maximum), and there are metered city lots that charge 50 cents an hour (take a handful of quarters).
There is also a city garage on Exchange Avenue one block west of Central Avenue that is very convenient to Bathhouse Row, the national park visitor center, and many other activities. The garage has metered spaces for 50 cents an hour. We also heard, but can't confirm, that parking on the top floor of the garage is free. We didn't find that out in time to check it out. The parking garage, along with a nice fountain and sculpture in front of it, is shown in the photo below.
There is a private parking lot on either side of the fountain in the photo above. However, by walking an extra block from the garage behind the fountain, you can not only save a couple of bucks, but you can park in the shade - not a bad idea when the temperatures are in the upper 90s like they were when we were there.
We started out at the south end of Bathhouse Row by the park administration building. That building used to be the visitor center, and we mistakenly thought it still was. While we were there, we stopped for a photo by a fountain. There are numerous decorative fountains throughout the city. Some, like the one below, flow with hot spring water.
Across the street was another fountain with cool water.
There are also special fountains scattered around the area where you can fill plastic jugs with free drinking water from the springs. The park service maintains the fountains and certifies the water is safe to drink. Some fountains are hot water and some are cool. Each type contains different minerals, and the hot water is supposedly effervescent. We didn't try any.
The use of the warm water from the springs goes back to the Native Americans who soaked to help cure illness and injury. They called the area the Valley of the Vapors.
In 1541, Hernando DeSoto was the first European to discover the springs, then the French claimed the area in 1673. Hot Springs became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
It was believed the heat and the minerals dissolved in the water could cure rheumatism, diseases of the skin and blood, nervous disorders and "various diseases of women." There was even a belief that different springs could cure different ailments.
The earliest bathing consisted of reclining in small pools that occurred naturally at some of the springs. The first bathhouses were no more than tents pitched over a spring so patients could breathe in the vapor from the hot water. More elaborate wooden buildings eventually replaced the tents. Wooden bathtubs were added in the 1830s, and physicians began to arrive in the 1850s. They prescribed treatments that consisted of soaking in and drinking the water.
A fire destroyed most of the city in 1913. Bathhouse Row was spared, but many of the bathhouses were replaced after the fire with ones built of brick, stone, stucco and steel.
The Ozark bathhouse, built in 1922, is now an art museum. Unfortunately, it was closed for repairs due to damage from leaking skylights caused by heavy spring rains this year.
The Quapaw shown in the next photo is one of two bathhouses that operate today as a bathhouse and spa. It was also built in 1922.
The photo below shows the Fordyce, which was built in 1914-15. The Fordyce is one of the most opulent bathhouses in Hot Springs. It now serves as the new National Park Visitor Center.
The inside of the Fordyce has been restored so visitors can see how the bathhouses were decorated and how they operated. Most of the bathing rooms were private. Some rooms had bathtubs, some had tubs with special therapeutic water jets, and some had steam chests like the one in the next photo. Walls and floors are marble and/or tile throughout.
In the next photo, Margery is trying to see what it was like in one of the ladies' showers.
In the men's section, there were marble benches where the men waited their turn in a shower. A statue of DeSoto receiving water from an Indian maiden stands in the center.
The men's showers have a maze of pipes and valves. The 143º spring water was too hot for skin contact, so it had to be mixed with cold water. By law, they couldn't use just any old cold water; they had to mix the hot spring water with cooled spring water. The cylinder to the left in the next photo has two inlet pipes from under the floor - one for hot and one for cold. There is a thermometer on the side of the cylinder to read the temperature of the mixed water which was then fed to numerous shower heads and perforated pipes through a manifold and a series of valves.
It was interesting to see the different types of rooms the bathhouse had for various types of treatment. It also had cooling rooms where patients could relax after their hot baths, pack rooms where they would receive hot and cold packs, special therapy rooms that had tubs with water jets, and rooms where patients would receive alcohol rubdowns.
After visiting the Fordyce bathhouse, we continued our walk up Central Avenue. We'll tell you what we found in our next post.