Hot Springs, Arkansas, a charming gem nestled in the heart of the Natural State, has a history as fascinating as its world-famous thermal waters.
From its ancient Native American roots, through the hey-day of the gangsters, to the interesting tourist attraction that it is today, let’s take a short dip into the history of Hot Springs.
A Short History of Hot Springs, Arkansas
The First Inhabitants
Long before European settlers arrived, Native American tribes like the Caddo, Osage, and Quapaw inhabited this region.
They believed in the healing powers of the hot springs and regarded them as sacred. In fact, this area was considered to be so sacred that it was neutral territory. It was a place where warring tribes could come in peace for the warmth and healing of the waters.
They called this area the Valley of the Vapors.
In the 1540s, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto stumbled upon the hot springs while searching for riches. He is believed to be the first European explorer to see the springs.
French and Spanish trappers were aware of the area and would come here throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase, in 1803, played a pivotal role in shaping the history of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
When President Thomas Jefferson purchased this vast territory from France, it expanded the United States westward and included the area that would later become Hot Springs.
Jefferson commissioned an expedition to explore this new territory. When the explorers came to the hot springs they found a few rudimentary shelters that were used by trappers and others who visited the springs but there were no permanent dwellers.
However, the explorers sent a report to the president about the wonders of the hot springs. This report was widely publicized and stirred up a great deal of interest.
Arrival of European Settlers
As you might imagine that didn’t take long for people to become intrigued by the area and by 1807 the first permanent settler had arrived. Many more would quickly follow.
Some were drawn by the promise of the thermal waters’ therapeutic benefits. Others came for the possibility of making money from the waters.
The Bathhouse Era
Bathhouses began to be built almost immediately after the arrival of settlers.
Originally they were rough and simple wooden shacks which were built right over the springs. However, as word spread that the thermal mineral waters had healing properties the area began to flourish.
It even became known as “The American Spa” due to the fact that it attracted people from all economic levels.
Hot Springs truly became a premiere health resort during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and this is when the bathhouses proliferated and began attracting visitors from all over the nation seeking healing and relaxation.
After fires ravaged through and burned most of the original wooden bathhouses they began to be rebuilt using sturdy fire retardant materials such as brick and marble.
They also became more and more opulent which you can see in the facades and interiors of the remaining bathhouses today.
Covering of Hot Springs Creek
The springs began to be capped and directed straight into the bathhouses after which the water was released on down the hill into hot springs creek. The creek had basically become an eyesore and a health hazard.
In the 1880’s an arch was built over hot springs creek and covered over by soil. This allowed the creek to flow underground and served two purposes; It met sanitation needs and it widened the available flat space in the valley.
In fact, the fronts of the remaining bathhouses are built on top of the ground created by the Creek Arch.
Becoming a National Park
Some people claim that Hot Springs is the oldest park in the National Park System!
This is because Congress established this area as the Hot Springs Reservation on April 20, 1832. The purpose was to protect the Hot Springs area.
You may be surprised to learn that Hot Springs was the first protected area ever designated as such by the Federal Government.
This would have been 40 years before Yellowstone which became a national park in 1872. However the name wasn’t changed to Hot Springs National Park until 1921.
So, was it the first National Park? You decide!
Building of the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa
To this day, the Arlington Resort Hotel is one of the premiere hotels in Arkansas. In fact, it is still the largest hotel in the state boasting over 500 rooms and suites.
The Arlington Hotel was first established in 1875, also making it one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in America.
Its location in the heart of Hot Springs made it an ideal destination for visitors of the past who were seeking the therapeutic benefits of the city’s natural thermal springs. Of course, it is also perfect for visitors of the present who are seeking to enjoy the national park.
The Arlington Hotel quickly became a magnet for the rich and famous, including notable figures like Babe Ruth, Al Capone, and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. These high-profile guests added to the hotel’s prestige and allure.
During the Prohibition era, the Arlington Hotel played a role in the city’s underground gambling and nightlife scene. Al Capone even purchased a suite of rooms and stayed at the hotel.
The Arlington Hotel was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
The hotel is currently (beginning in 2023) undergoing extensive renovations. We are thrilled to see this beautiful old hotel being refreshed and refurbished to host many more guests in the future.
Prohibition and Gangsters
Hot Springs also had a darker side. You may have noticed that Al Capone was mentioned above.
During the early 20th century the city became a playground for the most notorious names in U.S. organized crime. They came to enjoy the infamous nightlife and gambling establishments.
The city even earned the nickname “The Spa of the Gangsters.”
Several things attracted the gangsters to Hot Springs. First, they were drawn here, like everyone else, by the spas and beautiful accommodations. Then there was the fact that it wasn’t too far from Chicago.
Plus, the settlers and farmers in the hills and backwoods of the surrounding Ouachita Mountains were already participating in the business of moonshine. Perhaps, most importantly, was the fact that local law enforcement seems to have been willing to look the other way at the rise of illegal activities.
There was a time when the city was awash in underground casinos, slot machines, and bookie joints. The Southern Club, The Ohio Club, and The Vapors Club were among the infamous hotspots where fortunes could be won or lost in the blink of an eye.
Al Capone, the well known Chicago gangster, frequented Hot Springs to unwind and indulge in the city’s pleasures. But he wasn’t the only one! He was joined by many other big name gangsters.
The gangster era in Hot Springs began to wane in the mid 1900’s with increased law enforcement scrutiny and the decline of illegal gambling nationwide.
In the 1950’s the Kefauver Committee hearings began to expose the city’s illicit activities, and in the 1960s there was a federal crackdown here on what the government called “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.”
Today, remnants of Hot Springs’ gangster era can still be explored.
The Ohio Club remains open as a historic bar and restaurant. Additionally, the Gangster Museum of America offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into this tumultuous period in the city’s history.
Bathhouses and Segregation
This is a very interesting part of the history of Hot Springs, Arkansas. During the 1800’s the federal government began providing free baths for poor people by building a frame bathhouse over one of the popular springs. It actually continued to provide free baths for until 1956.
However, because it was believed that the water from this spring was superior to some of the others, people who could afford to pay actually wanted to bathe there, too. It became so popular that 2 and 3 hour waits for a bath became common.
So, the government erected a new building on the site with 4 separate spaces for white men, white women, black men, and black women. Although segregated the bathers did have equal access to the facility.
We do know that black Americans were allowed to bathe at the Ozark Bathhouse and a couple of others no longer in existence during the late 1800’s, but never during the same hours as the white patrons.
The Crystal Bathhouse which opened in 1904, was the first to be built for the exclusive use of African Americans. The Crystal was black owned and had a good location at the edge of the African American business district.
Hot Springs suffered a huge fire in 1913 which destroyed The Crystal as well as 50 city blocks in the main downtown area. The next year, the Pythian Bathhouse & Sanitarium opened on the site of the old Crystal Bathhouse. This served patrons until 1974.
Perhaps the grandest bathhouse of them all, the Woodmen of the Union, opened in 1922 with first-class hotel accommodations, a 2,000-seat theater, a gymnasium, beauty parlor, and news-stand.
Many top name entertainers and athletes came here during its prime such as Joe Louis and Count Basie.
The building was also the primary health care facility for the African American community, housing a hospital, doctor and dental office. This was vital since other medical facilities in the city were for whites only.
Racing to the Top
Oaklawn Park was established in 1904. This is not surprising as the area was already a draw for gamblers during this time period. Since then, the track has been a constant source of entertainment for Hot Springs.
It’s known for thoroughbred racing and today also has a casino, attracting visitors year-round. It is now called the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
The Decline and Revival of Hot Springs, Arkansas
As the popularity of bathhouses waned in the mid-20th century, so did Hot Springs’ economic fortunes.
The decline persisted until the late 20th century when the city shifted its focus to tourism, outdoor recreation, and preserving its historic charm.
Beyond the famous hot springs, Hot Springs National Park and the surrounding Ouachita Mountains offers a haven for outdoor enthusiasts with gorgeous lakes, hiking trails, scenic drives, and stunning views.
A Modern Oasis
Today, Hot Springs is a thriving city with a blend of history and modernity. It is interesting and at times quirky. It is a place where the past and present intertwine.
I hope that you have enjoyed this glimpse at the history of Hot Springs, Arkansas!