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Nature or Nurture? At Hot Springs, Both


© St. Petersburg Times

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- The 1880s sign at the Arlington Hotel said the thermal mineral baths would cure rheumatism, paralysis, malaria, gout, syphilis, lumbago, alcoholism, eczema, ulcers, sterility and ringworm. Not surprisingly, with those sorts of promises people flocked to the baths, at the hotel, all along the so-called Bathhouse Row and elsewhere in this community.

The mineral waters were neither foul-tasting nor smelling of sulfur. Early Cherokee and Caddo tribes reportedly used the hot waters to cure wounds, aches and pains. In fact, rival tribes believed the Great Spirit had created the healing waters, so a perpetual truce made this neutral ground.

Back then, the hillsides were shrouded by steam as the waters gushed from the mountain at a constant 143 degrees Fahrenheit.

The value of the thermal springs was recognized by the government as early as 1832, when President Jackson and Congress made Hot Springs a 4,800-acre federal reservation to protect the 47 springs from exploitation. In 1921 the reservation became Hot Springs National Park, a 5,839-acre preserve within the city that is, in turn, surrounded by the 1.6-million-acre Ouachita National Forest and three sparkling lakes.

The natural place to begin sightseeing in this urban park is at the source of the thermal waters. Along one side of Central Avenue is stately Bathhouse Row; behind and above it is the park and its shaded Grand Promenade. On the other side of the street is the business and commercial district, a hodgepodge of stores. Bathhouse Row has eight imposing bathhouses that were built at the turn of the century in Moorish, Neo-Classical, Spanish Revival and Italian Renaissance styles. Their grounds are graced with native holly and magnolia trees.

The bathhouses are served by the springs, and of the original 47 steaming springs, all but two are capped. Sealing the springs reportedly keeps the ground-filtered water pure, and it is piped to the bathhouses, the hotels that maintain their own bathing facilities, and to other city locations. Almost 1-million gallons a day flow from the springs along the west base of Hot Springs Mountain. Before being piped off for use in the bathhouses, the waters of one of the springs are cooled to 100 degrees.

The other uncapped spring is at Arlington Park, across from the hotels, and here the water still comes out of the hillside rocks at 143 degrees. It runs into two pools, where people can leisurely soak their feet.

Twenty-four rooms of the former Fordyce Bathhouse have been restored to their original splendor and the building serves as the visitors center and headquarters for Hot Springs National Park. Visitors see interesting therapy treatments and little-known health remedies practiced earlier this century. Various pharamaceutical and medical advances produced cures for ailments once thought to be treatable by the waters -- thus the decline in the springs' popularity.

Near the Fordyce is the elegant-looking Buckstaff, the only original bathhouse still operating.

The most venerable institution is the imposing 486-room, twin-turreted, cream-colored Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa. Originally on the corner of the parklands, the hotel was rebuilt at Central Avenue and Fountain Street in 1923 after a fire destroyed the structure.

At capacity during racing season, the hotel hums with activity year-round.

In front of each bathhouse is a marker giving its history. The heyday for Hot Springs was in the 1920s and '30s, when it was the playground for the rich and famous -- and felonious. It was the exciting era of gambling, speakeasies, bathtub gin, bordellos and regular visits by gangster Al Capone and his henchmen. Big Al always stayed in Room 442 at the Arlington. Into the bath with you

Today, visitors who want to try a thermal bath can take one at the Buckstaff, at the Arlington and nearby hotels, and at the Hot Springs Health Spa. The basic treatment includes a 90-minute bath, time in a whirlpool bath and in a steam cabinet, a scrub of the limbs, a wrap in hot towels and a sheet, a shower, a cool-down and a 15- to 20-minute massage.

Rates vary from place to place, so it's best to know the costs before you step into the whirlpool bath. Generally, the treatment should be $25 or $30, plus tip.

Because the federal government controls the waters, these are the only casual-use health facilities in the nation under federal regulations.

Although many come for the baths, especially during the thoroughbred racing season, even more come with plastic jugs to take away free gallons of what many still say are "healing" waters. The spigots are everywhere.

More and more activities have sprung up to accommodate the steady stream of visitors. They can take a tour of town on a mule trolley, or climb aboard one of the "ducks" -- amphibian-wheeled vehicles from World War II -- for a more expansive land and lake tour.

There's also a President Clinton tour. As the guide says, "You can look at it either historically or hysterically." You'll see Clinton's boyhood home at 1011 Park Ave. (occupied by other owners), the church he attended and the now-vacant high school from which he graduated. The 42nd president moved here with his mother in 1954 and called it home until he graduated from high school.

Five miles from town is the popular Mid-America Museum, with hundreds of hands-on displays illustrating principles of science. Next to the museum is a 1,600-seat amphitheater where summer performances take place.

Hot Springs is headquarters for the vast Ouachita National Forest, where camping, recreational facilities, hunting and fishing are enjoyed by thousands each year.

These days the big spenders roll into town during the mid-January to mid-April horse-racing season at Oaklawn Park Race Track, a mile south of the city. Before taking the plunge . . .

Hot Springs is about an hour's drive from Little Rock. For literature and a map of town, contact the Hot Springs Visitors Bureau, 134 Convention Blvd., P.O. Box K, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902; call (501) 321-2277 or (800) 772-2489.

For information on the park, write the Superintendent, c/o Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center, 300 Central Ave., Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902; call (501) 624-3383, ext. 640.

A brochure and information on the landmark Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa is free by writing to P.O. Box 5652, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902; call (501) 623-7771 or (800) 643-1502. For sightseeing information in the state, brochures and a map, write to the Arkansas State Tourist Office, One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201; or call (501) 682-7777 or (800) 628-8725. Tom and Joanne O'Toole are freelance travel writers who live in northeastern Ohio.

Originally published November 16, 1997

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