“Taking the Waters” - Hot Springs NP

Friday, April 27, 2007

Where else than in America can you find a National Park devoted to preserving the history of taking a bath?


Hot Springs National Park is just that, a park that largely consists of a row of antique bathhouses, and about 900 acres of woods surrounding them. The National Park Service is currently restoring the bathhouses to a point where they can be commercially leased. One bathhouse - the Buckstaff Baths, is open to the public for hot soaks and massages. Located on the main drag in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, the stately row of bathhouses include names such as the Lamar, Superior, Quapaw, and a grandly restored Fordyce Bathhouse, which serves as the park Vistor Center, and a museum, to well, bathing…..

I’m not really being fair – Hot Springs is a neat park, although I’m somewhat surprised it isn’t listed as a National Historic site, rather than a full fledged National Park. Probably the reason for this are the springs themselves, which really are hot – the water comes out of the ground at around 140 degrees or so. The water, which has been determined by carbon dating to have fallen as rain nearly 4000 years ago, is heated by the natural radioactivity of elements in the earth, and is slightly radioactive itself. The water also carries a high mineral content, lovingly charted out by percentage on all the public fountains in the park.

President Jefferson dispatched an expedition, the little known Hunter-Dunbar Expedition, to Hot Springs (at the same general time as the Lewis and Clark Expedition), to verify claims of the springs' amazing healing abilities. These claims were somewhat debunked scientifically, but the reports from the expedition helped spread the fame of Hot Springs and started its establishment as a tourist destination.

The Federal government, concerned with protecting the springs, established Hot Springs Reservation (making it the oldest park currently in the National Park System) in 1832 to protect the hot springs from commercial exploitation……at least in theory. In practice, they claimed all the land around the springs, but didn’t stop any development. For years, individuals fought the government for title to the springs, and a wide assortment of temporary wood buildings were built over the springs for use as bathhouses. Eventually, the feds started leasing the property, and more substantial buildings were constructed, as well as a ‘Grand Promenade’ on the hill behind the bath houses.

The Visitors Center in the Fordyce Bathhouse provides a self guided tour through one of the more elaborate bathhouses. The Fordyce was touted as the equivalent or better than any of the bathhouses in Europe, and it is quite lavish.

The Junior Ranger program for the park was excellent, requiring Vance to do a thorough tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse looking for answers, as well as studying the architectural decorations of the various bathhouses. Also, drinking some of the mineral water was required! There is quite the cottage industry selling water containers, as the Park Service provides free public fountains for anyone wishing to fill up jugs of the ‘healing’ waters.

We’ve got a "when in Rome, do as the Romans do” attitude when traveling, so of course we had to ‘take the waters’. Denise and I signed up for the full soak and massage, and Vance signed up for the soak. Vance was a bit uncertain about the whole thing, worried he was going to get scalded by the hot water (he wasn’t). I'm still not sure he understood what all the fuss was about – to him, he was just taking a hot bath in a fancy building. I guess most eleven year old boys could care less about taking a bath, especially one that costs real money! On the other hand, Denise and I really enjoyed the experience – it made for a very relaxing afternoon, and a throwback to an activity from yesteryear. Afterwards, we sat on the veranda of the bathhouse and watched the sun start to set across the mountains - sigh……

Sitting grandly on the hill behind the row of bathhouses is the WWII era Army/Navy Hospital, which was used primarily for rehab of military patients suffering from rheumatism and other arthritic diseases. Taking baths in the hot mineral waters from the springs was part of the rehab regimen. Today, the building is the Hot Springs Rehab Center, and my sister LeAnn did part of her internship as a Physical Therapist at this facility.

To cap off our visit we attended the superb ‘Voices from the Past’ program put on by the Park Service. The program consisted of a series of vignettes by historical characters from Hot Springs. We met Caddo and Quapaw Indians, explorer Dr. George Hunter, early settler Hiram Whittington, Hot Springs residents from around the Civil War and a score of others. The ‘voices’ were in time line order, going up to about WWII. Several of the performances were extremely poignant, including an African-American lady who had come to the springs for treatment, only to be forced to use the ‘free’ bathhouse provided for coloreds. Another was a remarkably blunt yet funny discourse on a depression era camp opened at Hot Springs for sufferers of VD. It was an excellent program, one of the best we’ve seen from the Park Service anywhere.

All in all a unique National Park, which we enjoyed quite a bit.

Vance: Hot Springs is a city and a National Park. We ate breakfast at a little diner in the city. Next we went to a sports store and bought me some sunglasses. Afterwards I did a long Junior Ranger.

People used to think the warm springs would heal a disease. My parents and I took this treatment. We weren’t sick, today they offer the treatment for fun. We went to a café later and they had a lot of airplane models hanging from the ceiling. Then there was a tour called “voices from the past” that we took.

They had many people dressed up as old fashioned people. There is still standing today an army/navy hospital that was built during WWII.


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