Hot Springs – A Park Dedicated to Hot Water

I find Hot Springs National Park in southwest central Arkansas an unusual National Park.  It is hard to think about it the same way one would think about Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion or Glacier.  Those places boast grand scenery, a large amount of protected land, big visitor centers and numerous activities.   Hot Springs is a very small park that was created to protect the natural hot springs that flow from the nearby mountain.  The main attraction in addition to the springs are bathhouses, especially one historic house that is run by the National Park Service.  The park does include nearby forests with a few trails, a mountain drive to an observation tower and a campground.  But most visitors come to see and learn about the hot springs and the bath houses.  Since the park is so small, I am surprised it was not made a National Historic Site or National Monument.  The park is located in downtown Hot Springs with the bathhouses on one side of the street and stores and restaurants on the other.  I found this park to be a unique and interesting stop, a different sort of national park.

People have been soaking in these springs for many years.  American Indians bathed here in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  In 1832 the federal government set aside four sections of land here, the first U.S. Reservation created to protect a natural resource.  The first bathhouses were tent like structures made of canvas and wood that were placed over the springs or reservoirs.  Businessmen later built more permanent wooden structures which did not hold up well.  In 1877 the federal government approved the building of private bathhouses and even operated a free bathhouse and public health facility for those unable to pay for baths recommended by their physician.  Above is a picture of bathhouse row.

In 1921 Hot Springs was declared the nation’s 18th national park.  Bathhouses along “bathhouse row” catered to crowds of health seekers with the latest equipment and pampered the bathers in beautiful surroundings.  They even included gymnasiums and beauty shops.  By the 1950’s, water therapy was on the decline and people became less interested in vacationing at the bathhouses.  They began to close in the 1960’s and only one, the Buckstaff has remained open since it began in 1912.  Above is a picture of the Buckstaff, the only bathhouse that still offers the same bathing experience as when it first opened.  There are other bathhouses in the area that offer a more “modern” experience.

The park visitor center and museum is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse, built in 1915.  Visitors are able to do a self-guided tour of the bathhouse or have a group tour with a National Park ranger.  Exhibits include the bathing areas with original tubs, showers, steam cabinets, sitz baths, massage tables and reclining chairs for relaxing.   There were separate facilities for men and women.  Below is a picture of the men’s bathing area which was larger and more ornate than the women’s with a stained glass ceiling and statue in the center of the room.  Bathers could drink from the spring waters flowing from the statue.

Hot mineral water was piped into the tubs.  Since the water is too hot at an average temperature of 143 degrees, cooler water had to be added.  When we had our backyard hot tub in Modesto, I could barely tolerate 103 degrees.   At the time, a single bath with an attendant cost $2.30.  Below is a picture of a bathtub in the women’s section.  The clothing displayed next to the bath was used by the bathing attendants.

A steam or vapor box was used after bathing.  I thought the box looked quite confining with only the head to stick out.  People remained in the cabinets for up to 30 minutes at a temperature from 115 to 140 degrees.  Ouch!    It was reportedly used in the treatment of rheumatism, advanced syphilis, jaundice and obesity.  Below is a row of vapor cabinets.

The Hydrotherapy room was perhaps the most interesting part of the bathhouse with treatments prescribed by physicians for more difficult ailments or injuries that were not helped by the simple bathing ritual.

The most bizarre was the electric bathtub, seen above.  Although today using electric devices in water is unheard of, in that time period the belief was a little electricity with your bath could be medically beneficial.  Surprisingly there were no known deaths from electrocution while it was in use.  Other treatments in this room included the power hoses that attendants sprayed on bathers while they were in the shower (see below).    Yes, the room had a bit of a creepy feel.  As bizarre as this seems to us today, at the time it seemed important to protect and preserve this area.

There were several massage rooms and a few had scary looking devices – electro massage machines that were used for applying electric charges to various parts of the body.  Massages might also include mercury rubs which at the time was the primary treatment for syphillis until penicillin was developed in the 1940’s.  The rubs were stopped when people became understandably sick.   Arsenic rubs were then used which also proved to be problematic.

There were many other rooms that touted ways to improve health including physical therapy with exercise machines and a full gym.  The Assembly Room, pictured below is a cheerful and pretty room with a much more attractive look than the sterile looking bathing and massage rooms.  Both men and women could use this room to socialize, play games, read, listen to music, etc.  A beautiful stained glass ceiling decorates the room.

A promenade for walking was built on the hill with a view of the town and bathhouses below.  You can also walk past a few places where the springs come down the hill side.  It was fun to feel the water which is quite hot, so you can’t keep your hands in too long.

Outside of the city of Hot Springs is Garvan Woodland Gardens, situated in a forest and alongside a large lake, one of the nicest gardens to be visited in Arkansas.

The gardens were designed by the University of Arkansas and feature trails and paths by plantings, rock gardens, streams, small waterfalls and ponds.  There are several bridges including my favorite below which is called the Bridge of the Full Moon, located in the Japanese Garden section.

Along the trails are views of Lake Hamilton through the trees.

This is a beautiful and peaceful place and a perfect location to walk for a few hours admiring the scenery.  We almost had the gardens to ourselves, a benefit of being retired and able to go on a weekday!

The gardens are known for the many Christmas light installations placed throughout the park.  They had just put them up when we were there, but would not be lighting them for another week.  It would have been neat to see them!

Next to the gardens is the Anthony Chapel which is a gorgeous building that has 55 foot tall glass windows looking out on the surrounding woodlands – built to be a part of nature.  This chapel although similiar to the one I visited in Bella Vista is a little bigger and was designed by a different architect.

The chapel was an ideal place to commune with nature and end a day of sightseeing!

As always, thanks for visiting our blog!  Next time I will be sharing our stay in the city of Little Rock.

4 thoughts on “Hot Springs – A Park Dedicated to Hot Water”

  1. I love a good warm soak, but the ambiance of the public bathes of the 19th century may have kept me away. A whole new meaning to the term “Body odor”. The steam boxes look awesome, i would love a sauna at my house, but it looks like you could fit one of those boxes almost anywhere! Did you guys go for a soak!?

    1. I considered a soak at the Buckstaff because it has the same equipment and ambience of the past and I thought it might be an interesting experience. I didn’t plan it though because of time issues – it takes awhile, you have to wait until the bath is available, etc. If we had stayed in the town of Hot Springs, I probably would have. They have other bath houses there that are more modern.

  2. Very interesting! I’m glad we can bathe without electrical shock treatment, siphilis exposure, or mercury/arsenic treatments! What a change a century makes!

    1. I agree Jonathan! It is crazy to think about the treatments people had to go through in the post modern world. I wonder if many years from now people will find some of our medical treatments outdated and dangerous.

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