HOT SPRINGS, ARKANSAS
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
Choosing the right place to settle for five nights on our journey to the West Coast can be a challenge. It is made much easier, however, when a town's name actually tells you something about itself. So when it came to driving through Arkansas, the name Little Rock didn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell against its smaller sister, the enticing Hot Springs, some fifty miles to the southwest (that's left a bit, down a bit to us).
This historic town, sitting on the edge of the Ouachita Mountains, looks at its heart like a one-time enchanting, relaxing European spa town, at peace with itself with an air of bracing healthiness about it. But a deeper delve into its near history tells a completely different story, one of a curious meld of opulence and degeneracy, a contradictory face-off between elegant, Victorian splendor and a gangster-controlled den of iniquity.
Central Avenue, Hot Springs looking across to Bathhouse Row
To understand this becomes simple when you stroll down Central Avenue, a wide, tree-lined avenue that defines Hot Springs. On one side, you have Bathhouse Row, eight imposing fin de siècle buildings which sit at the base of a dominant mountain. This side of the road with the woody hillside behind is the oldest federal reserve in the country. It's special quality is the 47 bubbling natural springs that eject about a million gallons of steaming hot water every day, permeating out of the ground where you least expect it. Having fallen as rain and taken over 4000 years to percolate through the earth's surface, it takes just a lightning quick 100 years to emerge back on the surface at a temperature of around 143F.
Sandie testing one of the unfettered natural springs behind Bathhouse Row.
Video in the town park
You have to remember that we are venturing towards the Wild West and 150 years ago these 19th century brave but naïve settlers were captivated and easily duped by the likes of Medicine Shows selling their snake oils, miracle potions and elixirs of youth. So when a quirk in nature's subterranean plumbing presents streams of hot water pulsating out of the ground it was literally manna from Heaven for a few enterprising businessmen. They built eight magnificent bathhouses that soon attracted thousands of clients who were easily convinced to part with their money to take the waters that (as was claimed) had special curative qualities that would fix all their ailments, everything from obesity to syphilis. Hot Springs became not just a spa resort, but to many who were seriously ill a last resort, with their despairing doctors sending them from all over America to 'take the waters'.
Today, only two spas are still operative - the Quapaw (named after the Indian tribe that ceded the land to the US) which has been renovated and dragged screaming into the 21st century and the Buckstaff, which has sought to preserve the original Victorian experience. The others either have been or are being restored for a new rôle in life. The Superior is an excellent brewery serving unique beers made from the special water, the Lamar is the National Parks' gift shop and the Fordyce is kept faithfully by the Parks as a three-story exhibit as if they had shut the doors on it in the 1900s and just left everything as it was. The others, namely the Maurice, Hale and Ozark are redundant of their former function but still stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with their neighbors for posterity.
The Fordyce makes a fascinating visit (and it's free), not just for the marble halls, the splendrous baths and the elegant lounges in which to relax, but also to see the 'infernal machines' they used to help convince people that they were being made well again. The most horrendous are the dozens of electric shock devices and the excruciating wooden stretching machines, looking like medieval torture racks. The irony is, off course, that little of these treatments did any good at all. The water is almost devoid of minerals; the electric shock treatments and the stretching machines probably did more harm than good. But, hey ho, the people kept coming and the money kept rolling it. Here is a glimpse of the inside of the Fordyce and of some of the machines that were used:
The Men's Spa almost 100 years ago
The disabled plunge bath
For the finishing touches...
The wealthy stayed in these small overnight rooms
The changing rooms
Electric shock treatment
And that brings us appropriately to the other aspect of Hot Springs' character, one also accustomed to institutionalized torture, but of a more brutal kind. On the opposite side of Central Avenue, facing the noble, genteel bathhouses, was a complete contrast, a complete ying to the spas' yang. This side of the street was not maintained by the demure federal reserve but totally controlled through the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th by America's most notorious gangsters. Illegal bars, ignoring the Prohibition behind secret doors, illegal gambling houses, prostitution, you name it, the mobsters supplied it. Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano - they all spent a good deal of their time here, staying at the Arlington Hotel, which stood overlooking Central Avenue and which catered for any kind of 'desires' you could ask for. Clearly, some young ladies of easy-virtue thought that Hot Springs referred to the mattresses in the almost 500 rooms. Busy girls. It is said Al Capone took a whole floor here. With its grand lobby, Venetian Dining Room and Crystal Ballroom, this luxurious hotel would have been more at home on the East Coast. But you were not likely to see the Vanderbilts, Astors and Rockefellas here - more likely a line-up of tough, scar-faced guys in hats and spats. Of course, the Mayor and local police knew what was going on but as long as there was no trouble, and the money was coming in, they didn't seem to worry. The curious fact is that there was a truce between rival factions here, honor amongst thieves, that there would be no violence. This was mobster R&R.
The Arlington Hotel
These hoodlums controlled the casinos, girls and even the jockeys at racetrack a mile away at Oaklawn. Not doubt the tight dirt track keeps a thousand secrets of intimidated or incentivized jockeys pulling and pushing horses in races to get the 'Boss' the right result.
On our first night, we went straight to the legendary Ohio Bar, once an illegal gambling den and drinking hole. You can still feel and almost hear the bustle of frantic activity that must have been a nightly occurrence behind the closed doors. On the walls, pictures of their former illustrious customers stare menacingly down at you; they even have one of that nice Mr Capone with his favorite cosh.
The Ohio Club
Hot Springs is 'Two Tales of One City', an incongruous confluence of the sumptuous, refined splendor of a bygone era and, literally on the other side of the street, a veritable celebration of corruption and licentious decadence. It is just the perfect place for us to spend five days and we are so pleased we were not spell-bound by 'Little Rocks' and landed instead in the hot water of this incredible town. We are off to the Quapaw Bathhouse for a massage and a jolly good soaking later today. Then the call of the Ohio Bar right across the road might be irresistible.
And finally...for adults only...
Al Capone can still work his persuasive magic, it seems (but don't look too closely). The man is a bounder and an utter cad.
P.S. We had a soak in the communal baths today but we did not tell them how extra special it was for us - our first bath for 15 months. That luxury doesn't exist 'on the road'.
Tip: when you shower before entering the steaming hot baths, make sure you get all the soap from out of your armpits and stubborn little corners. Bit embarrassing when you start to froth and bubble in front of strangers.