A Rider's Journal
image of the 2010 US Quarter commemorating Hot Springs
Hot Springs predates the National Park Service, and is commemorated in 2010 as the first in the series of US quarters depicting National Parks.

Hot Springs AR—Hot Springs, Arkansas is billed as "America's First Resort". Since the water flowing from 47 springs in Hot Springs Mountain has been an attraction to Native Americans long before the Europeans came to the new world, this is a pretty solid claim.

The Water

Approximately 4,000 years, rainwater soaked into the earth northeast of the Hot Springs area. The water settled about 7,500 feet into the ground, deep enough to collect heat from the Earth's core before finding its way back to the surface on Hot Springs Mountain.

It emerges at a uniform rate of about a million gallons a day, at about 143F. According the National Park Service, the water takes about a year to get back to the surface, so it has already cooled off somewhat by the time it bubbles out.

The water has some mineral content, but not an unusual amount, and has no unusual taste or smell. Still, people were willing to believe it had unique qualities, and it was readily available in copious amounts, so it's no surprise that a health resort sprang up around the springs.

The Bath Houses

The United States gained the Hot Springs area as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and the local Quapaw Indians gave up the lands in a 1818 treaty.

By the early 1800s, people had already seen the potential for profit in the springs. Given the relative remoteness of the area in that era, it's hard to imagine that by 1830, rudimentary cabin spas were already in business.

In 1832, Congress gave the hot springs protection as a "federal reservation". While the lavish bath houses that arose at the base of the mountain were "for profit" ventures, they were regulated by the government since they could not exist without the water.

Over the next century, the series of bath houses built at the base of Hot Springs Mountain have been built and rebuilt as the result of fires, flood and the desire for ever-more lavish spas.

On the opposite side of the street from "Bath House Row" were hotels and restaurants, since the bath houses were day spas with no lodging.

The spas offered a variety of services. Some, like massage, physical therapy and exercise regimes were reasonably healthy pursuits. Others, like electric baths (electric current added to the hot water therapy), mercury rubbing (used to relieve symptoms of syphilis) and other "exercise" machines were of little value and potentially dangerous.

As medical science and popular tastes changed, the bath houses fell on hard times, and by the mid-1980s, almost all had closed. The eight bath houses remaining are now part of the National Park Service's Hot Springs National Park. The Buckstaff and Quapaw bath houses are still open for business, under regulation from the Park Service.

The Fordyce Bath House

As the bath houses were rebuilt, each generation was more luxurious than the previous. One of the last to be constructed was the current Fordyce Bath House, built in 1914.

The Fordyce set itself apart with lavish interiors and the most extensive physical therapy services.

Dressing rooms and bathing compartments are well-appointed, with wooden doors and partitions, elaborate tile floors, and stained glass windows.

In addition to massage, "vapor baths" (steam cabinets) and Dr. Gustav Zander's mechanical therapy machines, the spa offered lounges and rooftop sunbathing, beauty treatments for hair, and facial and pedicure services, and other self-indulgences.

The Fordyce was the first of the bath houses to close, in 1962. It has been fully restored and is now the Park's visitor center.

  • photo of historic bathhouses in Hot Springs
    Bath House Row at Hot Springs National Park.
    photo of the Fordyce bath house
    Fordyce, the most luxurious of the bath houses.
    photo of the Quapaw bath house in Hot Springs AR
    Quapaw Bath House.
    photo of Terry Snider in the lobby of the Fordyce bath house
    Terry in the lobby of the Fordyce.
    photo of the DeSoto Fountain in the Fordyce bath house
    The men's shower room features a fountain of Hernando DeSoto.
    photo of the DeSoto Fountain in the Fordyce bath house
    Detail from the DeSoto fountain.
    photo of the hot showers at Fordyce Bath House
    Elaborate controls for the showers.
    photo of a "Hubbard Tub" for physical therapy at the Fordyce bath house
    The "Hubbard Tub" for physical therapy.
    photo of the electrobath at Fordyce bath house
    The electric bath--water with an electrical current!
    photo of strange equipment for mixing hot and cold water and air at the Fordyce bath house
    A vapor bath (steam cabinet) and strange water equipment.
    photo of strange equipment for mixing hot and cold water and air at the Fordyce bath house
    Hot water, cold water, miniature hoses...a torture chamber?
    photo of the gymnasium in the Fordyce bath house
    The wood-and-leather gym was classically beautiful.
    photo of the glass ceiling in Fordyce's lounge
    The glass ceiling of the Fordyce's lounge.
    photos of signs from the bath houses
    Signs, signs, everywhere a sign!
    photo of Spring #47 under the Fordyce bath house
    The Fordyce Spring, in the basement.
    photo of the elevator machinery at the Fordyce bath house
    The Fordyce's "moden" electrical elevator.