Hot Springs National Park has a long and colorful history, beginning long before its designation as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832. American Indians came here for thousands of years to quarry novaculite for their tools and weapons.
The Dunbar-Hunter Expedition came here in 1804, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the southern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. Soon a bustling town grew up around the hot springs to provide services for health seekers. The resultant bathing industry led to Hot Springs becoming known as the "American Spa."
A Brief History of Hot Springs National Park
The area now known as "Hot Springs National Park" first became United States territory in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The first permanent settlers to reach the Hot Springs area in 1807 were quick to realize the springs' potential as a health resort. By the 1830s, log cabins and a store had been built to meet the needs (albeit in a rudimentary way) of visitors to the springs.
Hot Springs Reservation
To protect this unique national resource and preserve it for the use of the public, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature had requested in 1820 that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation (not to be confused with the Indian reservations being established around the same time). On April 20, 1832, President Andrew Jackson signed legislation to set aside "...four sections of land including said (hot) springs, reserved for the future disposal of the United States (which) shall not be entered, located, or appropriated, for any other purpose whatsoever." This makes Hot Springs National Park the oldest national park among current National Park units, predating Yellowstone National Park by forty years.
Unfortunately, Congress failed to pass any legislation for administering the site. As a result, no controls were exerted in the area, and people continued to settle there, building businesses around and over the springs.
The Great Fire
Just as Hot Springs Reservation was reestablished as government property, a devastating fire swept up the valley, destroying most of the south and central downtown area but leaving the Arlington and Grand Central Hotels, the Hale, Rector, and Big Iron Bathhouses, and the buildings to their north. The structures were in general rough, utilitarian, and in poor repair. Many townspeople considered the great fire of 1878 to be more a blessing than a tragedy, since it cleared the way for new construction that was more substantial and attractive.
In the short period after the fire, the government established stringent standards for bathhouse construction, and the area rapidly changed from a rough frontier town to an elegant spa city. Building, landscaping, and engineering projects proceeded apace.
Hot Springs Creek & Early Bathhouses
In 1882-83 the government enclosed Hot Springs creek in an underground arch for flood and sewerage control. The arch was then covered with earth, and the area above it was landscaped to create a pleasing park bounded with Lombardy poplars. The new Victorian bathhouses built between 1880 and 1888 were larger and more luxurious than could have been dreamed of ten years earlier. The haphazardly placed wooden troughs carrying the thermal water down the mountainside were replaced with underground pipes. Roads and paths were improved for the convenience of visitors who wished to enjoy the scenery.
The Secretary of the Interior appointed U.S. Army Captain John R. Stevens to oversee a number of ambitious landscaping and building projects in the 1890s. The Secretary originally planned to retain Frederick Law Olmsted’s personal landscaping services, but after a series of misunderstandings and mutual dissatisfaction, the Olmsted firm withdrew. The Secretary then authorized Stevens to salvage what he could from the Olmsted firm’s designs and complete other enhancements as he saw fit. The resulting improvements included a formal entrance, mountain drives, a lake park on Whittington Avenue, fountains, and a brick bathhouse for the indigent.
By 1901 all of the springs had been walled up and covered to protect them. Between 1912 and 1923 the wooden Victorian bathhouses built in the 1880s were gradually replaced with fire-resistant brick and stucco bathhouses, several of which featured marble walls, billiard rooms, gymnasiums, and stained glass windows. The final metamorphosis of Bathhouse Row was completed when the Lamar Bathhouse opened its doors for business in 1923. The bathhouses, all of which are still standing today, ushered in a new age of spa luxury.
Hot Springs National Park
On August 25, 1916, Congress established the National Park Service (39 Stat. 535), and Hot Springs Reservation came under its administration. Stephen T. Mather, head of the new organization, took a serious interest in the development of the site. His enthusiasm for Hot Springs apparently led to its designation as the eighteenth national park on March 4, 1921 (41 Stat. 1407).At the same time, the townspeople decided to call their city Hot Springs National Park as well.
The designation of the reservation as a national park ushered in the final phase of construction culminating in the Bathhouse Row of today. In 1922 the old Government Free Bathhouse was demolished, and a new state-of-the-art bathhouse opened on Reserve and Spring Streets. In 1933 a central thermal water collection and distribution system was completed, and grading began on the Grand Promenade behind Bathhouse Row. In 1936 the new administration building on the corner of Reserve and Central opened, replacing the park headquarters earlier converted from the reservation’s pump house. The Imperial Bathhouse next to the administration building was razed in 1937 to make way for the Grand Promenade entrance on Reserve, although it was to be 1958 before this ambitious project was completely finished. In the final phase of construction, the Fountain Street superintendent’s residence was razed, and the promenade was extended to Fountain Street.
The Decline of Bathing
By the 1960s the bathing industry in the park and in the city had declined considerably. On Bathhouse Row, the eight grand bathhouses that had been thriving since their construction in the first three decades of the century suffered from the decline. The elegant Fordyce Bathhouse was the first to close, in 1962, followed by the Maurice, the Ozark, and the Hale in the 1970s. In 1984 the Quapaw (briefly reincarnated as Health Services, Inc.) and the Superior closed. When the Lamar closed in 1985, it left only the Buckstaff still operating on Bathhouse Row.
Bathhouse Row and its environs were placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 13, 1974. The desire to revitalize Bathhouse Row also led citizens to campaign for adaptive uses of the vacant buildings. The strongest concern was to save the most elegant bathhouse, the Fordyce, which was consequently adapted for use as a visitor center and museum. Today, nearly all the bathhouses have been renovated and adapted for modern use.