The Early Years
French trappers, hunters, and traders became familiar with this region during the 17th and 18th centuries. Many probably knew the hot springs first-hand. In 1803 the United States acquired the area when it purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. The next year President Thomas Jefferson dispatched an expedition led by William Dunbar and George Hunter to explore the newly acquired springs. Their report to the President was widely publicized and stirred up interest in the "hot springs of the Washita." In the years that followed, more and more people came here to soak in the waters. Soon the idea of “reserving” the springs for the nation took root, and territorial representative Ambrose H. Sevier submitted a proposal to Congress. Then in 1832, the federal government took the unprecedented step of setting aside four sections of land here. It was the first U.S. reservation made simply to protect a natural resource. Boundaries weren’t marked, and by the mid-1800s, individuals had filed claims and counterclaims on the springs and the land surrounding them.
The first bathhouses were crude structures of canvas and lumber, little more than tents perched over individual springs or reservoirs carved out of the rock. Later businessmen built wooden structures, but they frequently burned, collapsed because of shoddy construction, or rotted due to continued exposure to water and steam. Hot Springs Creek, which ran right through the middle of all this activity, drained its own watershed and collected the runoff of the springs. Generally it was an eyesore-dangerous at times of high water, and mere collections of stagnant pools at dry times. In 1884 the federal government put the creek into a channel, roofed over it over, and laid a road down above it. Much of it runs under Central Avenue today.