Podcast Episodes

America’s Spa

In the mountains of western Arkansas, there’s a place where rain waters are absorbed through crevices in the earth’s surface, then warmed and enriched with minerals, percolating deep underground. The water then flows back to the surface in steaming hot springs, filling the cool mountain air with steam in the winter. It’s a place that humans have been using for millennia for rest, relaxation, and healing. It’s also our first piece of federally protected recreation land.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the American Spa —Hot Springs National Park.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Hot Springs National Park – National Park Service Website

Buckstaff Bathhouse – Historic Hot Springs Spa Treatment

Quapaw Baths – Modern Hot Springs Spa Treatment


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

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In the mountains of western Arkansas, there’s a place where rain waters are absorbed through crevices in the earth’s surface, then warmed and enriched with minerals, percolating deep underground. The water then flows back to the surface in steaming hot springs, filling the cool mountain air with steam in the winter. It’s a place that humans have been using for millennia for rest, relaxation, and healing. It’s also our first piece of federally protected recreation land.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the American Spa —Hot Springs National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

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In 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to visit what the indigenous people called the Valley of the Vapors — a confluence of 143-degree springs flowing from the western slope of what is now known as Hot Springs Mountain, part of the Ouachita Mountain range in modern day Arkansas. Tribes used it as a neutral gathering place for over 8,000 years, believing that the water of the thermal springs possessed healing properties. De Soto and his conquistadors spent several weeks resting in the steam and waters.

In 1673, explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet claimed the area for France. For the next 130 years, the land would move between Spanish and French control, eventually finding its way into the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803, the hot springs of Arkansas became a part of the United States.

White settlers began arriving almost immediately after, fascinated with the springs and the mysteries of the water. It became a tourist destination almost as quickly. Resourceful settlers built boarding houses for visitors entranced with the promise of healing every ail.

Recognizing concerns over conservation of such a specific, special area, In 1832, President Jackson made the Hot Springs the first piece of federal land protected for recreations. Some would call it America’s first national park, though such a title didn’t exist until Yellowstone was formed 50 years later.

47 hot springs release nearly a million gallons of water every day off the southern wooded slope of Hot Springs mountain. It was believed the waters benefited diseases of the skin and blood, nervous affections, rheumatism and similar diseases, and the “various diseases of women.”

The earliest baths involved reclining in natural pools for long periods of time. Crude vapor baths stood over the springs, which bathers would inhale. Wooden tubs were added, and physicians began arriving in the 1850s. Bathhouses were established to harness the springs in a more formal way. During the 1870s the bathing regimen became more diverse, and physicians prescribed various types of six to ten-minute baths for patients and two-minute steam treatments.

Drinking and bathing in the waters would cause a profuse perspiration, which was considered important for fighting disease. The advice of a physician who was familiar with the use of the waters was considered necessary to avoid injury, and it was specifically cautioned against for those with respiratory illnesses. Often massive amounts of medication were combined with the treatments.

The hot baths were usually taken once a day for three weeks, followed by a period of rest. A second three weeks’ course was then taken, followed again by another break. The usual stay at the springs was from one to three months, but many of the very sick stayed a year or longer.

One description of the process in 1878 told of a hot bath of 90 to 95 °F for about 3 minutes, timed with a sand-glass, followed by another three minutes with all but the head in a steam box. The bather would also drink hot water during this period. Afterword, the bather was rubbed down and thoroughly dried by an attendant, and then returned to their room to lie down for a half-hour to let the body recover its normal temperature.

The bathhouses began using vapor cabinets a few years later, which look like a medieval torture device, where all but the head are shuttered into a trunk. The bather would sit in the cabinet for 10–20 minutes with the lid closed tightly around the neck, and vapor from the hot water would rise through the floor at temperatures around 110–130 degrees.

Toward the end of the 1880s Russian and Turkish baths were offered, and in the 1890s German needle baths, and the Scotch treatment of concentrated streams of hot or cold water on the back were added.

The first bathhouses were canvas and wood tents, which were then replaced by haphazard wooden buildings. The buildings didn’t stand up well to the steam of the springs and began to collapse from rot. Those that didn’t burn to the ground.

But business was good, and the wood structures were replaced in the early 1900s with marble, brass, and stained-glass sanctuaries, lining a strip which was dubbed Bathhouse Row. They were outfitted with beauty shops, gymnasiums, music rooms, and state-of-the-art therapy equipment. The gymnasium on the third floor of the Fordyce Bathhouse was the first gymnasium in the State of Arkansas.

The Hot Springs Reservation came to be called “the National Spa,” and in 1921, Stephen Mather, director of the 5-year-old Nation Park Service, convinced Congress to confer the National Park designation on the area. Officially, it would be our 18th National Park.

The aspects of services were still left to bathhouse operators, but once the National Park Service took over management of the area, the Park’s superintendent established several rules. In the 30s, a tub bath could take no more than 20 minutes and a shower no more than 90 seconds. During the next decade, shower time was reduced to a minute, and maximum temperatures were specified. After a bath of about 98 degrees, the patient might spend 2–5 minutes in a vapor cabinet, get 15 minutes of hot or cold wet packs, followed by a needle shower, light massage and alcohol rub.

Hot Springs was a popular destination for the rich and famous during the first half of the 20th century. It became the off-season capital for Major League baseball teams like The Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Nationals, Chicago White Stockings and Boston Red Sox. Al Capone and his top captains would seize the entire fourth floor of the popular Arlington Hotel when visiting. In a sort of homage to the Native people, Hot Springs was neutral territory for gangsters from Chicago and New York. Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1910, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt came in 1936. Harry Truman had a favorite club where he played his favorite game, small stakes poker, at the illegal casinos that thrived in the area.

Marjorie Lawrence, star of the Metropolitan Opera moved to Hot Springs in 1941 after she was crippled by polio, and taught voice to local children in her spare time.

Boxer Billy Conn trained for his 1946 rematch with Joe Louis in the Fordyce Bathhouse Gym. He ended up losing what is often remembered as “the fight of the century.”

By the 1950s, changes in medical technology resulted in a rapid decline in water therapies. People also began to take to the open roads in their own vehicles rather than traveling by train to a specific destination.

The gambling establishments and brothels were out of hand. In 1961, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that Hot Springs had the largest illegal gambling operation in the country. In the town of Hot Springs, they were popular places and not really seen as illicit. Tony Bennett first crooned his signature “I Left My Heart in San Franciso” in the early 1960s at the Vapors Club, around the same time that a young Bill Clinton was graduating from Hot Springs High School.

Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller closed the casinos in 1967, some of which continued to operate as nightspots with major entertainers without the gambling for a few more years. Business declined for the bathhouses, and, one by one, they began to close.

In the 1980s, the citizens of Hot Springs, along with the National Park Service, began a restoration effort to revitalize the historic bathhouses. Today, visitors can tour the restored historic Fordyce Bathhouse Museum, which doubles as the visitor center for the Park. It looks just as it did in the 1920s.

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Hot Springs National Park is not your typical outdoor National Park destination, but it does host a variety of nature and wildlife to behold. There are several scenic drives through the mountains, and several trails, but this being the only of the “big 60” National Parks in a city, the experience at Hot Springs today is more about history than anything else. You can walk up and down bathhouse row, and tour the Fordyce Bathhouse of course, and then there’s a gift shop in the Lamar Bathhouse. The architecture of these buildings and the wild medical water treatment contraptions are worth the visit alone. You can also stroll the grand promenade, which is a paved walkway above bathhouse row, and drink from fountains that produce the natural hot spring water. You can even fill jugs if you want.

You can, however, still get spa treatments in Hot Springs National Park. The Buckstaff bath is one of the historic bathhouses still in operation. Here you can get the historic treatment. You purchase a bath ticket and lock your valuables in a security box, and are then guided to the dressing room where an attendant provides a bath sheet for you to wear. You get a private bathtub which your attendant has cleaned and filled with fresh 98-100-degree spring water. You soak in the large tubs for 20 minutes

Following the soak, you’ll get into a full-steam cabinet for two minutes, or a head-out cabinet for five minutes. Sitz (or sitting) tubs filled with 108-degree water are next, followed by applications of hot packs for specific aches or pains. Finally, you’ll take a tingling two-minute cool-down shower. A full-body Swedish massage lasting twenty minutes or more is optional and costs extra, and you can decline any portion of the experience.

More modern spa treatments are available at the Quapaw bath, which offers services like a Peach Hibiscus Foot Scrub, Hot Stone alignment, clay body masks, and 50-minute Deep Tissue massages. Here, you can also find the most affordable way to spend time in the hot spring water – for $20, those 14 and older can soak in thermal pools.

The National Park Service makes no healing claims to the water, though it is high in certain minerals. But the benefits of a hot spa treatment for aches and pains, and steam treatments for sinuses and the lungs are undeniable.

The town of Hot Springs is also full of a lot of the touristy stuff that tends to surround places like this. Zip lines, go-carts, laser tag and the like. The home of the Clintons, located at 1011 Park Avenue, is not open for tours, but you can view it from the streets of downtown.

The National Park Service operates a campground on site, which has recently added full hookups for RVs. It’s first-come-first-served only, but there is also a wide array of private campgrounds in the surrounding area, many on beautiful waterways.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

 

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