Today was due to be something of a washout, weather-wise, so we decided to accelerate our visit to Hot Springs National Park, here in Arkansas, thinking that we could be tourists in old buildings, even if it were raining.
Well, it didn't rain, but we both got wet, both figuratively --
-- and literally:
Technically the first national park -- even before Yellowstone -- it was created by a special Act of Congress in 1832, the first time that land had been set aside by the federal government to preserve its use as an area for recreation. It was formally designated a park by the Federal Government in 1880 and ultimately added to the National Park System in 1921.
For many years, the area was visited by chiefs and tribes of numerous indigenous peoples, who called it the "Valley of the Vapors." Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first known European to see the springs in 1541. Members of many Native American tribes had been gathering in the valley for over 8,000 years to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs. There was agreement among Native American tribes that they would put aside their weapons and partake of the healing waters in peace while in the valley. In 1818, the Quapaw Indians ceded the land around the hot springs to the United States in a treaty after having been forced to a reservation south of the site. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation, which was accomplished in 1832.
Over the years, bathing customs developed and became more elaborate over time. Where bathers originally simply waded and soaked in the stream flowing down from the springs, this was replaced by tents, then wooden shacks, and ultimately a host of ever-more elaborate and ornate bathhouses. Although the area was full of bathhouses serving a range of guests, a major fire in 1905 burned most of the town, and the only bathhouses that survived were along Bathhouse Row:
Bathhouse Row comprises eight separate bathhouses, but the Fordyce is operated as the Visitor Center, and other bathhouses have been repurposed for the Park Store, a Cultural Center and other uses. Visitors can now only bathe in two: Quapaw and Buckstaff.
Fordyce has been restored to what its state was in the heyday of its operation, and visitors are allowed to tour its four stories at will. So we did!
The lobby still conveys the grandeur it would have presented when it offered bathing to visitors:
Fordyce's spring -- or its share of the collective springs -- can be seen in the basement, and is lovingly preserved:
A typical visitor would have at his or her disposal a private bathing room with a tub in which he or she could run the hot springs water:
Men and women bathed on separate floors. Each sex had its own dressing room and related facilities such as rooftop sunning decks, and in general the facilities were comparable.
In addition to the basic bathing rooms, special facilities were available for hydrotherapy, steam, massage and various therapeutic treatments popular at the time:
And, when you were done with your hot spring treatment, you could luxuriate in a cooling shower that would be the envy of any 21st Century Yuppy homeowner:
The bathhouses were serious about their services, and many treatments were available only on the prescription of a medical doctor. One room made a Hubbard Tub (a massive ceramic-tiled full-immersion Hubbard Currence therapeutic tub), along with an overhead track that would permit moving a chair sling over the tub to permit the lowering of paraplegic or quadraplegic patients into the healing water:
The bathhouses had some quirky, but perhaps understandable, rules, posted on signs throughout the buildings. This display showed a few of them. One wonders why a person would want to kick a wall, but we suppose we can understand why someone might sneak a violation of the "no urination" rule.
The top floor of the bathhouse boasted a full gymnasium, with all the equipment that one might want, even today:
There was a sumptious drawing room where musical concerts were held regularly, and even private staterooms for those customers that wished the maximum in privacy and luxury while they lingered over their "taking of the waters."
After touring the Fordyce Bathhouse, we climbed up the promenade behind Bathhouse Row to explore various natural hot springs and hot spring fountains sprinkled along the West slope of Hot Springs Mountain:
Contrary to many people's assumptions, the hot spring waters are not volcanically heated. Instead, waters flowing down nearby Indian Mountain seep thousands of feet into the ground through cracks and fissures in the bedrock, and are heated geothermically from the deep pressures to a near-constant 143F as they well back up on Hot Springs Mountain's western slope. At this point, the water is too hot for bathing, so the bathhouses add cool water to reach appropriate bathing temperatures. By law, only cooled mineral water from the hot springs may be mixed with the hot water, so, through the years, the bathhouses shared huge cooling towers and systems to have enough cool water available.
As we hiked up Hot Springs Mountain along Tufa Terrace Trail, we walked along a drainage channel built to carry the hot mineral spring water down to the city. Over the years, evaporating water has left large amounts of calcium carbonate -- or tufa -- in the conduits:
We continued up steep Peek Trail to the Hot Springs Tower, where we climbed -- we counted! -- 312 steps to the top of the tower to get a view over the surrounding area. There is an elevator, but it was out of service, so we had to climb the stairs if we wanted the view. We assured the host that we would have wanted to climb the stairs anyway.
The view from the top of the Tower was breathtaking, and we could see the historic center of town below, with Bathhouse Row and other related historic buildings:
One bathhouse -- Superior Baths -- has been repurposed as a brewpub and we naturally thought that would be a good spot for lunch. The food was very tasty, and the beers were well brewed.
An arts festival was scheduled for today in Hot Springs, so, with full bellies, we walked over to browse the artists' offerings and perhaps pick up a present or two for family:
At one end of the arts festival was a small Renaissance Fair which appeared to be directed mainly at kids. It had lots of interactive stations --
-- including opportunities to do sidewalk chalk art, and this chance to help make an impromptu mural!
Unfortunately, due to Covid, the National Park Service still has not received permission to open its theater for visitors to view its Park Video. We find the videos one of the most interesting parts of our visit to any national park, so we picked up a copy in the Park Store and plan to watch it before we return later in the week to take a soak in one of the bathhouses. When we report on that adventure, we'll let you know if there's anything else to tell you about Hot Springs National Park, so that you will be fully educated!
Until then, stay well-bathed, my friend.