Arkansas’ Hot Springs Revives Its Reputation for R & R

Spa City
Dero Sanford
The elegant hotels of Bathhouse Row are in the midst of revitalization.

When I told associates I was going to Hot Springs, Ark., just about everyone asked “Why?” and “What’s to do there?” For the most part, I really had no idea what the town had to offer a leisure traveler other than the experience of bathing in earth-warmed waters.

Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the palette of offerings in Hot Springs.

From a historical perspective, Hot Springs is truly the first major resort town in the United States — a distinction that grew from the mythical perception that the 143 degree waters bubbling out of the earth had magical healing powers to offer the sick and disabled. Hot Springs was designated as one of the country’s first national parks, so the government began to direct the 700,000 gallons of water that percolate out of the wells each day into a well-engineered conduit system that delivered it to the nine buildings on Bathhouse Row and a few resort hotels such as the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa and the Majestic (which closed in 2006).

So, in the late 1800s, a grand era began in Hot Springs that would last for 50-plus years. The region attracted the well-to-do from throughout the U.S. who were seeking the healing powers of the warm waters. An entertainment industry developed soon after.

Most of those who came to the springs for medicinal reasons had run out of all traditional medical options of the time, and their doctors prescribed a series of bathing regimens. So they flocked to Hot Springs as a last resort, many staying for months at a time for daily baths with the hope and expectation that this would cure their sickness or disability. What it did do was get them to a relaxing resort atmosphere and freed them from the stresses of daily living. I suspect these factors contributed to the well-being of those who experienced a sense of rejuvenation or cure.

What followed was an influx of the wealthy who had nothing but time on their hands — and a crime underworld with its many vices: booze, showbiz, casino entertainment, gambling and prostitution.

Very quickly the police and sheriff’s department became part of the culture, being bribed to protect the interests of an exploding crime network that was as much a part of the culture and reputation of Hot Springs as the water.

Between the ’20s and ’50s, elite crime bosses like Alvin Karpis, Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello would regularly come to town to vacation, relax and enjoy the resort atmosphere. Back home, they may have been arch enemies, but in Hot Springs they left each other alone as part of the “unwritten rule.”

In 1904, the Oaklawn Park Race Track opened and still flourishes today with a three-and-a-half-month season culminating in the Arkansas Derby — the last race held for 3-year-olds that is always held three weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby.

A list of supper clubs opened in the ’20s, and that brought in the entertainment elite such as Al Jolson, Mae West, The Rat Pack — Sinatra, Davis and Martin — Phyllis Diller, Shecky Greene and many more.

Life was good in Hot Springs — people lived very large and the money flowed. But it all came to an abrupt end in 1966, when Winthrop Rockefeller took over as governor and shut the gambling operations down. Shortly afterward, Las Vegas took root in Nevada, the “action” moved west and Hot Springs’ decline began.

Today Bathhouse Row is in the midst of a complete makeover, with investors securing long-term leases from the National Park Service and renovating the inside of these beautiful buildings whose exteriors look exactly the same as they did when they were built. They offer an affordable bath service in the same tradition found a century ago.

The Arlington Hotel in the heart of downtown Hot Springs is being updated, and the remaining era hotels await investors who will take their “good bones” and bring them back to life, much like what happened to the Art Deco hotels along South Beach. I predict Hot Springs’ grand days will return in the not-too-distant future.

Today there is much to do in the boyhood home of Bill Clinton, such as hiking, boating, a visit to the Gangster Museum, watching the horses run, gaming at the casino and, of course, just experiencing the relaxing hot waters with the traditional attendant-served bathing experience that has not changed over all these years.

Categories: Vacations