De Soto, Gambling, Resorts and the Mob: A History of Hot Springs
It's impossible to visit Hot Springs without talking about its history. Even visitors who have little interest in the old days can't help but feel the thousands of years of history surrounding them -- history that continues to bubble up every minute.
And "thousands of years" is no exaggeration. The water in the hot springs comes from rainwater that fell 4,000 years ago. It percolates deep into the earth, where it becomes superheated before rising and emerging from the area's 47 hot springs at almost 100 percent pure and a temperature of 147 degrees Fahrenheit.
While no one knows when the first human visitors came to what is now Hot Springs, authorities believe Native Americans were using the springs as a gathering spot as long as 10,000 years ago. What is known is that in the last few thousand years, the Tunica, Caddo, Quapaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and other Native American groups have had a continuing role in the area's history.
The Native Americans called the area "the valley of the vapors," a place of peace where various tribes could put aside their differences and gather to enjoy the relaxation and rejuvenation of the springs. Oddly enough, this concept of Hot Springs as "neutral ground" was echoed in the 1930s when mobsters from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles came to Hot Springs to get along and get away from it all.
Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto is believed to be one of the first European visitors to what is now Hot Springs while on his quest for an earthly paradise -- a fabled city of gold. Guided by Native Americans, he and his troops arrived in September 1541 to partake of the thermal springs. De Soto never found the city of gold and never realized he had already visited the place of peace and respite, a kind of earthly paradise more valuable than gold.
As far as is known, De Soto was the last European to enjoy this special place until more than 100 years had passed, when the French explorers Marquette and Joliet came to the area in 1673 and claimed it for France. Possession of the region see-sawed between Spain and France until it was acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched George Hunter and William Dunbar on an expedition to explore the area, a trip similar to that of Lewis and Clark, though less well-known. The explorers found a log cabin and a few rudimentary shelters used by people visiting the springs, though no permanent dwellers. In 1807, a man named Prudhomme became the first settler of modern Hot Springs, and he was soon joined by John Perciful and Isaac Cates.
After the Quapaw Indians ceded the land around the hot springs to the U.S. in a treaty, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and the adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation.
Congress established the Hot Springs Reservation on April 20, 1832 to protect the hot springs area. This makes it the oldest park currently in the National Park System -- 40 years older than Yellowstone National Park.
For years, the springs flowed into Hot Springs Creek, which ran through the middle of the resort. In the late 1800s, the creek was put into a channel and roofed over. The creek is still there, though it's not visible. Visitors today who drive along Central Avenue are driving above Hot Springs Creek.
A Resort is Born
Over the years, the Hot Springs Reservation (as it was known) became famous for its therapeutic properties. The area attracted more visitors and developed into a well-known resort nicknamed "The American Spa" because it attracted not only the wealthy but also indigent health seekers from around the world. It was believed for hundreds of years that the natural thermal waters could "cure" any number of ailments, including arthritis and polio. With the advent of modern medical science, the baths faded as a medical treatment, but people still came by the thousands to take the thermal baths for relaxation.
In 1921, Congress changed the name of Hot Springs Reservation to Hot Springs National Park, which now encompasses 5,500 acres. The Park includes famous Bathhouse Row, consisting of eight architecturally unique, turn-of-the-century bathhouses in the heart of the downtown historic and arts district.
The number of famous visitors who have frequented Hot Springs is too long to list here but range from notable boxing champion Jack Dempsey to performers Kate Smith, Liberace, the Smothers Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Sarah Bernhardt, Marjorie Lawrence, Mitzi Gaynor, the McGuire sisters and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. It is reputed that Tony Bennett first sang his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" during a rehearsal at the Black Orchid Club in 1963. Hot Springs is the birthplace of actor Alan Ladd. In the 1940s, actor George Raft could often be seen driving his convertible along Central Avenue.
Mobsters and Mitts
From the 1920s through the 1940s, Hot Springs flourished as a place where the famous and infamous came to enjoy the city's resort atmosphere, the thermal waters, luxury hotels, 200 restaurants -- and illegal gambling.
Gambling hotspots included the Southern Club (now the location of Josephine Tussaud's Wax Museum), which was reputed to be owned by mobster Owney Madden. He was one of the founders of the New York mob, was part of Murder, Inc., and owned Harlem's famous Cotton Club.
Madden, feeling the heat from rivals in New York, moved to Hot Springs, married the postmaster's daughter and settled down to a life of crime as a reputed overlord of the city's illicit gambling activities. Infamous mobsters such as Al Capone were frequent visitors, with Capone taking up part-time residence in Suite 443 of the Arlington Hotel. Mobster Lucky Luciano was arrested in Hot Springs on the promenade behind the Ozark Bath House. The state permanently shut down illegal gambling in Hot Springs in 1964.
During the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, Hot Springs was the off-season capital for major league baseball. The Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Nationals, Chicago White Stockings and the Boston Red Sox all held spring training in Hot Springs. Babe Ruth first visited Hot Springs as a young pitcher with the Red Sox, but returned often to take the baths and play golf.
Modern Hot Springs
Hot Springs began to expand its resort reputation in the 1930s, with the construction of Lake Catherine and Lake Hamilton to the south of downtown Hot Springs. In the 1950s, Lake Ouachita was created. All three lakes were formed by damming the Ouachita River to generate hydroelectric power and have become major attractions as recreational areas.
After its founding in 1904, Oaklawn Jockey Club became one of America’s most famous tracks for Thoroughbred horseracing. Over the years it has drawn thousands of visitors and witnessed the crowning of many champions, including Smarty Jones in 2004, who went on to win the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby. Oaklawn’s live season runs from January through April annually and simulcast racing is broadcast year-round. In addition, the park has recently expanded to allow forms of electronic gambling, including video poker and other “games of skill.”
Hot Springs continues to make history with its fine restaurants, entertainment venues, art galleries and incredible natural beauty. On a cool night, while strolling down Central Avenue with sounds of music and conversation coming out of the cafés and restaurants, a visitor can actually see the steam vapors drifting down from the hillside springs, as they have for thousands of years. It’s a momentary glimpse into history that is offered only in Hot Springs.