Great Spa Cities: Hot Springs, Arkansas

fordyce bathhouse
••• Fordyce Bathhouse now serves as a Visitor's Center for Hot Spring National Park. Getty Images: Stephen Saks

Hot Springs, Arkansas is one of the best places in the country to learn about the history of spa-going in America, which naturally grew up around hot springs.  Of course, Native Americans were the first to use the hot springs in this area.  The U.S. government discovered the wealth of hot springs in this area in 1803, when it was exploring the new territories that were part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Western medicine didn't have a lot to offer at the time, so hot springs were the treatment of choice for ailments like rheumatism and arthritis. Settlers arrived by 1807, and a rustic bathing town quickly sprung up, with wooden troughs carrying the thermal water down the mountainside to establishments below. 

To protect the springs from the entrepreneurs who were claiming them as their own, the U.S. government named it a Federal Reservation in 1832.  This was a precursor to the National Park System, which effectively makes Hot Springs the oldest park in the National Park System -- older than Yellowstone by 40 years!

Alas, there was no enforcement to go with the designation, so fifty years later many lawsuits had to dislodge private citizens who said they "owned" the springs.  By 1878 the springs and the mountains around them were permanently set aside as Hot Springs Reservation. 

This, and a great fire that razed most of the city, brought great changes to Hot Springs.

It went from being a rough frontier town to an elegant spa city in the 1880s, with luxurious Victorian bathhouses and more beautiful roads and landscaping.  This was the heyday of 19th-century spa-going, which was popular in America as well as Europe, and continued well into the 20th century

Between 1912 and 1923 the wooden Victorian bathhouses were gradually replaced with magnificent brick and stucco bathhouses, several of which featured marble walls, billiard rooms, gymnasiums, and stained glass windows.

  Eight great bathhouses constructed between the years of 1892 and 1923 still stand on the Grand Promenade known as Historic Bathhouse Row, designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1987.

They are standing….but most of them are no longer open.  As Western medicine became more effective in the 1940s and 1950s, bathhouses went into decline.  Only one, the Buckstaff Bathhouse, managed to stay in continuous operation since 1912! 

Classical in design, with imposing Doric columns and urns gracing the front of the building, the building epitomizes the Edwardian style and is the best preserved of all the bathhouses.  It still offers the traditional bathing ritual that was originally a three-week, 21-bath "cure" which starts with a 20-minute whirlpool and proceeds through hot packs, sits baths, steam cabinets, and needle showers.  It's best when followed by a Swedish massage.  Any spa lover has to give that a try. 

The Fordyce Bathhouse, which operated from 1915 to 1962, now serves as the National Hot Springs Park Visitors Center.  You can see historic exhibits and get a sense of the luxury involved, and watch a nine-minute film that shows the traditional bath routine.  

People who want to sample the modern spa experience in a historic setting should try Quapaw Baths and Spa, a Spanish Revival bathhouse with a  dramatic dome.

  It closed in 1984 but reopened in 2007, offering modern spa services alongside private thermal baths and communal bathing in four large thermal pools.

Hot Springs National Park also offers 26 miles of hiking trails that lead up Hot Springs Mountain, where the towns 47 hot springs emanate at an average temperature of 143 degrees.  Don't worry!  It's cooled down before you step into it.