…continued from previous post:
One of my motivations for this extended roadtrip had been hot springs… I suddenly felt an urge to take a dip in some hot springs, but, finding myself in Wisconsin, it seemed impossible. I did some research and determined that my two closest hot springs were in western South Dakota and central Arkansas. I did a little bit of research before hopping in the car for 20 hours, though, and found out that both of those sites were very developed and not likely to fulfill my yearning. So, I made sure to stop by a couple hot springs when I was out west in October.
Still, I thought I might as well swing through Hot Springs, since it was on my way, and Clinton had gone to high school there, and anyway it had been on my mind for well over six months and it deserved a look. It was nothing like I’d expected.
The town was fairly large, but didn’t seem to offer much of interest, except on the main tourist strip. In fact, one side of the street along that strip has been pretty much the same for over a hundred years; the other side was full of kitschy stores selling t-shirts and fudge. The National Park Service has taken over most of the bathhouses lining that street, though the facilities are operated by private concessions. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these bathhouses were the main attraction for wealthier visitors who wanted to experience the curative powers of the springs. However, even those without the means to pay for fancy treatments could bathe in the springs that bubbled up all over Hot Springs Mountain, or in the creek that carried the water through town. While that practice was ultimately stopped due to concerns about hygiene, and the creek was channeled under the road in the late 19th century, free drinking water from the hot springs is still available at several “jug fountains” around the area.
Drinking water? From hot springs? Well that’s the thing of it… these aren’t “hot springs” like we find in volcanic regions, so much as springs that are hot. The water comes out of the ground at 142°F on average, but it lacks sulfur and most iron, and is therefore clear and nearly tasteless. It is safe for drinking as it comes out of the ground, and I can personally attest that it’s pretty good.
Hot Springs National Park has a long history – the area was first set aside by the federal government in 1832, less than 30 years after the Louisiana Purchase added the territory to the United States. Due to conflicting land claims, the government didn’t take active control of the springs until 1877, and it became a National Park in 1921. It was around this time that the park had become a popular location for those seeking cures to medical ailments, and the large bathhouses were built. The only one still operating in the traditional way today is the Buckstaff (since 1912), but the Park Service has renovated the Fordyce to its original (1915) condition, including museum displays and captions describing the various remedies offered at the time.
I didn’t have a long time to spend there, and I didn’t do any “bathing,” but I definitely learned something in Hot Springs! I was a little overwhelmed by the very commercial atmosphere of it at the time, and quickly escaped to the driving loop and overlook trail on Hot Springs Mountains. In retrospect, though, it is a rather interesting place and I would like to go back sometime and experience it for what it is… now that I know.