Los Angeles Times

Back to Bathhouse Row

Tribune staff reporter

HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, Ark.--On Saturday nights the Pickup Parade takes over Central Avenue--Chevys, Fords, mighty red Rams, cute Toyotas and unrecognizable tricked-up low-riders with hydraulics that jiggle fenders in a sort of automotive hula. Speakers thump out hip-hop loud enough to set off car alarms.

Adding to the noise, mufflers have been given the evening off, so engine roar ruffles Central Avenue's neat row of magnolia trees. Spectators on the sidewalks yell their best pickup lines at the women seated in the cabs, provoking dirty looks from guys behind the wheel. Trucks practically tap bumpers as they crawl past the Lamar, the Ozark, the Quapaw, the Fordyce, the Maurice, the Hale and the Superior.

Those are all bathhouses, and, by-golly, do they ever look so totally 1920s. Hot Springs (pop. 3,000) consequently has a Saturday night cruise that seems a little different from those in other small American towns. Well-preserved historic treasures give the weekly event an anachronistic aspect.

Low-riders, big-wheelers and hip-hop blasters skirt the wide verandas of the massive and old-fashioned Arlington Resort Hotel and proceed for another block toward the equally out-sized and old-fashioned Majestic before turning around and starting over. And all the while, manholes steam, as the hot waters that make Hot Springs hot escape into air that's already humid enough.

Back when, the scene might have been quieter but no less menacing. Al Capone had a suite on the Arlington's fourth floor and used secret underground tunnels to access a speakeasy across the street. The west side of Central Avenue was rife with brothels, casinos and all sorts of riff-raff. Meanwhile, ladies and gentlemen of leisure soaked themselves--on the east side of Central--at the Lamar, the Ozark, the Quapaw, the Fordyce, the Maurice, the Hale and the Superior.

In decades long past, those institutions and a few others were the star attractions of Bathhouse Row. Sometimes--pre-Pickup Parade--visitors would come to Hot Springs just so they could admire those ornate architectural examples of Bathhouse Mediterranean, Ersatz Spanish Mission, Greek Wannabe and Spanish Renaissance Revival.

Inside, it was believed, the piped-in waters of the hot springs would limber up the joints, set the skin aglow, wash away tension and even cure syphilis.

That section of eight bathhouses along the Pickup Parade route now belongs to the National Park Service, which operates a unique national park on a small slice of downtown Hot Springs. NPS property also extends into large chunks of the adjoining mountains, the same mountains that amplify and echo the big unmuffled engines on Saturday nights.

The mountains have been laced with hiking trails, similar to the ones in the big parks out West. But the main attractions are the 47 hot springs that emerge from the vicinity of the earth's hot core and seep to the surface, where the scalding and supposedly healing waters are captured and fed into the most elaborate plumbing anywhere in the national park system.

Hot Springs sure doesn't resemble any other Interior Department domain. And on the day I met him, Park Supt. Roger Giddings looked more like a dapper, gray-haired Rotary president than a Ranger Rick. He had on a yellow necktie, crisp white shirt, tailored tan slacks and tassel loafers. We met in the office of Assistant Supt. Dale Moss, equally gray but decked out in the official NPS olive green.

They were telling me that theirs is a rather intimate kind of park, home to an unusual geographical feature that has been exploited in various ways since the days when Choctaws, Caddos, Osages and Natchez bathed their aching muscles in the hot water. Legend has it that the tribes shared the springs peaceably but battled over the nearby beds of novaculite that made dandy tools and weapons.

Whatever. When they first stumbled upon the steaming bogs, the earliest settlers no doubt wondered the same thing I did. What's happening here?

"The water goes down deep enough that, as it gets closer to the center of the earth, it gets hotter," Giddings explained. "It hits that area, and it comes back hot. The whole process takes about 4,000 years."

It seems that rainwater striking Hot Springs Mountain seeps through tiny cracks in the stone, passages that extend down some 8,000 miles. That's the part that takes so long, maybe a foot a year: H2O that dropped from the skies around the time of the pharaohs is just arriving back to the surface. It was a long, slow journey down to Middle Earth but, once there, the hot water takes a relatively short time to percolate back up.

No volcanoes here

"The hot waters in other national parks are all heated by volcanic activity," Giddings said, "but there aren't any volcanoes around here. You're not going to see any features like Yellowstone has. No geysers. No sulfur pools."

People do see a few steaming manholes, a lot of strange, concrete boxes on the lawns and mountainsides, and water fountains with spigots that allow people to fill cups and water jugs with free, healthful spring water for enjoyment at home.

"The real kicker is, we have so much legislation that deals with bathing and drinking the water that the hot springs have to be covered," Giddings told me. "Those green concrete boxes are covers for the hot springs, just to keep them clean for the bathing and drinking." The springs are shunted into pipes for delivery all over the north end of downtown, but the resort lacks the open, outdoor hot pools common in Europe's spas.

On Bathhouse Row, only the Buckstaff still functions as a bathhouse. One former park superintendent compared the Buckstaff's be-columned facade to the Irish House of Parliament. It's that impressive. Six of the other seven bathhouses are locked up and serve mainly as part of the odd scenery, although park officials still hope concessionaires will lease the buildings and give the Buckstaff some competition.

Hot springs waters also flow into the pipes at the Arlington, Majestic, Downtowner and Austin Hotels, the Hot Springs Health Spa and the Swan Song Spa. All private operators pay 25 cents per 1,000 gallons, and their baths use water from 27 of the hot springs. Their output is pooled in underground reservoirs before shooting out.

"We have 47 springs, but we only collect from 27, because the others don't flow very much," Supt. Giddings said. "We give out 900,000 gallons a day. We collect about 650,000 gallons a day, collected from this spring and that spring. They all run into a pipe and go from the mountain into a reservoir and then they're dropped into a pump room and pumped to another reservoir or into the bathhouses." He explained that on any given day, users also draw on 250,000 gallons stored in the reservoirs. "Of course," he added "all the water from the 27 springs is blended together. Yet I'll see people stand in line with their jugs at one of the fountains while other fountains are free. I pointed out an unused fountain to one lady, and she said, `No, I want to get it out of this spigot. This is the best water.' " Giddings laughed.

I asked Giddings if he and his assistant superintendent, Moss, took the baths themselves. "Sure," Giddings replied. "I'm 102 years old. And he's 99."

There was a long period of time when the public might have believed a fib like that. Fabulists once tied Hot Springs into the whole Fountain of Youth mythology because Spanish explorers, including Hernando DeSoto, passed through the region in the 16th Century. The federal government saw some value in the hot springs as early as 1803, when the territory became part of the Louisiana Purchase. "This is the oldest park in the system," Moss likes to boast. "In 1832, it became the Hot Springs Reservation, There was not even an Interior Department at that time. That came along in 1849." Unfortunately for Hot Springs boosters, Yellowstone usually gets credit for being the first official national park, due to a string of technicalities, including the fact that Hot Springs Reservation wasn't named "national park" until 1921.

The early years

For several years after the government designated the hot springs area as a reservation, it neglected to define definite boundaries. In the mid-1800s, the feds began exerting more control over the reservation, after bathhouses began to spring up and their owners feuded over land claims and property rights. The first structures were crude, wooden spas, subject to fires and rot. Hot Springs Creek ran through the middle of town, collecting hot spring runoff, occasionally flooding or forming stagnant puddles. In 1884, the government covered the creek and laid a road over it, never supposing that the resultant Central Avenue would be the future home of the Pickup Parade.

In the years that followed, Hot Springs became known as "The National Spa." Posters declared, "Uncle Sam Bathes the World," and depicted Uncle giving the globe a good scrub with a loofa mitt.

People flocked to Hot Springs. Many of them believed the waters could make them feel better. The clear liquid contained a long list of minerals, yet had none of the repulsive odor or nasty taste of typical sulfur springs.

Ranger Mark Blaeuer--bearded, bespectacled and professorial--led me through the Fordyce, a lavishly decorated bathhouse that the Park Service renovated and reopened as a visitor center and museum in 1989. A severely ailing Ohio businessman, Samuel Fordyce, was told by his doctors to try the hot springs, and he arrived in 1870--on a stretcher.

"That's really why the government set this place aside in the first place," Blaeuer said. "Officials viewed it as a medicinal resource, not a scenic one. Doctors believed in the efficacy of certain mineral waters for certain conditions."

For whatever reason, Fordyce emerged thriving and vigorous after six months of taking the waters. He didn't die until 1919, and by that time he had established the elaborate bathhouse that his family would continue to operate until 1962.

As we toured the Fordyce, it was clear that the tycoon had poured a lot of his utilities and railroad profits into the place. We passed through echoing marble chambers lined with tubs, sitz baths, needle showers, hot-wrap and cold-wrap lounges, a hydro-therapy room complete with high-pressure hoses, steam cabinets and tubs through which passed mild electric currents during therapy sessions.

Attendants accompanied the bathers every step of the way, making sure the water did not exceed 100 degrees and that the bathers did not stay in any tub or steam cabinet too long. Water coming directly from the mountainside reaches 143 degrees and is cooled in reservoirs before it's pumped to the baths. Often, bathers arrived with detailed orders from their doctors, calling for a certain level of water pressure, ideal temperatures and additional treatments, such as massages, specific exercises and exposure to ultraviolet rays.

"I realize this may look like a chamber of horrors in some respect, but people with severe problems wanted to give it a try," Blaeuer said. "People came here with a lot of expectations that this routine, complicated as it seems today, would be very helpful. There was an entire medical journal just devoted to this sort of thing. Today, most people use the baths just to relax."

National park officials can recite a long list of reasons for the decline in bathhouse popularity. Exhibits around the property often refer to "The Golden Age of Bathing," and concede that that Age has long since passed. Blame (or credit) miracle drugs, hot water in homes (which wasn't all that common generations ago), private whirlpool baths, Prohibition, the ban on casinos and the automobile, which gave vacationers a wider choice of holiday destinations. "And then, too," Blaeuer added, "a lot of folks today rely on health insurance, and to what extent health insurance companies in this country would see medicinal bathing as a reliable treatment for something might be questionable."

The Fordyce had more than bathing to offer. Upstairs we stepped into a fully equipped gymnasium, complete with monkey bars, Indian clubs and medicine balls. Prize-fighters, as recently as Rocky Marciano, would train here. Major league teams set up Hot Springs training camps, before the railroads extended into southern Florida.

In the Golden Age, luxurious facilities like the Fordyce featured stained glass with nature scenes, fountains, murals and club rooms where men could relax, perhaps play billiards or board games, smoke cigars and read the newspapers. Women had a lounge of their own and a fully equipped beauty salon. A common area open to both sexes was furnished with a grand piano.

Not only were the sexes separated during their ablutions, African-Americans were banned from the most elite bathhouses until the 1960s. There were a few bathhouses for African-Americans with far inferior facilities. Some white bathhouses advertised "white attendants," and others allowed their black attendants to minister to one another after hours. Early on, the federal government did set aside a bathhouse strictly for the poor people who couldn't afford $1.40 per bath (the going rate at the Fordyce in 1919). To use the facility, people had to swear an oath that they were poor.

Charged for false bathing

"There was a rumor for awhile that the water in the government bathhouse was more efficacious," Blaeuer said. "Some people who had money would try to get in there too, and they were actually prosecuted for making a false oath."

We ended our tour in the Fordyce basement, where a little opening in the wall shows water from one spring emerging from rock and then disappearing into the labyrinth of pipes that underlie the lawns and streets of downtown Hot Springs. Visitor rest rooms have replaced the bowling alley that once amused Fordyce guests, and, of course, the tubs and showers upstairs no longer gush over welcoming joints, muscles and bones.

"But some of the spring water is redistributed back here," Blaeuer mentioned. "There's a little spigot down here. I made my coffee with it this morning."


E-mail Robert Cross: bcross@tribune.com

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