In the early decades of the century, the wealthy and wild poured into this central Arkansas town, joining the sick and the stiff for the warm, mineral-rich, bacteria-free waters said by local Indians to have curative powers.
Just as they did at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., visitors also came for the race tracks, gin mills, bordellos and opulent gambling casinos, where people could get soaked when they weren't actually soaking.
The town's rich and ribald history, especially the boom years from the turn of the century through the Roaring '20s, has the makings of a great potboiler of a novel, if not a movie. But beginning with the repeal of Prohibition, this once wide-open town began a long decline, speeded--say locals--by cortisone, Las Vegas and California-style hot tubs.
Now, in an effort to revive the town, the National Park Service, which owns the springs and a good part of downtown, wants to restore the old spas along Central Avenue's "Bath House Row" and cut into the foot of Hot Springs Mountain.
Town fathers and mothers, together with the National Park Service, are doing all they can think of to lure tourists off the beaten interstate (I-40, an hour away) to what they are calling the "Vacation Capital of Arkansas."
The Buckstaff, one of the eight bath houses, is offering "tingling surges of Hot Springs Thermal Water" and massages for about $10 each. The 27,000-square-foot, Classic Revival structure, in continuous operation since 1912, averages 30,000 baths a year these days, about 10% of the traffic in the boom years.
Less than half a mile away is the Leo N. Levi Arthritis Hospital, built in 1914 by the B'nai B'rith national service organization for indigent arthritis suffers of all faiths. It is still operating with the group's support, and is still treating stroke and chronic pain victims.
The first of the bath house row restorations--the elegant Fordyce--opened this weekend as a visitors center, following a two-year, $5-million face lift.
The structure, built by Col. Samuel W. Fordyce, a colorful railroad entrepreneur, is stuffed with original and restored furnishings, some donated by local residents. The National Park Service also is mounting photographic exhibits.
The three-story Fordyce, considered "the most architecturally significant" structure on the row by the National Park Service, was completed in 1915 and built on the site of a previous bath house called The Palace. The colonel purchased a Knabe grand piano for the grand parlor, and equipped the lounges with phonograph machines and billiard tables.
In addition to separate baths for men and women, the Spanish Renaissance Revival structure featured 22 private "staterooms," marble statuary, a gym, a library, music and assembly rooms, separate parlors, two bowling alleys and a roof garden.
When Barbara Bush visited Hot Springs during the presidential campaign, she rode down Central Avenue on the Mule Trolley. But the best way to get the feel of the town is on foot.
An energetic, hourlong walking tour of the historic district would begin with the Arlington Hotel, at one end.
The twin-towered structure, described in Cutter's Guide Book of 1882 as "the most elegant and complete hotel in America," was where Al Capone used to stay--in Room 442, facing the Southern Club, a gambling house, with his bodyguards and gang occupying the rest of the floor.
Other guests at the Arlington have included former presidents Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, H. L. Hunt and film producer Marvin Schenck. The hotel is open for guests and conventions, and mineral baths are available on the third floor. A hand-operated elevator, lined with beveled glass and polished brass, has been in use since it was installed in 1924.
From the Arlington, the next stop would be the Fordyce, then an inspection tour, if not a bath, at the Buckstaff. Period street lamps and new benches have been installed on Central Avenue, along with new landscaping.
And, in conjunction with the Fordyce opening, a group of locals called "Friends of the Fordyce" are beginning regular tours, dressed in period costumes. Horse-drawn carriages will soon be available.
After a tour, a short hike up Reserve Trail leads to the Promenade. This 18-foot-wide, tree-shaded brick walkway is cut into the side of Hot Springs Mountain, parallel to Central Avenue, behind and above bath house row.
Along the half-mile route--which is about eye level with some of the ornate, bath house domes--are benches and a permanent checkerboard. The promenade ends just above the Arlington Hotel.
A good guide for such a circuit is "The American Spa" (Rose Publishing Co., Little Rock), an illustrated, anecdotal history by Dee Brown, author of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Brown writes of one shootout between rival gambling bosses, a Canadian named Frank Flynn and Maj. S. A. Doran, a Confederate veteran from Texas, in the 1880s:
"The showdown on Central Avenue was a precursive model for the bootlegger battles on the streets of Chicago 40 years later.
"On visits to Hot Springs in the 1920s, Chicago's most famous son, Al Capone, may have heard about the Flynn-Doran battle. In 1884, however, instead of an automobile, the vehicle was a horse-drawn cab, and instead of Tommy-guns, the weapons were Western-style six-shooters.
Bath House Ambush
"On one of those infrequent but gloomy drizzly mornings that come to Hot Springs in mid-winter, Frank Flynn and his two brothers, Jack and Billy, were riding a cab near the south end of Bath House Row. Seven or eight of Doran's gunmen were posted nearby along the plank sidewalks or in doorways.
"Suddenly, shooting started, and in the first wild volley, Jack Flynn was mortally wounded and the cab driver was shot dead from his box into the street. When Frank and Billy Flynn leaped out to return fire, both were hit in a second round of bullets. Meanwhile, the frightened horses, dragging their reins, galloped away with the now empty vehicle."
Hot Springs' present is more prosaic, but much of the charm of a visit these days is the collection of folksy, funky roadside attractions--some seemingly out of a bygone era--sprinkled in and around the town of 35,000.
In addition to such predictable tourist draws as wax and auto museums and a music revue, there are less antiseptic draws tucked around town: dusty antique shops, a small aquarium, rock shops featuring locally dug crystals, old hardware stores, several miniature metropolises--known generically as "tiny towns"--and reptile ranches. The Mountain Valley Water Co., also on Central, offers a self-guided tour of its museum of hydrology.
Perhaps the best known of these attractions is the "I.Q. Zoo," now in a storefront across from bath house row. Here, to the delight of small children, a collection of "educated" animals strut their stuff: parrots play basketball, a chicken plays the piano, a duck plays the drums.
For those with more sophisticated tastes, tea is served daily at a number of restored Victorian homes in the downtown area. From January through April, there is thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Race Track.
Outside town, there are such pottery kilns tucked into rural glens as Foxpass Pottery, where visitors can watch the distinctive stoneware thrown by hand.
And on 21 acres, also on the outskirts of town, is perhaps the ultimate roadside attraction: the 50,000-square-foot Mid-America Museum, a publicly supported, state-of-the art, hands-on natural science and history facility, open seven days a week during the summer (closed Mondays until Memorial Day).
Visitors are urged to "pull, tug, spin, pump, twist as you play with the 'toys of science.' Your own pace. Your own discoveries."
No visit to Arkansas would be complete without mention of the razorback, a tusked wild boar that serves as the mascot of the University of Arkansas and all-around state totem.
One whole wall of the Mid-America Museum is devoted to the folklore of the fabled, tusked pig.
One small card recounts what happened when a razorback swallowed a stick of dynamite: " . . . killed my mule, wrecked my barn, broke every window out of one side of my house, and brother, I've got an awful sick hog."
Most major airlines fly from the Los Angeles area to Dallas, with regular connections from there via American, Delta or Southwest to Little Rock, an hour's drive from Hot Springs.
Accommodations in Hot Springs include the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, 239 Central Ave., at the end of Bathhouse Row (rates $48 to $72 per night; call toll-free (800) 643-1502), the Hot Springs Hilton, 305 Malvern Ave. ($70-$80; (501) 623-6600) and the Lake Hamilton Resort & Conference Centre, 3501 Albert Pike ($80-$145; (800) 426-3184).
Among the newest additions is the Williams House Bed & Breakfast, an 1890s Victorian home and carriage house at 420 Quapaw St. ($50-$75, (501) 624-4275).
For more information on accommodations in the area, call the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau toll-free (800) 543-BATH.
For general information on travel to Arkansas, contact the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, 1 Capitol Mall, Little Rock, Ark. 72201, (501) 682-1511.