The Valley of the Vapors, mobster paradise, spa city, and today, an Arkansas treasure that keeps producing: Hot Springs. This long revered travel destination is known to Arkansans as a fun and relaxing day trip or weekend getaway, but its springs run deep in rich and colorful history dating back maybe thousands of years.
The story goes that Native American tribes used the area of Hot Springs as a neutral territory for opposing tribes to peacefully dip into the healing waters and acquire novaculite for making tools and weapons.
By the mid-1500s French and Spanish explorers had taken over the land with Hernando de Soto — an infamous Spanish conquistador — being the first European in Hot Springs in 1541.
Fast forward about 300 years, and the territory was met with the Dunbar-Hunter Expedition in 1804 to explore southern regions of the Louisiana Purchase. A town grew around the springs as stories of their magical healing powers spread across the young nation. The area became known as the “American Spa.”
Many people may not know that Hot Springs indirectly became America’s first National Park after President Andrew Jackson declared the area as a federal reservation in 1832, years before Yellowstone’s establishment in 1872 when “National Parks” became the official title.
Bathhouse Row currently features eight bathhouses built between the late 1800s to early 1900s following the declaration of Hot Springs as a federal reservation. The government took over four pieces of land to preserve 47 hot springs as the water did not have the pungent odor of sulfur that most thermal springs possess. The buildings were constructed in neoclassical, renaissance-revival, Spanish and Italianate styles and named Buckstaff, Fordyce, Hale, Lamar, Maurice, Ozark, Quapaw and Superior. While only one bathhouse is still functioning as it was originally intended (Buckstaff), the others still serve the community in some capacity.
A lasting moment in Hot Springs history that continued for decades involving organized crime, violence and under the table deals with authority, the gangster era supplies endless legends and stories of the darker history of Hot Springs. From the late 1800s to the 1960s, Hot Springs was a hot spot for organized crime and major names in the gangster world — Al Capone, Bugs Moran and Frank Costello to name only a few of the infamously powerful men that would roll through Hot Springs looking for some fun. Decades of illegal gambling in dark hotel rooms, behind closed doors and in alleys where eyes couldn’t reach, habits learned in big cities were brought to this bustling little town. Owney “The Killer” Madden, or as some know him “The English Godfather,” ventured out to Hot Springs in the 1930s for a more relaxed way of life compared to New York City. His reputation and character helped establish a new set-up in Hot Springs that was down-low and hush-hush from federal authorities. Once word got around that Madden had found a quiet place to gamble where authorities turned a blind eye, more and more gangsters arrived.
The “quiet” gambling ring in Hot Springs didn’t remain a hideout for too long. By the 1960s, federal authorities got wind of Hot Springs and began clearing out what the government considered to be “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.” Unlike the police officers, judges and elected officials in Hot Springs that looked the other way, accepted payments or also took advantage of the gambling, prostitution and bootlegging, federal authorities didn’t see the appeal.
Around that same time (but much more legal), Hot Springs had become the place for baseball spring training. A homerun for sore and exhausted major-league players, Hot Springs offered thermal mineral waters and a growing nightlife to relieve the pains of the game. Albert Goodwill (A.G.) Spalding and Cap Anson brought the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs and White Sox) to Hot Springs in 1886. From there, the area became the annual location for spring training with five fields for players and teams to use before taking advantage of the luxuries the town had to offer in the evenings. The Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords and numerous other teams all flocked to Hot Springs for warm Southern weather to get their players in shape. Names like Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron are a few of the notable players who walked down Central Avenue.
Pat McCabe, a local business owner and mayor of Hot Springs, looks at the history of the town as one of the most unique and diverse in Arkansas. “If you can imagine in the early 1900s with the gangsters coming down from Chicago and New York, Kansas City and St. Louis, and all the noted baseball players of that same era, all mixing in along with all the movie stars and entertainers that would come to Hot Springs and entertain, it was a very vibrant place,” he says. “Hot Springs has a very colorful history, and we continue today with different varied activities. Downtown revitalization has been underway now for the last 12 years, and there’s always something different for visitors who return to Hot Springs that they haven’t seen before.”
For those intrigued by the roller-coaster history of Hot Springs, there are museums and trails to guide you right down memory lane. The Gangster Museum of America is located in downtown Hot Springs featuring old roulette tables, slot machines, weapons and exhibits on Madden and Capone. The Historic Hot Springs Baseball Trail brings modernity to history with available codes for visitors to scan and see photos, listen to audio and feel like baseball legends are walking the trail alongside them. While on the baseball path, be sure to make a stop at the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo to learn about the Babe Ruth home run ball that landed there — and say hello to the chompers, too, of course.
Kids can have a good time practically anywhere, and Hot Springs offers a unique hands-on learning experience that is captivating for all ages. “We have one of the top 10 children’s science museums in the country at Mid America Science Museum,” McCabe says. The Mid America Science Museum includes interactive exhibits for children to learn about motion, light, nature and anything and everything else under the sun. Scientots, Home School Days, Girls in Stem and Summer Camps 2021 are only a few events to look forward to in the coming weeks and months as days become warmer and kids become more restless cooped up at home. Neighboring the Ouachita National Forest, Mid America covers an expansive 21-wooded acres for endless learning opportunities as families explore the natural wonders Hot Springs has to offer in geological features, flora and fauna, and other mysteries of the natural world.
While appreciating the authentic beauty of Hot Springs outdoors, drive down to Garvan Woodland Gardens for an unforgettable experience that’s good for any visit or for a specific and special one. “Garvan Woodland Gardens and Anthony Chapel provide a great venue for wedding ceremonies and other events,” McCabe says. Garvan includes too many show-stopping sights to count along with the gorgeous Anthony Chapel, the Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House, and the Garvan Pavilion to name just a few of the distinctive architectural constructions nestled in the grounds.
To fully understand the vast natural scenery of Hot Springs, you might want a bird’s eye view. If the thrilling, looping Gauntlet or the “x-treme” X-Coaster at Magic Springs isn’t your first choice for getting that aerial view, the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, 216 feet above the ground, is the place to go for the idyllic panoramic view of the geographically diverse area. “The National Park has been here before national parks were officially designated as such because we have an abundance of lakes, mountains and rivers,” McCabe says. “There’s a whole host of activities to participate in. We have some of the finest mountain biking in the world right here in Hot Springs.”
The Northwoods Trail System can attest to how massive the mountain biking community in Hot Springs really is, especially in recent years.
“Arkansas’ Diamond Lake Region is no stranger to mountain bike tourism. We have three IMBA Epic trails within a 30-minutes to an hour drive from Hot Springs, as well as Iron Mountain trails that are a short, 45-minute drive. The addition of almost 30 miles of trails in the Northwoods Trail System, which is just a short, five-minute drive or 10-minute ride from downtown Hot Springs, has mountain bikers not just driving through, but instead making Hot Springs their ‘base camp’ for their riding adventures,” says Traci Berry, the Northwoods Trails coordinator. Pro or beginner, there’s a trail for any level of difficulty. A laid-back ride through cross-country, rugged terrain or jump lines, bring the bikes. “We have green trails that are beginner-friendly, blue trails for those intermediate riders and black trails for the most advanced riders that love a tight technical cross country ride or catching air hitting big jump features like table tops, step-ups and downs, or even gap jumps. We have riders coming from all over the country to experience our trails and our unique town. They get the feel of being on a remote trail with all of the added amenities that our city has to offer.”
Local riders in the surrounding areas of Garland County have the opportunity to lock into the ever-expanding biking community. “Not only have we seen the impact by way of tourism, we are also seeing the impact in those that live and work here. Our local mountain bike community is growing with more women and children taking up the activity. We also now have a local trail advocacy organization, TACO (Trail Advocacy Coalition of the Ouachitas),” Berry says. “The Northwoods Trail System includes trails not only in the city of Hot Springs but also Cedar Glades Park in Garland County as well as just over a half-mile of trail across Hot Springs National Park property.”
After exploring so many extraordinary sites, hunger comes without question. Luckily, Hot Springs offers some of the best cuisines in Arkansas (and maybe even the entire South) if you go to DeLuca’s Pizzeria. With large brick oven pizzas, homemade pasta, meatballs, vegan and vegetarian options, and the best cheeseburger in Arkansas, DeLuca’s has something for everyone. For dessert, walk down the street to Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe for cupcakes that have made a name nationally through Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. Grab a cupcake or twelve, a cup of iced coffee and watch the Central Avenue traffic as your sweet-tooth is sated.
While you’re on the strip, you can’t leave without strolling down to Lauray’s the Diamond Center. An actual gem in Hot Springs, Lauray’s has been selling high-quality diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, pearls and other treasures since 1924. Fully intertwined with the colorful history of Hot Springs, Lauray’s reflects the entrancing beauty of the town in each intricate jewelry design showcased. Creating relationships as solid as a diamond, Lauray’s has been praised by customers for the staff’s friendliness and expertise that can be accredited to 90 years cushioned on Bathhouse Row.
Another century-old business in Hot Springs is the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. Transitioning from illegal gambling to legal fun was made easy with the evolution of Oaklawn — from a Jockey Club in 1904 to the all-encompassing resort it is today. What began as an off-spin venture for John Condon and Dan Stuart, owners of Southern Club and Turf Exchange — a gentleman’s “resort” and nightlife hub in Hot Springs — led to a prestigious platform for countless title-winning horses. Triple Crown winner American Pharoh gained popularity at Oaklawn, along with champions Temperence Hill, Curlin, Cigar, Smarty Jones, Lookin At Lucky and countless more hooves.
Today, Oaklawn offers services for those just looking to get away and experience the finer things of Las Vegas right here in Arkansas. “Early 2020, Oaklawn opened 28,000 square feet of expanded casino floor space, including a new High Limits area with balcony lounge. We opened a new fine dining restaurant — The Bugler — in late December 2020 and a new lounge — The First Turn — in January 2021. The luxury hotel, spa and event center are scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2021,” says Jennifer Hoyt, media relations manager for Oaklawn. “These additions to Oaklawn’s footprint continue to enhance its premier thoroughbred racing program in the country.”
Also offering luxury while at the same time restoring historical beauty and purpose, Mayor McCabe and his wife, Ellen, own Hotel Hale, a structure that was once an original bathhouse on Bathhouse Row. “Our building is the oldest structure on Bathhouse Row, built in 1892,” Ellen says. As with anything in Hot Springs, there’s always something unique that dives back to Hot Springs’ history. Eden, the eccentric restaurant tucked inside the hotel, features a few surprises for guests. “There’s a steam cave in [Eden] behind a big steel door. It isn’t glamorous or anything; it’s very crude, but we left it there to show people what life looked like back in the day. It looks like a cave with water dripping and steam coming up. They would dig into the mountains over a hot spring, and it’d be a naturally occurring steam cave. They would go in there and take their sauna. Back in the day, that was medicine for them.” A live wall covered in tropical plants with an irrigation system and a vast skylight complements the steam cave in natural wonders.
The hotel itself is like walking back in time from approaching the bathhouse to entering.
“One of the interesting things in the front area is our historic footprint,” Ellen says. Not making major changes to the construction of the building or layout, the McCabes made minimal adjustments in order to maintain the authentic vision the architects of the building had in mind over a century ago. With seven rooms and two suites, each with a soaking tub that draws thermal water straight from the springs, luxury is not a question. “If you book a room here, you’re going to take as many hot soaks as you want.” High-arched windows in the front allow guests to look out on the busy and picturesque Central Avenue where local shops and eateries continue to keep visitors coming into town.
“The last three to five years, entrepreneurs with different concepts for businesses have ventured to Hot Springs, and they’re really making it work here,” Mayor McCabe says. “You might walk past a number of storefronts that appear to be competing in the same area, but when you walk past, no two storefronts look the same.” Bathhouse Soapery, Hot Springs Hat Company, boutiques — you name it, Hot Springs has it. “We’ve been really fortunate with attracting entrepreneurs with different mindsets.”
With more than 1.5 million visitors each year, it’s no wonder how Hot Springs has stayed on the map since Native Americans found peace and magic in its waters. Business owners, locals and frequent visitors only see progression in Hot Springs’ future as prosperity continues to flow from the ground.
“Come out to Hot Springs in Garland County,” Pat says. “We’re here to serve and make your visit memorable, enjoyable and one that’ll make you want to return.”