By Caleb Talley
Few Arkansas cities enjoy the sort of history that abounds in nearly every direction in Eureka Springs. “Eccentric” may be a fitting description for this folk Victorian community, and it’s an adjective that the locals might even welcome. To understand, one needs only to step downtown … and back in time. Because to understand Eureka Springs today, it’s necessary to understand the town’s past.
Situated between the Salem and Springfield plateaus of the Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs and its legendary healing waters have enticed – sometimes beguiled – visitors for centuries. Though there’s little historical evidence to support it, local lore tells of a time when Native American tribes revered the region’s springs for their supposed healing properties.
The legend of the great healing springs of Eureka really took hold when Dr. Alvah Jackson was said to have discovered them, claiming they had healed his eye ailments in the mid-1850s. During the Civil War, Jackson established a “cave hospital” in the region where he treated wounded soldiers with spring water and other natural remedies, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
The town was incorporated in 1880, and rapid growth ensued as people traveled far and wide to experience the healing springs. And though the city’s population never officially climbed over 4,000, countless travelers made their way to Eureka Springs to visit what had become a high-end haven for ailing travelers of means. The city’s status as a popular medical tourism destination led to the formation of the Eureka Springs Improvement Company, an organization devoted to promoting tourism opportunities.
The Eureka Springs Improvement Company constructed the Crescent Hotel, now the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, as well as the Hancock House and Perry House, both of which were lost to fires. A railroad line, completed in 1883, brought many more visitors to Eureka Springs. The turn of the century saw the construction of the Basin Park Hotel, which is still recognized for its unique architecture.
As the legend of Eureka Springs’ curative water began to fade, so too did tourism. After having served for a time as a college, the Crescent was purchased and converted into a cancer hospital, renamed the Baker Hospital after its new owner, Norman Baker. Baker’s proprietorship of the legendary property turned a promising economic opportunity for Eureka Springs into a dark period in its history. Norman was a fraud with no medical training; he was no more capable of healing the sick than the town’s spring water.
While its position as a medical tourism hotspot evaporated, Eureka Springs became a refuge for both artists and evangelicals by the mid-20th century. Muralist Louis Freund made Eureka Springs home and founded an art school. A number of his students stayed in the community and opened art galleries. Religious leader Gerald Smith moved to Eureka Springs in the 1960s and embarked on his Sacred Projects, which included the Christ of the Ozarks statue and the New Holy Land, site of The Great Passion Play.
There are few communities where the past has as much consequence on the present as it does in Eureka Springs, even when just scratching the surface. That’s because few communities preserve their history as well as Eureka Springs has.
Once you’ve made your way downtown – past the signs for boat rentals, horseback riding and zip lines – you’ll find you’ve gone back in time.
Late 19th century to early 20th century buildings, ranging from multistory brick-and-limestone landmarks to wood-trimmed cottages, cling to hillsides along winding, narrow roads. Shops filled with unique goods, specialty stores and restaurants, both quaint and upscale, bring new life to these old structures that have stood, in some cases, for nearly a century. The entire downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s easy to see why.
For a town of its size (only some 2,000 residents), Eureka Springs has no shortage of places to stay when visiting. The edge of town is covered in cabins, treehouses and similar rustic accommodations. Around Eureka Springs’ “historic loop,” a residential neighborhood lined with Victorian homes, you’ll find a number of beautiful bed and breakfasts.
But to experience Eureka Springs as travelers have for over a century, a historic hotel is the way to go. And Eureka Springs has a few from which to choose.
The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, restored to its original grandeur, offers as much fascinating history as it does luxury accommodations atop the crest of West Mountain. And the Crescent doesn’t run from its history, much of which is dark. It leans into it, even offering ghost tours through “America’s most haunted hotel.”
A stay at the Crescent puts visitors in direct proximity to the magnificent Victorian homes of historic loop, which makes for a great Sunday afternoon drive. The hotel offers gorgeous balcony rooms, parlor and jacuzzi suites, a penthouse and even a governor’s suite. It’s New Moon Spa & Salon create rejuvenating experiences for guests. Cottages are also available on the property.
For those looking to stay nearest the action, the historic 1905 Basin Park Hotel sits right in the heart of downtown Eureka Springs near the spring where it all began. While not as luxurious as the Crescent, the Basin Park Hotel is still rich in history and rife with life.
The hotel features a unique balcony restaurant with live music and the best views of downtown. The top floor of the hotel, at the historic Barefoot Ballroom, is Lucky 7 Billiards & Bar, where guests can have a drink, play some pool and watch a game on television.
The New Orleans Hotel puts guests right in the middle of the downtown action, just a few steps away from some of the best shopping and dining in Eureka Springs. This well-preserved 19th-century inn, filled with period antiques, is like a time machine, sending visitors back to the 1890s. And its Le Stick Nouveau restaurant is a hallmark of Eureka Springs fine dining.
And when it comes to dining, Eureka Springs shines.
Grab a bite and some conversation inside Nibbles Eatery, downtown on Spring Street. A favorite among the locals, this tiny restaurant consists of seven tables (six of which are two-tops) that are squeezed in close together. Expect to chat with your neighbor while dining on gourmet salads, sandwiches and other light and delicious meals.
The quaint and eclectic Local Flavor Café, on Main Street, offers diners a number of fresh and creative dishes for lunch and dinner. Stop by for Sunday brunch, sit on the patio and enjoy specials like lump crab eggs Benedict and sesame-encrusted goat cheese. Don’t forget a blood orange mimosa.
The Stone House, on the southernmost end of Main Street, is the perfect place to conclude a day of exploring downtown Eureka Springs. You won’t find hearty meals here, but you will find an incredible wine and beer selection, along with some of the finest meat and cheese plates the region has to offer.
Stop by Aquarius Taqueria, next door, for a delicious Mexican street food-inspired meal. Their handmade tortillas and 100 percent Blue Agave tequila make for incredible tacos and margaritas.
For dinner, visitors to downtown Eureka Springs may find it difficult deciding just where to go. For Italian, there’s no place better than DeVito’s, a time-honored haunt that boasts the best rooftop dining in Arkansas. Kathrine’s Café Amore is home to the region’s best gourmet pizza.
The Grotto Wood Fired Grill & Wine Cave may be the best place for a romantic dinner in Eureka Springs. The Arkansas Food Hall of Famer, on downtown’s Center Street, is a real escape from the ordinary restaurant scene. The Grotto’s inspired menu, featuring smoked duck, filet mignon and cedar plank salmon, won’t disappoint, and its list of wine offerings is long. The restaurant also offers diners a unique sensory experience that only a real cave can lend.
The evangelicals who made Eureka Springs home in the mid-20th century left their mark atop Magnetic Mountain with the Christ of the Ozarks statue. At 65.5 feet, the statue is the largest in Arkansas and the 12th largest in the United States.
Visitors to Eureka Springs can step even further back in time after visiting the Christ statue by exploring The Holy Land, a Christian theme park that allows one to “experience” the Bible. Visitors can walk through life-sized replicas of the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem and into a marketplace. The nearby amphitheater is the setting of The Great Passion Play, which portrays Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The play features 170 actors and dozens of animals.
The artists who’ve made Eureka Springs home for decades have shaped the town into a creative haven for the like-minded. Art galleries dot the landscape, and outdoor installations like the “yarn-bombed” trees and imaginative statues pop up throughout the town.
This month, Eureka Springs’ more than 350 working artists will welcome their peers to take part in the May Festival of the Arts. The month-long event is loaded with activities to show off their one-of-a-kind exhibits, demonstrations, performances and more. For a full list of festivities, visit EurekaSpringsFestivaloftheArts.org.
No trip to Eureka Springs is complete without a visit to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. For decades, the folks at Turpentine Creek have dedicated their time and effort to saving countless big cats, such as lions, tigers, leopards and cougars. Visitors can see these majestic creatures as they enjoy a new life away from the exotic animal trade on a nearly 500-acre ranch. Guided tours, educational programs and even overnight safari-style stays are offered.
Before leaving Eureka Springs, visitors would be remiss to bypass Thorncrown Chapel. This magnificent blend of glass, wood and stone, designed by renowned Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones in 1980, is one of the country’s most outstanding architectural achievements. Rising 48 feet into the sky, this structure contains 425 windows and more than 6,000 square feet of glass.