Photograph by Richard Rasmussen/Getty Images. From National Geographic.com.
Hot Springs, a small city located in the Zigzag mountains—a range within the larger Ouachita Mountains—is home to numerous hot springs that emerge on the west side of Hot Springs mountain. Rain soaks through the ground cover, continuing downward through chert and novaculite, dissolving minerals as it goes and becoming increasingly hot as it sinks deeper into the earth. Geologists say the water’s journey lasts about 4,000 years before it emerges steaming hot through cracks about 6,000-8,000 feet below the earth’s surface near the city’s downtown.
Long believed to contain healing properties, these same springs gave rise to the famous Bathhouse Row, the city’s main strip boasting numerous historic bathhouses lining the street. Created during the early 1900s when spring waters were popular throughout the United States (including in Yell County at the former resort of Sulphur Springs), many of these former bathhouses are now gift shops, information centers, or have been turned into modern businesses, such as the recently reopened Superior Bathhouse and Brewery where they make their own gelato and root beer. Only the Buckstaff Baths have remained continuously in operation.
According to historians, once the land was acquired by white settlers during the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, there have been two different opinions regarding how to access and develop the property and the healing waters. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture author Sharon Shugart of the Hot Springs National Park explains it this way: “Over the next twenty-nine years, a few local settlers worked to turn the springs into a privately owned health resort, while others petitioned the federal government to make them accessible for everyone. The later group prevailed. On April 20, 1832, the United States Congress set aside the area know as the Hot Springs National Park to preserve the springs for public use.”
The full story is one of great complexity, which includes instances of local developers pushing the boundaries of the national park agreement, a series of local battles in the claims court, and a rather fluid approach to selling off lots deemed “excess lands,” all events leading to the creation of many of the privately-owned large bathhouses we know today. It was during the course of these developments that the land behind Bathhouse Row became a state park, a unique blending of city development and wildlife preservation.
Today the park is home to 5,550 acres of public trails accessible in the middle of a bustling tourist town. The park is home to three rare plant species including a blue green alga that only grows when hot springs water in exposed to light and air; a local chinquapin tree variety, and, as Shugart writes, “a 150-acre stand of shortleaf pine believed to be virgin timber.”
You can read all about the fight for the accessibility and preservation of the hot springs online at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. You can visit me online at the Boileddownjuice.com to learn more about how the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action has been researching our local version of healing waters: the historic Sulphur Springs in Yell County. I’d love to hear your stories! Thanks so much for reading!
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.