Hot Springs National Park
Trip Start May 06, 2010
137Trip End Oct 14, 2010
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People have been visiting the hot springs that give the town and park their name for hundreds of years. When a railroad was built connecting Hot Springs to Little Rock the number of visitors soared. The Federal Government created a national reservation in 1832 to protect the hot springs. In 1877 they took a larger role in the operation of the bathhouses and major improvements were made to the facilities. It was made a National Park in 1921. Over time the boundaries have expanded to include several neighboring mountains although it is still the smallest National Park at 5,000 acres.
At the peak of their popularity in the early 1900's there were nearly two dozen bathhouses in town. The fanciest ones were built along what is known as "Bathhouse Row" along the main street. After World War II the popularity of the bathhouses started to decline due to changing lifestyles and advances in medical technology. One by one the bathhouses closed. Eight of these old buildings are now maintained by the National Park Service. One contains the Visitor Center, two still operate as bathhouses, one is an art museum and four are being restored. Also part of the park on the hill behind these buildings are a brick trail known as the Grand Promenade and other trails leading to the 216-foot Mountain Tower at the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
In the early 20th Century the bathhouses offered services that were state-of-the-art medicine at the time for diseases of the skin and blood, nervous afflictions, rheumatism, syphilis and "various diseases of women." These services included hot baths, steam baths, electro baths, massage, mercury rubs and gymnasiums. For the electro bath you got in the tub and they put electrodes in the water and passed a current through it. The mercury rub is just what it sounds like. They'd rub you with mercury. This was thought to be helpful for syphilis. The equipment in the gymnasium is mostly familiar although they also had Zander-Gymnastic equipment, which is kind of like an early version of Nautilus equipment.
The Visitor Center is in what was the Fordyce Bathhouse. The building has been restored and interpretive signs and displays added. I toured the building and walked along the Grand Promenade. I also followed a trail that goes by some of the tufa left by the hot springs. It's nothing like the tufa at Mono Lake and not particularly interesting. I tried to go to the Museum of Contemporary Art but it was closed for a private function. I drove up to Mountain Tower. I was surprised to find that it cost $7 to go up. The views I had seen from an overlook near the top of the mountain didn't look like it was going to be worth the price so I didn't go up.
While the prospect of sitting in hot water isn't particularly appealing when it's 90 degrees out, I'll probably go to one of the bathhouses tomorrow.