Hot Springs Arkansas is a popular tourist destination for visitors looking to hike, camp, shop and enjoy natural spring waters. Across the street from its natural hot springs, national park and bathhouses, however, linger remnants of the town’s sordid past.
The town of 35,000 is nestled in the Ouachita Mountains. Central Avenue divides the historical downtown in two. On the east side lies Bathhouse Row, a National Historic Landmark where eight bathhouses built between 1911 and 1923 still remain, and the Hot Springs National Park. Both emphasis a healthy lifestyle achieved by excising in the great outdoors then soaking the aches and pains of the day away in natural mineral water. The west side of the street is lined with bars, restaurants and stores housed in old brothels and gambling halls, which flourished during the mobster days until a federal crackdown put all illegal activity to rest in the 1960s.
The 5,500-acre Hot Springs National Park is best known for the 47 hot springs that come out of Hot Springs Mountain. The land was set aside as a reservation in 1832 to protect the hot springs. The spring water comes out at 143 degrees killing any harmful bacteria, making it perfect for drinking and bathing. It was officially made into a national park in 1921. The park includes 26 miles of hiking trails, mountain biking (three out of top ten national biking paths) and the eight historic bathhouses that make up Bathhouse Row. The year-round mild weather makes strolling along the Magnolia tree-lined Bathhouse Row or the Grand Promenade, the half-mile brick walking path built in the 1930s that separates the park from the bathhouses, pleasant anytime of year. The park includes camping grounds, picnicking areas and miles of wildflowers, rock formations and beautiful forest scenery for those who want to explore nature.
The eight remaining bathhouses are the largest collection of twentieth century bathhouses in the United States. The buildings are the final stage of an evolution of bathhouses. The earliest facilities were nothing more than makeshift shelters built directly over individual springs in the 1830s. More elaborate Victorian wooden bathhouses began popping up in late 1800s, but eventually gave way to devastating fires. The present buildings were built during the Golden Age of Bathing starting in 1911.
Two of the original eight bathhouses, the Quapaw and the Buckstaff, still operate as bathhouses where visitors can receive the same treatments that visitors a hundred years ago received. The historic three-story Fordyce Bathhouse built in 1915 houses the national park’s visitors center and history museum where guest can tour the beauty and romance of an historic bathhouse. At the north end of Bathhouse Row sits the Superior Bathhouse, a 1916 bathhouse that was recently converted into a microbrewery. It brews the world’s only beer made with Thermal Spring Water and is the only brewery that sits on national park land.
Cross over the west side of Central Avenue to the brick and art deco buildings that were once the playground of New York and Chicago mobsters. From the 1920s to the 1940s Hot Springs was the place where mobsters from up north came to enjoy not only the hot springs, but also bootlegging, luxury hotels, gambling and prostitution. The Ohio Club, a speakeasy built in 1905, pays homage to its legendary regular with an Al Capone statue sitting on a park bench outside the club. The bar was also an old stomping ground for Bugsy Segel, Bugs Moran and Lucky Luciano. It now hosts live music every night of the week including the legendary Wednesday Live Blues Night. A few blocks south of the club is Maxines, a legendary brothel named after its madam and known for having the town’s “best girls”, now serves a huge selection of whiskey and craft beer on tap. The Gangstar Museum, also on Central Avenue, highlights the city’s notorious past with vintage slot machines, old roulette tables, a Capone exhibit and gangster weapons. The Arlington Hotel, which caps Central Avenue on the north end of the street, is the town’s legendary, grand hotel. Opened in 1925 with 560 rooms, it is the largest hotel in Arkansas and a favorite of Al Capone. Capone regularly rented the fourth floor for himself and his associates. His favorite room, Room 442, is available to rent complete with a perfect view, or lookout, of Central Avenue and an escape door through the closet.