Hot Springs, Arkansas, county seat of Garland County, is traditionally best known
for the natural
spring water that gives it its name, flowing out of the ground at
a temperature of 143 °F. Tourist trade brought by the famous springs make it a
very successful spa town.
The city takes its name from the natural thermal water that flows from 47 springs on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in the historic downtown district of the city. About a million gallons of 143-degree water flow from the springs each day. The rate of flow is not affected by fluctuations in the rainfall in the area. Studies by National Park Service scientists have determined through carbon dating that the water that reaches the surface in Hot Springs fell as rainfall in an as-yet undetermined watershed 4,000 years earlier. The water percolates very slowly down through the earth's surface until it reaches superheated areas deep in the crust and then rushes rapidly to the surface to emerge from the 47 hot springs.
A small channel of hot spring water known as Hot Springs Creek runs underground from an area near Park Avenue to Bath House Row.
Members of many Native American tribes had been gathering in the valley for untold numbers of years to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs.
In 1673, Father Marquette and Jolliet explored the area and claimed it for France. The Treaty of Paris 1763 ceded the land back to Spain; however, in 1800 control was returned to France until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
In December 1804, Dr. George Hunter and William Dunbar made an expedition to the springs, finding a lone log cabin and a few rudimentary shelters used by people visiting the springs for their healing properties. In 1807, a man named Prudhomme became the first settler of modern Hot Springs, and he was soon joined by John Perciful and Isaac Cates.
On August 24, 1818, the Quapaw Indians ceded the land around the hot springs to the United States in a treaty. After Arkansas became its own territory in 1819, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation. Twelve years later, in 1832, the Hot Springs Reservation was created by the US Congress, granting federal protection of the thermal waters. The Reservation was renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921.
Since Hot Springs National Park is the oldest (and smallest) of the parks in the National Park System, it was the first to receive its own US quarter in April 2010 as part of the America the Beautiful Quarters.
The outbreak of the Civil War left Hot Springs with a declining bathing population. After the Confederate forces suffered defeat in the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862, the Union troops advanced toward the Confederate city of Little Rock. Confederate Governor Henry M. Rector moved his staff and state records to Hot Springs. Union forces did not attack Little Rock, and the government returned to the capital city on July 14, 1862.
Many residents of Hot Springs fled to Texas or Louisiana and remained there until the end of the war. In September 1863, Union forces occupied Little Rock. During this period, Hot Springs became the prey of guerrilla bands loosely associated with either Union or Confederate forces. They pillaged and burned the near-deserted town, leaving only a few buildings standing at the end of the Civil War.
After the Civil War, an extensive rebuilding of bathhouses and hotels took place at Hot Springs. The year-round population soared to 1,200 inhabitants by 1870. By 1873 six bathhouses and 24 hotels and boardinghouses stood near the springs. In 1874, Joseph Reynolds announced his decision to construct a narrow gauge railroad from Malvern to Hot Springs; completion in 1875 resulted in the growth of visitation to the springs. Samuel W. Fordyce and two other entrepreneurs financed the construction of the first luxury hotel in the area, the first Arlington Hotel which opened in 1875.
During the Reconstruction period, several conflicting land claims reached the U.S. Congress and resulted in an April 24, 1876 United States Supreme Court ruling that the land title of Hot Springs belonged to the federal government. To deal with the situation, Congress formed the Hot Springs Commission to lay out streets in the town of Hot Springs, deal with land claims, define property lines, condemn buildings illegally on the permanent reservation (now the national park) and define a process for claimants to purchase land.
The commission surveyed and set aside 264.93 acres encompassing the hot springs and Hot Springs Mountain to be a permanent government reservation. Another 1,200 acres became the Hot Springs town site with 700 acres awarded to claimants.
The town site consisted of 196 blocks and 50 miles of streets and alleys. The remaining portion of the original four sections of government land consisted of hills and mountains which were mostly unoccupied, and Congress acted on the commission's recommendation in June 1880 by adding those lands to the permanent reservation.
During the early 20th century, Hot Springs was known for baseball training camps. Many of the Major League clubs brought their teams to Hot Springs to get the players in shape for the coming season. Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox made Hot Springs their home base. Baseball great Babe Ruth could be seen walking the streets, visiting the bath spas, and gambling at the nearby horse track.
On September 6, 1913, a fire broke out on Church Street a few blocks southeast of Bathhouse Row, near the Army and Navy Hospital. The fire burned southeast, away from the hospital, until the wind reversed an hour later. Racing toward the business section, the fire destroyed the Ozark Sanitarium, and the high school on its way across Malvern Avenue. Along the way it consumed the Public Utilities plant, which destroyed the firefighter's water supply. A wide front then was blown toward Ouachita Avenue which destroyed the Garland County Court House. The Hot Springs Fire Department fought alongside the Little Rock Fire Department, which had rushed over on a special train. Despite their efforts numerous homes, at least a hundred businesses, four hotels, the Iron Mountain Railroad facilities, and the Crystal Theater were destroyed. A rainstorm finally quenched the blaze at Hazel Street. Although Central Avenue was ultimately protected (primarily by desperate use of dynamite), much of the southern part of the city was destroyed. Damage was estimated at $10,000,000 across 60 blocks.
Illegal gambling became firmly established in Hot Springs during the decades following the Civil War, with two factions, the Flynns and the Dorans, fighting one another throughout the 1880s for control of the town. Frank Flynn, leader of the Flynn Faction, had effectively begun paying local law enforcement officers employed by both the Hot Springs Police Department and the Garland County Sheriff's Office to collect unpaid debts, as well as to intimidate gambling rivals. This contributed to the March 16th, 1899 Hot Springs Gunfight. Of the seven Hot Springs police officers that have been killed while in service of the department, three died during that gunfight with deputies of the Garland County Sheriff's Office. One part-time deputy sheriff was killed also, by the Hot Springs officers.
Along with its Bathhouse Row, one of downtown Hot Springs' most noted landmarks is the Arlington Hotel, a favored retreat for Al Capone.
Hot Springs eventually became a national gambling mecca, led by Owney Madden and his Hotel Arkansas casino. The period 1927-1947 was its wagering pinnacle, with no fewer than ten major casinos and numerous smaller houses running wide open, the largest such operation in the United States at the time. Hotels advertised the availability of prostitutes and off-track booking was available for virtually any horse race in North America.
Local law enforcement was controlled by a political machine run by long-serving mayor, Leo P. McLaughlin. The McLaughlin organization purchased hundreds of poll tax receipts, many in the names of deceased or fictitious persons, which would sometimes be voted in different precincts. A former sheriff, who attempted to have the state's anti-gambling laws enforced and to secure honest elections, was murdered in 1937. No one was ever charged with his killing.
Machine domination of city and county government was abruptly ended in 1946 with the election of a "Government Improvement" slate of returning World War II veterans led by Marine Lt. Col. Sid McMath, who was elected prosecuting attorney. A 1947 grand jury indicted several owners and promoters, as well as McLaughlin, for public servant bribery. Although the former mayor and most of the others were acquitted, the machine's power was broken and gambling came to a halt as McMath led a statewide "GI Revolt" into the governor's office in 1948. Illegal casino gambling resumed, however, with the election of Orval Faubus as governor in 1954. Buoyed into 12 years in office by his popular defiance of federal court desegregation orders, Faubus turned a blind eye to gambling in Hot Springs.
Gambling was finally closed down permanently in 1967 by two Republican officeholders, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller and Circuit Judge Henry M. Britt. Rockefeller sent in a company of state troopers to shutter the casinos and burn their gaming equipment. Until other forms of gambling became legal in Arkansas four decades later, Oaklawn Park, a thoroughbred horse racing track south of downtown, was the only legal gambling establishment in Hot Springs and one of only two in the state of Arkansas; the other was the Southland Greyhound Park dog track in West Memphis. Both Oaklawn and Southland remain in operation.
The military took over the enormous Eastman Hotel across the street from the Army and Navy Hospital in 1942 because the hospital was not nearly large enough to hold the sick and wounded coming in. In 1944, the Army began redeploying returning overseas soldiers; officials inspected hotels in 20 cities before selecting Hot Springs as a redistribution center for returning soldiers. In August 1944 the Army took over most of the hotels in Hot Springs. The soldiers from the west-central states received a 21-day furlough before reporting to the redistribution station. They spent 14 days updating their military records and obtaining physical and dental treatment. The soldiers had time to enjoy the baths at a reduced rate and other recreational activities. The redistribution center closed down in December 1945 after processing more than 32,000 members of the military. In 1946, after the war, the Eastman was demolished when the federal government no longer needed it.