Hot Springs: A town built on health, baseball and gangsters
By: Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
HOT SPRINGS, ARKANSAS – This year marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service. And when National Parks come to mind, the first ones that people automatically come up with are Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Everglades, to name a few.
This past April, I decided to embark upon a press tour that took me to the city where many park rangers adamantly boast that it is the location of America’s very first national park: Hot Springs, Arkansas, which is nestled in the Ouachita Mountain Range, and is located 55 miles west of the state capitol of Little Rock. Although it was the 18th site to be officially designated as a national park back in 1922, the U.S. government took control to protect Hot Springs and its most famous resource back in 1832.
And what was that famous resource? The naturally treated, thermally heated water (which is heated to a maximum of 143 degrees Fahrenheit), and an average of 700,000 gallons are collected from the mountain springs on a daily basis.
On my first full day there, park ranger Miguel Marquez gave us a detailed background to Hot Springs’ main claim to fame, first from the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, and then along a half-mile hike down the mountain to “Bathhouse Row” along Central Avenue. Ranger Marquez told us that the attraction of Hot Springs’ famous mineral water was that back in the 1880s, at a time when medical science was primitive at best, the waters had tremendous health and therapeutic values, which was exemplified by Civil War veteran officers Samuel Fordyce (who was suffering from gout, Malaria and bone fragments in his spine) and John H. Logan (who had a series of debilitating illnesses), who claimed that by bathing in and regularly drinking the Hot Springs waters completely cured them of their ailments. From there, people from all over the U.S. – rich or poor – flocked to Hot Springs to try out this new mineral water elixir to cure them from every known physical and mental illness at the time.
By 1915, Hot Springs’ reputation as “America’s First Resort” was cemented as the first of its eight opulent bathhouses – the Fordyce – was opened to cater to those who wanted the ultimate Hot Springs spa cure. These days, only two of the eight ‘Bathhouse Row” spas – the Quapaw and the Buckstaff – are still fully functional spas, and it’s the goal of the Hot Springs National Park to make sure that all eight of them are to be opened once again and used in different capacities. These days, the Lamar is used as a Hot Springs/National Parks souvenir and gift boutique, the Superior is now a craft brewery (and the only one in North America to brew their own beer using its famous hot mineral spring water) and restaurant, and the Fordyce is used as National Park Service information centre and museum.
One interesting note about the Fordyce is that it magnificently recaptures the golden age of Bathhouse Row and the luxurious architecture that made each of the bathhouses an ideal destination for those who wanted to seek that era’s version of alternative medicine. When you look at the preserved artefacts and spa facilities that date back to the 1910s and 20s, the first impression is that they are quite draconian in nature compared to what one would expect at a spa these days, and wondered if there was some modicum of pain before they gained their respective cures. And check out the third floor of the Fordyce, which was the location of the spa’s fully equipped gymnasium – complete with Indian clubs, medicine balls, parallel bars and climbing ropes, where such legendary athletes like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey got fit and trim before the baseball season began or the next big fight.
As well, Ranger Marquez pointed out that Hot Springs is the only park in the U.S. National Park service that allows its visitors to take the park’s main resources with them. This can be done by sampling the hot spring water at designated fountains along Bathhouse Row, or at one of the nine jug filling stations that are located throughout the downtown core. It’s not an uncommon site to see residents and visitors going to these stations regularly with a number of plastic jugs, or specially shaped bottles called “crawlers”, as they fill them with their supply of that healthy Hot Springs water, which is available hot or cold.
“We’re just giving the water away like crazy,” said Ranger Marquez.
As well, before Florida and Arizona, Hot Springs became the main site of several Major League Baseball, minor league and Negro League teams for their spring training facilities from the mid-1880s to the mid-1950s. After visiting Cooperstown and Kansas City, diehard baseball fans should include Hot Springs as part of their baseball travels. And Hot Springs’ legacy to the history of the sport is well commemorated with the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail (www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com).
The trail is a series of 26 metal plaques that are dotted across the Hot Springs area, and give detailed background stories to the significance at each site regarding some of the unusual stories of pro baseball history, and how Hot Springs became the place where spring baseball was born, from Whittington Park, where Babe Ruth hit his longest home run; to the Hot Springs Baseball Grounds, where the concept of spring training was born; to Happy Hollow, where many players hiked as part of their spring training regimen. Before you visit the trail, which you can follow on a Hot Springs Baseball Tour mobile app, I recommend viewing the excellent documentary “The First Boys of Spring”, an hour-long film that chronicles Hot Springs’ baseball heritage as seen through many of the sites that are part of the trail. Narrated by actor Billy Bob Thornton, “The First Boys of Spring” first aired on the MLB Network, and the DVD version is on sale at the Lamar Bathhouse souvenir boutique for $19.95.
Another of Hot Springs’ claim to fame is its notoriety as a gangster haven. From the 1920s to the 1960s, many of America’s most infamous gangsters, such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Cotton Club owner Owney Madden, because it was regarded as a neutral territory, made Hot Springs their safe haven, and its many night clubs along Central Avenue, such as the Southern Club and the Ohio Club (which is still in operation), were hotbeds for illegal gambling and spectacular shows by some of the biggest names in entertainment (in fact, it was at the Vapors Club in Hot Springs where Tony Bennett first sang his trademark tune “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), and had the reputation of being “America’s Playground” before Las Vegas inherited that title.
There are two attractions where you can revisit Hot Springs’ underworld legacy. The first is the Gangster Museum of America (www.tgmoa.com). Take the excellent guided tour, where you get the complete story of how Hot Springs became a virtual American crime capitol, where different exhibit spaces effectively tell the story, from the illegal gambling clubs, to Al Capone, to such 1930s outlaws as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Alvin Karpis. Each room is like a crime time capsule, with realistic recreations of that aspect or period (my favorite is the one dealing with the gambling clubs, which includes authentic items from the clubs that closed down), along with a series of accompanying video presentations that are hosted by museum director Robert K. Raines (who also wrote an excellent illustrated history of that period called Hot Springs: From Capone to Costello).
The other is the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa (www.arlingtonhotel.com). Once you step inside this majestic 478-room hotel, which opened in 1875 and the current version was built in 1923, the décor automatically takes you back to the Prohibition Era, in the place where the mobsters stayed when they came to play in Hot Springs. Perhaps the most famous room in the hotel is suite 443, better known as the “Al Capone Suite”. This luxury suite is still preserved in all of its 1920s glory when Capone made it his second home. When myself and the other journalists who were part of this press tour visited the suite, we couldn’t help but to try and find the trap door in one of the closets, where Capone allegedly made his exit from the hotel in order to elude any police or law enforcement officers who might have been tailing him. And when you’re at the hotel’s bar, get into the speakeasy spirit by sampling their specially made banana split and pineapple upside down martinis.
Finally, a word about the food. Wonder how you can have the ultimate breakfast, lunch and dinner in Hot Springs? First try the Pancake Shop (www.pancakeshop.com), which has been a Hot Springs breakfast tradition since 1940. And when you try a stack of their famous pancakes – which are bigger than the plates they are served on – try this helpful piece of pancake advice: cut a hole in the middle of the stack; that way, the maple syrup won’t flow onto the table when you pour it down the middle. For lunch, go to Deluca’s Pizzeria (www.delucaspizzeria.com), run by Brooklyn native Anthony Valinoti and offers a large menu of delicious handmade gourmet pizzas. In fact, it’s like a slice of New York City in the middle of Arkansas. And for dinner, go to
McClard’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant (www.mcclards.com), which opened in 1928 and is still owned by the McClard family (in fact, the fourth generation is currently operating it). This restaurant serves an average of 7,000 pounds of its famous hickory smoked beef, pork and ribs every week (I recommend the ribs, with a generous helping of beans, cole slaw and fries for sides). One of the McClards told us that before he switched to healthy eating, former U.S. President Bill Clinton was a regular customer at McClard’s, and whenever he visited the restaurant, knew every employee by name.
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For more information about visiting Hot Springs and Hot Springs National Park, and what it has to offer tourists, visit their respective websites at www.hotsprings.org and www.nps.gov/hosp.