The Double Life Of Hot Springs

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The fifty-five-mile drive south and west from Little Rock on U.S. 70 leads into oak-and hickory-covered hills known as the Zig Zag Mountains. Road cuts reveal the great folds of sandstone and novaculite underlying this terrain, ancient seabeds, compacted and pushed upward in tightly arching swales, then eroded down to these steep ridges of the most resistant rock. It is pretty country, itself worth the trip, but the very source of this beauty made, in earlier times, the pilgrimage to Hot Springs difficult, especially for those, who, because of illness or injury, were most desperate to reach the place. What takes little more than an hour today was in the 1830s a two-day effort by stagecoach, and as late as the 1870s the road was frequented by highwaymen.

The city and national park at the end of this journey represent a peculiar mixture of impulses. The present-day city conveys a sense of both decline and development; its greatest attraction is a past glory that cannot be rekindled but only visited as a sort of historical curiosity, and at the same time there is evidence of a boosterism anticipating a tourism generated by lake developments and retirement condominiums. Contradictions are everywhere. Central Avenue, the street that passes Bathhouse Row, is flanked by an aristocratic hotel, the Arlington, replete with brass fittings and Moorish archways, and at the opposite end, something called the IQ Zoo, which entices the passer-by with the opportunity to play tick-tack-toe with a chicken. On the same side of the street, Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum looks across at elegantly fronted bathhouses that belong on the set of some Mediterranean film. At the fringes of the bathing district can be seen the trappings common to resorts from the Wisconsin north woods to Southern beach towns: the required fudge shop, a palm reader, tour buses, and stores dedicated to kitsch.

In January 1878 Harper’s Monthly ran an article called “The Hot Springs of Arkansas,” by A. Van Cleef. Well written and straightforward, it describes the town and region, discusses the history and geology, tells how to get to the place, and does, in short, all the things I should do in this article—and did it 112 years before I even got started. And much of what Van Cleef told his readers remains pertinent today. The surrounding hills are still beautiful and pine-covered, Hot Springs Mountain affords a magnificent view, “stores of all kinds” are, now as then, “abundant,” and the bathing process continues much the same as when Van Cleef took the waters. Despite the fact that the buildings on which Van Cleef remarked have long since been lost to fire and progress, their replacements serve the same purposes: water therapy, lodging for visitors, amusements for people with time on their hands.

The bathhouses that line the Row strain after a splendor suitable for the most cosmopolitan of guests.
 

But the most poignant testimony to continuity as well as to change has to do with what the springs represent and why they still attract travelers. Van Cleef suggested that it was Arkansas, in fact, that Ponce de Leon was seeking in 1521 when he settled for Florida, that the hot springs were the “waters of life,” the reality that became fabled as the Fountain of Youth. The possibility that Hernando de Soto saw the springs in 1542 continues to be celebrated in promotional literature, often confusing de Soto with the more commercially attractive Ponce de Leon and even suggesting that de Soto’s death, a few months after his ‘Visit” to the area, would have been averted had he stayed beside these waters.

 
 
 

The old Fordyce Bathhouse, opened in 1915 and now restored by the National Park Service as a visitors’ center, emphasized the “Fountain of Youth” connection in its advertising and gave it expression in a stone fountain where an armored and elegantly plumed de Soto accepts a gift of water from a kneeling Indian maiden. This reconstructed discoverer, the imaginative creation of nineteenth-century commerce, projects a greater appreciation of Arkansas’s watery prize than did the real de Soto, and shows no inclination to push ahead toward his awaiting demise. That, of course, is the recurrent message of the place, one unchanged through time, the idea that there is something in these waters that can help keep death at bay, something healing and recreational. John Cyrus Hale, an early bathhouse operator and promoter, asserted the claim most unabashedly in an 1847 advertising poem that concludes:

Let each come here, for here alone, Exists the power to save; Here tottering forms, but skin and bone, Are rescued from the grave.