The Double Life Of Hot Springs

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And so it is that landmarks of a different sort dominate central Hot Springs, that the amusement houses are shadowed by physical-therapy facilities: the multistoried Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center, descendant of what, until 1960, was the federal government’s Army and Navy hospital; the Levi National Arthritis Hospital; and the Libbey Memorial Physical Medicine Center and Health Spa. This other Hot Springs concerns itself with infirmity, with the perversity of our own bodies. If we are offered a good time elsewhere in town, the promise of the therapy centers is relief from that which cannot be repaired, treatment for arthritis, paralysis, postpolio trauma, multiple sclerosis.

The history of Hot Springs revolves around a belief in the curative power of warm water and in the government’s duty to make it available to all.
 

In a country filled with rivers and springs, the remarkable occurrence in this valley, one that attracted the attention of the United States government as early as 1804, was springs that bubbled up from the ground too hot to touch, water that required cooling before it could be consumed. It is true that long before the arrival of Europeans in the New World, Native Americans valued the area for its novaculite, a metamorphosed sandstone whose hardness and capacity for sharpening made it valuable for a variety of tools, including whetstones, for which it continues to be quarried. And it is true that crystal hunters have been drawn here for the elegant quartz deposits in the area’s layered rock, an industry that has been lively for more than a century.

But it is the water, warmer than anything flowing from the tap marked “H” in our bathrooms and kitchens, that has drawn visitors since the first appearance of people in the region and that has given Hot Springs its very existence as well as its name. In our own day of plumbing and water heaters it is hard to imagine the luxury hot water must once have been. The opportunity to submerge one’s body, especially in cold seasons, in such warmth belonged solely to the wealthy and even to them only at great cost and effort.

 

The first settlers came for relief and then stayed on as entrepreneurs catering to fellow sufferers. That Thomas Jefferson had heard of the springs as early as 1804 suggests how widespread was the reputation of this remote curiosity, and the fact that in 1832—long before the concept of national parks began to take hold—the United States government set aside the springs and four sections of land (twenty-five hundred acres) as a federal reservation demonstrates how seriously their potential benefits were regarded.

That Jefferson himself should have great hopes for the benefits of any treatment involving heat is indicated in a 1801 letter to William Dunbar, the friend later charged with the first official exploration of the “Hot Springs of the Washita.” In the midst of a discussion in which he mentions a low temperature recorded in Quebec, Jefferson volunteers: “I have often wondered that any human being should live in a cold country who can find room in a warm one. I have no doubt that cold is the source of more sufferance to all animal nature than hunger, thirst, sickness & all the other pains of life & of death itself put together.”

In contrast with other natural curiosities held in national ownership because of their scenic value, the prevailing interest in Hot Springs has always been practical rather than aesthetic. The dramatic Valley of Vapors has been short on vapors ever since all but two of the springs were capped to prevent pollution, at the end of the last century. The National Park Service clearly understands that Hot Springs was created to be—as the present assistant superintendent of the park, Dale Moss, told me—“used rather than observed.” In this spirit the waters have been prescribed for nearly all persistent disorders and many incurable diseases.

In part the history of Hot Springs revolves around the belief in the curative power of warm water and in the federal government’s responsibility to make such a natural resource available to all citizens. As owner of the springs the government controls the water, leasing bath sites and supervising nearly every aspect of the treatments, from fees to acceptable music in the lounges (jazz was once forbidden). As the bathhouses grew more elaborate and access to the springs more difficult, the government provided for indigents’ bathing through a series of structures culminating in a free bathhouse that operated until 1953, when it was replaced by Libbey Memorial Center.

But spas are more than clinics, their clientele more than the indigent infirm. The people served by the elegant Arlington and its departed peers, while perhaps not always in the best of health, were hardly poor. And the bathhouses that now line the Row strain after a splendor appropriate to the most cosmopolitan guests, a grandeur that rises above the tubs and drains around which they are built.