The Double Life Of Hot Springs

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In our own day of plumbing and water heaters, it is hard to imagine the luxury hot water must have been, when such warmth belonged solely to the rich.
 

But the double life of Hot Springs runs deeper than the relative health of its visitors. Like all spas, it was called upon to entertain as well as to heal, to fill the idle hours between baths. This it did—and does—in a variety of ways. A number of ambitious theaters once provided boxing matches, opera, Shakespeare, and minstrel shows. There was hunting in the surrounding mountains, and fishing remains a favorite activity. There has been an alligator farm in operation since 1902, though its older ostrich equivalent has long been closed. All these endeavors and myriad others provided diversion for spa visitors with time on their hands, helping combat boredom even as the waters combated disease, but the most popular and persistent diversion, greater even than ostriches and reptiles, was gambling.

The history of gambling at Hot Springs is a subject unto itself, a cycle of corruption and reform continuously repeated until the 1960s, when the resort was forced, at last, to comply with the same antigambling laws that governed the rest of Arkansas. But what is of interest here is how that activity fits into the peculiar mixture of impulses that Hot Springs represents, a place where people came to conserve their health and gamble their substance. The Spartan austerity of the sweat chambers would satisfy John Calvin, but all around are sinful delights appropriate to a slightly tacky sultan’s palace.

 

Our notions of health and of happiness seem to alternate between the principles of subtraction and addition. On the subtraction side there is the notion that disease is the result of too much of some troubling element. So throughout time we have sweated, dieted, limited our intake of this or that—the same pattern that the baths represent. On the other hand, we also tend to think of our health as the victim of something absent, the want of some curative that can make us what we ought to be, some fountain of youth or balm of Gilead that we can ingest into ourselves. A thriving spa serves both principles.

When water therapy lost its medicinal reputation, pushed aside by modern drugs and new technologies, and gambling was outlawed, Hot Springs lost its old trump cards and suffered. Still, the town—and all it represents —persists, thanks in part to the National Park Service’s impressive series of improvements, among them a renewed bathhouse area and the continual purchasing of land in the surrounding mountains. Lucky in its geography, Hot Springs has—in addition to the traditional waters—beautiful terrain and a cluster of man-made lakes on which to build a future. Attractions ranging from places to dig for diamonds to horse racing and an aquarium offer a wide range of vacation activities.

But the heart of Hot Springs is a national park oddly situated in the middle of a town, the place Jefferson sent envoys to confirm and where Jackson and his Congress placed our reservation all those years ago. And it has been rejuvenated by more than the Park Service improvements. Fifty-year leases have been picked up for five of the empty bathhouses by a developer who plans to restore at least two of the buildings to spas and to convert the others to museums. The same person holds leases on twenty storefronts across the street to help accommodate the new trade. Last spring’s devastating flood seriously delayed progress, but work continues. And recreational bathing still draws visitors, with 1,272,771 baths counted by the park in 1989 alone.

The future appears promising for a forward-looking Hot Springs and an energetic Park Service as they plan for changing circumstances, but the place’s most poignant appeal will inevitably continue to grow from its past and the way its history intersects with our own lives. It provides, among the crystal shops and the palm readers and the revival tents and the sitz baths and the tissue oscillators and all the other promises of a better life and a more complete being, evidence of the ways, sometimes venal and sometimes heroic, by which we confront our own limitations.