The hot spring water was popularly believed for centuries to possess medicinal properties and was a subject of legend among several Native American tribes. In fact, many Native American tribes had been gathering in the valley for over 8,000 years to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs. Around the 18th century, the Caddo settled in the area, followed by the Choctaw, Cherokee, and other tribes from the Southeast. There was agreement among the tribes that they would put aside their weapons and partake of the healing waters in peace while in the valley.
Following 8,000 years of use by indigenous peoples, European Americans discovered and appropriated the springs. They called it the "Valley of the Vapors" at the time of Spanish arrival in the area in 1541 and began the use of the hot spring water in therapeutic baths to treat rheumatism and other ailments. The area developed into a well-known resort nicknamed "The American Spa" and attracted not only the wealthy but also indigent health seekers from around the world.
The first bathhouses were crude structures of canvas and lumber, little more than tents perched over individual springs or reservoirs carved out of the rock.
Later businessmen built wooden structures, but they frequently burned or collapsed because of shoddy construction, or rotted due to continued exposure to water and steam. The photo below is from the 1870s and shows the Rector Bathhouse.
The recharge area or watershed for the hot springs is the area to the northeast and east of the park, including Hot Springs Mountain, North Mountain, and Indian Mountain. Water that falls as rain in this recharge area sinks over a mile deep through faults and fractures. As it goes deep into the earth, it becomes heated by both the natural heat gradient of the earth and compression.
Analyses of carbon-14, an isotope present in the water, indicate that this rainwater originally fell in the Hot Springs area some four thousand years ago. The journey downward is slow, a little more than a foot per year. So, of the approximately four thousand years it takes the rainwater to make its round trip, perhaps only a year or so at the very most is needed to get back up to the surface, and the trip is so rapid that there is very little cooling of the water.
The hot springs only emerge through a fault at the base of Hot Springs Mountain's western slope in downtown Hot Springs on about 2.8 acres along Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade. The bulk of the approximately 700,000 gallons of thermal water flowing each day from Hot Springs Mountain is collected from 27 of the 47 presently active springs for use by the bathhouses and at drinking fountains for the public. The average temperature for the emerging hot spring water is 143º F., and by mixing hot and cooled spring water, bathhouse attendants can administer baths at 98º to 100º F. as required by regulations.
Drinking the hot springs water is perfectly normal, even encouraged. "Quaff the elixir" is what they used to say in the heyday of the spa which ran from 1880 to 1950, the so-called "Golden Age of Bathing." Today, thousands of visitors still highly endorse the good quality of the hot springs water and fill bottles to take home. The National Park Service does not claim the water is curative, but the park does certify that it is safe to drink. The water is colorless, odorless, and tasteless since it lacks much iron and sulphur. The federal government still protects the springs and the park's Water Quality Laboratory and state-certified analysts ensure that the water meets rigorous federal and state drinking water standards. The water is tested regularly at numerous sampling points.
A post card from the early 1900s showed the town. The bath houses are on the right.
It was believed the waters benefited diseases of the skin and blood, nervous affections, rheumatism and kindred diseases, and the "various diseases of women." In the case of tuberculosis and lung diseases, and acute and inflammatory diseases, the use of the waters was considered injurious and in many cases very dangerous. Springs were categorized according to supposed mineral contents: sulphur springs, magnesia springs, chalybeate (or iron) springs, etc., and each type was considered medicinal for specific ailments. Spring waters acquire minerals by dissolving them out of rocks below the earth's surface.
The earliest bathing procedure consisted of merely reclining in natural pools of hot springs and cool creek water for long periods of time. During the 1820s, crude vapor baths stood over the springs and bathers breathed in the vapors for extended periods of time. Wooden tubs were added to some bathhouses in the 1830s. Physicians began arriving in the 1850s, although many visitors did without their services. Visitors remained from one week to two months. After the Civil War, a tub bath of 15 to 20 minutes was common.
During the 1870s the bathing regimen became more diverse and physicians prescribed various types of baths for patients. The period of time for tub baths became six to ten minutes and the time in the steam bath shortened to two minutes, with only one bath a day. The treatment was by drinking and bathing in the waters, producing a profuse perspiration which was considered an active agent in fighting disease. The advice of a physician who was familiar with the use of the waters was considered necessary to avoid injury. In many cases, medicine was required before using the waters, although it had been observed that the amount of drugs given was "enough to sicken a well man."
The hot baths were usually taken once a day for three weeks, and then a rest was necessary, often with a week at the sulphur springs near the Ouachita River. A second three week course was then taken, followed again by an abstinence from bathing for several days. The usual stay at the springs was from one to three months, but many invalids stayed a year and longer.
The bathhouses began using vapor cabinets around 1884. The bather sat in the cabinet for 10–20 minutes with the lid closed tightly around the neck, with vapor from the hot water rising through the floor of the cabinet, with temperatures around 110–130°F.
The Fordyce Bathhouse operated from 1915-1962 when it closed due to declining business. It remained vacant until reopening as the park visitor center in 1989, seen in the photo below. Now you can watch an orientation movie and tour some sections.
The first floor introduces you to the beauty of the bathhouse, including the lobby's marble decor and stained glass transoms, as well as the marble partitions of the bath halls and the stained glass ceiling in the Men's Bath Hall. The Dressing Rooms and Men's Massage Rooms originally dominated the second floor, while the third floor held the Music Room with its patterned tile floor, stained glass ceiling, and Knabe grand piano. State Rooms offered the luxury of relaxation while the Gymnasium was the forerunner of modern health clubs. The Fordyce was the only bathhouse to have a bowling alley. The Fordyce Spring is still on display in the basement.
The Army and Navy General Hospital (now the Rehabilitation Center) was also supplied with water from the springs. It is located behind the south end of Bathhouse Row along the base of Hot Springs Mountain. It was administered by the War Department for the benefit of military members, officers of the Public Health Service, and honorably discharged veterans.
The Quapaw Bathhouse is a 24,000 square foot Spanish Colonial structure originally constructed in 1924. In 2007 Taylor/Kempkes Architects partnered with two others to lease, rehabilitate, and operate the structure as a bathhouse and spa. The two photos below show the result of the renovations.