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Soothing Waters, Vibrant Past

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— July 15, 2017

Soothing Waters, Vibrant Past

  • Babe Ruth, Al Capone and Bill Clinton all left their mark on this town known for its healing thermal waters.
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Baseball players. Mobsters. Gamblers. Psoriasis sufferers. An eclectic cast of characters has visited or called Hot Springs, Arkansas, home at various points over more than a century.

To walk Central Avenue, the town’s main drag, is to relive their experiences in a sort of time machine that can leave you whiplashed as it tosses you back decades, back further, then forward, but mostly back again.

In the corner sundry store, hundreds of collectible figures, including those of Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in their “Mary Poppins” outfits, as well as the Skipper and Professor from “Gilligan’s Island,” line the walls. A few doors down, Jimmy Carter is in desperate need of a haircut at the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum.

A few blocks south, an odd acrylic likeness of Bill Clinton, smiling, perhaps because his hair is pre-presidency brown, pops off a sign reminding visitors this was the hometown of the 42nd commander-in-chief.

Back north, after passing the T-shirt shop where a glass-encased mechanical Zoltar the psychic will peruse his crystal ball for a quarter, you can plunk down four figures for one of the ancient one-armed bandits from the casinos that Al Capone and ballplayers in town for spring training frequented. They overcame their hangovers at Bathhouse Row across the street.

Beyond the kitsch, Hot Springs is a living museum. Bronze plaques on street signs or embedded in sidewalks tell of brothers Dizzy and Daffy Dean’s baseball exploits in town, or the time Hot Springs’ 31 saloons prepared to close as Prohibition approached, prompting one saloon owner to offer tubs of beer to five elephants in town for a small circus.

Happily, it’s a little difficult to know where to look first. Here’s a short guide.

Where to Unwind

The eponymous baths of Hot Springs are the second most popular attraction in town these days since horseracing made a comeback at Oaklawn Racing & Gaming. With minerals like calcium, magnesium, and silica, the thermal springs from Hot Springs National Park emerge at 143°F, way too hot to dip in if you come across any natural pools. So your best bet is Bathhouse Row, where two of the original eight spas along the magnolia-lined street still operate as bathhouses. In addition to private treatments, Quapaw, named after a local Indian tribe, boasts four large communal co-ed baths, ranging in temperatures from 95°F to 104°F. We were cautioned that the detoxifying effects of the heated mineral waters would make us feel loopy and ultimately very relaxed; both proved true. If you go to Quapaw (quapawbaths.com), be sure to add a session in its cave steam room, set around a thermal spring source that naturally heats the man-made cave. In contrast to Quapaw, Buckstaff Baths separates men on one floor and women on another. Buckstaff (buckstaffbaths.com), within a handsome building, adorned with blue- and white-striped awnings offer private treatments that combine bathing and massage.

Hot Spots to Wet the Whistle

If you want some history to go along with a whiskey, head over to the Ohio Club, established in 1905 and Hot Springs’ oldest bar, where bullet holes pockmark the ceiling from the days Capone and his cronies hung out there. Outside the Ohio Club, a plastic life-sized model of Capone sits bedecked in white suit and hat,

On Tap: Beer from Spring Water
Like most of the spas along Bathhouse Row, Superior Bathhouse shuttered its doors when people started turning to conventional medicine—a competitive threat to what had until then been a wellness monopoly held by the spas. After sitting vacant for 30 years, the bathhouse has found a new life: Superior Bathhouse Brewery, which has capitalized on its location and bills itself as the country’s only producer of beer made with thermal spring water; it also makes a root beer with the thermal waters. The spring water does not contain chlorine or fluoride but the health benefits of using the thermal waters in the beer and soda end there. Superior Bathhouse Brewery’s story is more one of sustainability. Because the water comes out of the pipes at 135°F, Superior uses less energy to heat its mash water, which typically must be 178°F, explains Jimm Powell, Superior’s brewer. “We use it for all the hot water in the building,” Powell says of the spring water. If you’ve been to other thermal springs you may have noticed the distinct smell of sulfur in the air. Not at Hot Springs, where “the water is low in most minerals other than bicarbonate,” Powell says, making it easy to modify for brewing; Superior acidifies the water a little to help release the sugars from the grains. And those grains aren’t just tossed in a dumpster—they’re delivered (about 1,000 pounds a week) to a farm in nearby Bismarck, Arkansas, for hog feed. Hogs swarm trucks from Superior when they reach the farm, Powell says. “They love their barley,” he says of the hogs. In turn, the farm supplies Superior Bathhouse Brewery with its pork. “If you come here and order our bratwurst,” Powell says, “basically the hogs that consumed our grain are on your plate. It’s the circle of life in action.”

cigar in hand stretched out on a bench like a mayor greeting passersby. Adding to the bar’s ambiance, Babe Ruth relaxed here, and Al Jolson and Mae West performed here, as did a string of jazz musicians.

But if you’re looking for a drink that’s less potent—a lot less—than what you’ll find at the Ohio Club, seek out what the town is known for in its name: its spring water. Three fountains are set up in town—one thermal and two cool—for residents and others to gather up the mineral water for personal use. At the Happy Hollow Spring on Fountain Street, near the entrance to the Hot Springs Mountain 3½-mile scenic drive, the stream of cars and vans pulling up to the cool mineral water fountain seems as endless as the flow of water they’ve come to fetch.

David Smith, 73, a retired bricklayer, was filling 15 plastic gallon jugs, a routine he repeats every couple of weeks. “I’m hauling this for a 93-year old,” he said, “and I drink it, too. I don’t like the chlorine in the city water. It’s even pretty harsh to take a bath in.” A few blocks south, at the end of Bathhouse Row, a young man who identified himself as Duncan was filling glass bottles at a fountain of heated mineral water. “You can’t use the plastic bottles here; it’ll leach the plastic,” Duncan said.

Keeping Fit

Hot Springs boasts 17 hiking trails, from the Fountain Trail at 528 feet to several trails at 1.7 miles, rated “easy” to “moderate/strenuous.” Various slopes offer breathtaking vistas, making your hike one of refreshing and thoughtful reflection. We found plenty of exercise in climbing the 306 steps of the 216-foot-tall Mountain Tower in Hot Springs National Park, where miles of green Arkansas countryside stretched out before us, then examined the area’s history at the museum exhibit near the top. If you need to be atop wheels, you’ll find the state’s longest mountain bike trail, at 108 miles, between Highway 7 north of Hot Springs and Highway 88, or the Talimena National Scenic Byway.

Where to Stay

There are newer hotels in town, but why not stay in one where you’ll feel the spirit of the place? To visit the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, first built in the 19th century before two rebuilds, is to step into a time capsule (arlingtonhotel.com). With 478 rooms and suites, the Arlington features an imposing façade and ominous twin towers, grand arches and staircases, traditional white bathroom tiles and classic furnishings that all bring you back to Hot Springs’ heyday. Having stopped working long ago, dials above the elevator banks that used to tell guests what floor each elevator was on remain frozen on various floors.

In 26 rooms and 16 suites, you can bathe in thermal spring water that’s piped directly into the hotel; tubs in these rooms are comfortably longer than conventional tubs. At the expansive Arlington’s spa, you can work up a good sweat in an old cabinet-style personal sauna with your head sticking out the top.

We bedded down in the Al Capone Suite, where the mobster spent many an evening peering from the window overlooking his favorite haunt, the Southern Club casino, now the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum. At the wax museum, I stumble upon the answer to a mystery involving Capone. Hearing that I visited the Mountain Tower museum, a woman at the wax museum ticket counter tells me not to believe an exhibit there that says it is only a myth that Al Capone used tunnels to get around parts of Hot Springs. “I’ve seen them,” the woman tells me. “They’re in the basement here. The locals just don’t want tourists to know about them because they’re afraid they’re going to start digging around and looking for them.”

It is also part of local lore that Capone would look from his window in the Arlington Hotel to his cohorts below, who would wear different color carnations alerting him whether it was safe to come down or if the police were on hand. Opposite the window in the hotel suite, a painting over a sofa depicts Capone in front of the casino as it appeared in 1930. And, no, there wasn’t a gun instead of a bible in the night table drawer.

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