Hot Springs is a city with a roaring past.
Named for the thermal springs naturally flowing underneath the city, Hot Springs has been a gathering place for rest and relaxation since Native Americans controlled the area centuries ago. Seeing the potential value in the area, President Andrew Jackson set it aside as a federal reservation, essentially making it America’s first national park. But the designation would do little to stop the land from being settled by others looking to profit from the natural springs.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Hot Springs was a busy spa city anchored by Bathhouse Row. But beyond the spas and hotels was a city brimming with illegal activity. Hot Springs became not just a getaway for those seeking the healing power of the springs but for America’s most wanted as well. And while the glitz and glamour age of Hot Springs might be long gone, the city still has plenty to offer the hordes of visitors that come to feel the thermal waters and catch a glimpse of a bygone era.
Here are five things you don’t want to miss in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
- Bathhouse Row Grand in size and style, the Fordyce has always been the star of Bathhouse Row (photo by Chris Light)
During its heyday, Hot Springs was the Spa City at its finest. Its crown jewel was Bathhouse Row, consisting of eight bathhouses built between 1892 and 1923. The thermal mineral waters were praised for their healing properties and were believed to relieve ailments such as arthritis and gout. Today Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only remaining operational bathhouse in Hot Springs, operating continually since 1912.
Visitors can stroll down Bathhouse Row and take in the splendor of both the architecture and history behind the buildings that were once filled with elite spa-goers (some offered basic services at lower rates for the middle class). The largest of the bathhouses was the Fordyce. Opening in 1915, the elaborate building cost $212,000 to complete. No expense was spared by owner Sam W. Fordyce. The 28,000-square-foot building was the star of the Row with its marble walls and stairs, terra cotta fountains, stained glass windows and sky lights, and even a bowling alley in the basement. Ironically, the Fordyce was the first on the Row to shut down in 1962. Today it is a fully restored museum and also serves as the park’s visitor center.
- Gangster Museum of America The Madden Gallery at the Gangster Museum of America tells the story of Owen (“Owney”) Madden’s part in developing organized crime in Hot Springs (photo courtesy of the Gangster Museum of America)
When the roaring twenties hit, Hot Springs was a hotbed for illegal activity. While the city promoted its spas to draw in visitors from around the world, the city was fueled by illegal gambling and bootlegging. And you can learn all about it at the Gangster Museum of America.
Most people don’t think of a small Arkansas town when thinking of the country’s most notorious gangsters, but Hot Springs was a regular for such villains as Al Capone, who frequented the city and owned a suite on the fourth floor of the Arlington Hotel. Owen Madden, after being kicked out of New York for numerous charges, set his sights on Hot Springs and its rising illegal casino operations. Charles “Lucky” Luciano wasn’t so lucky during a trip to the spa city in 1936 when he was arrested after stepping on federal property. And the list goes on. You can learn all about it at the Gangster Museum of America.
- OaklawnThe finish line at the 2013 Arkansas Derby. Oaklawn’s first race was in 1905 and was declared a half-holiday by the mayor. (Photo courtesy of Broad Sports)Hot Springs Mayor John Belding declared February 24, 1905, a half-day holiday in honor of Oaklawn’s first race. Duelist, owned by John W. Schorr, was the first winner in a long line of thoroughbreds that have since raced at Oaklawn. Nearly thirty years later, Holl Image would go down in Arkansas racing history as the first winner of the Arkansas Derby. Since then, the track has seen some of the greatest horses and riders to grace the American horseracing scene—Temperence Hill, Smarty Jones, and 2015 Triple Crown Winner American Pharaoh.Racing season is January through April, and during the off season, there’s still plenty to do at Oaklawn. The racetrack offers several restaurants and boasts the largest casino in Arkansas.
- Lake Catherine State Park Formed by Dremmel Dam in 1924, Lake Catherine was named a state park in 1935The drive to Lake Catherine alone is worth the trip. Those looking for a less populated and busy destination than nearby Lake Hamilton have found their safe haven. The 1,940-acre lake nestled among the tall pines of the Ouachita Mountains became a state park in 1935, built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The lake itself was actually formed in 1924 by Dremmel Dam, the state’s first major hydroelectric project.Worth a stay are the lake’s rustic cabins that date back to the 1930’s. But in all honesty, it’s the scenery people come for. During the early 1940’s the lake was a recreation site for wounded servicemen. And it isn’t hard to see why this place would be considered therapeutic. The four hiking trails offer views of waterfalls, bubbling brooks, and the occasional white-tailed deer.
- Garvan Woodland Gardens Local philanthropist Verna Cook Garvan willed the Garvan Woodland Gardens to the Department of Landscape Architecture through the University of Arkansas Foundation (photo courtesy of Garvan Woodland Gardens)
Not far from scenic Lake Catherine is Garvan Woodland Gardens. Local philanthropist Verna Cook Garvan (who was also one of the first female CEO’s of a Southern industrial manufacturing business) spent forty years designing her gardens, which she had also planned as a future home. Upon her death in 1993, she passed it to the Department of Landscape Architecture through the University of Arkansas Foundation.
The grounds of Garvan Woodland Gardens are nothing short of spectacular with blooms of every variety—Japanese camellias in winter, azaleas and peonies in spring, cannas and hibiscus through the summer, and chrysanthemums and Japanese maples decorate the fall. Trails wind throughout the property taking visitors over bridges and to the Garden of the Pine Wind, a bonsai garden and on to Anthony Chapel, located just outside of the gardens.