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The History of
Hot Springs National Park

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The Exploration of Hot Springs

Tradition has it that the first Europeans to see the springs were the Spanish explorer Hernando and his troops in 1541. French trappers, hunters and traders became familiar with the area in the late-17th century. In 1803, the United States aquired the area when it was purchased in the Loisianna Territiory from France, and the the very next year the president Thomas Jefferson dispatched an expedition led by Wiliam Dunbar and George Hunter to explore the newly aquired springs. Their report to the President was widely publicized and stirred up interest in the "Hot Springs of the Washita."

In the years that followed, more and more people came here to soak in the waters, Soon the idea of "reserving" the springs for the Nation took root, and a proposal was submitted to the Congress by the territorial representative, Ambrose H. Sevier. Then in 1892, the Federal Government took the unprecedented step of settings aside four sections of land here, the first U.S. reservation made simply to preserve a natural resource. Little effort was made to mark the boundaries adequately, and by the mid 1800s, claims and counterclaims were filed on the springs and the land surrounding them.

In the 1870s, the government continued to control the springs and reserve certain areas as federal property. Private bathhouses, under the supervision of the Federal Government were allowed to be built. The establishments ranged from the simple to the luxurious. Gradually the city of Hot Springs came to be called "The National Spa," and the such slogans as 'Uncle Sam Bathes the World" and The Nations Health Sanitarium" were used to promote the city. By 1921, the Hot Springs Reservation was such a popular destination for vacationer and seekers of health, that the new National Park Service's first Director, Steven Mather, convinced the Congress to declare the reservation the 18th National Park.

Monumental bathhouses built along Bathhouse Row about that time catered to crowds of health seekers. These new establishments, full of the latest equipment, pampered the bather in artful surroundings. Marble and tile decorated floors, walls and partitions. Some rooms sported polished brass, murals, fountains, statues and even stained glass. Gymnasiums, and beauty shops helped cure seekers in their efforts to look and feel better.

Shortly after World War II, changes in medial technology and in the use of leisure time resulted in a decline in water therapies. People also began to prefer taking the open road in their own cars rather than traveling by train. One by one, the bathhouses began to close down as business began to decline.

Restoration Efforts

With the decline of bathing in the 1950s, the bathhouses themselves began to close their doors and fell into disrepair. On Bathhouse Row only the Buckstaff House remains open to public bathing at the present time.

In the 1980s, local citizens and the National Park Service began to explore ways to return the Bathhouses to their historic grandure. The fortuitous union of private money and public guidance has helped return both the exterior and interiors of these buildings to their original beauty. These unique commercial houses have been adapted for muliple uses under the provisions of the historic property leasing program.

The Fordyce Bathhouse reopened its doors after undergoing extensive restoration in 1989. To the local visitor that wishes to step back into the 1920s to visit this Post World War II Era, little has appeared to change.

The restorative effort is made complete with men and womens furniture, steam cabinets, tubs, massage tables, chiropody tools, billard table, grande piano, beauty parlor and hydrotherapy equipment prevalant in those days.

Superintendent, Hot Springs National Park
P.O. Box 1860
Hot Springs, AR 71902-1860

or call 501-624-2308,
or 501-624-3383, ext. 640.

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