There was a time not so long ago when the greatest medical minds in America thought mercury was a wonder-working cure-all. It was about the same time that physicians commonly prescribed patients with persistent maladies to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas and bathe every day for 3 weeks in the steaming mineral waters that naturally sprang from the mountain and were funneled into the tubs of numerous commercial bathhouses. It was said that anything from tuberculosis to back spasms could be cured by the waters. In fact, many of the 47 springs on the mountainside had a reputation for specializing in curing specific ailments.
Since this practice seems obviously quackish today, I was surprised to learn that the hot springs bathing peak of bathing popularity at Hot Springs was only back in 1946. With the rise of modern medicine bathing feel out of style and one by one the establishments on Bathhouse Row closed their doors. Hot Springs National Park Visitors Center is actually located in the old Fordyce Bath House (operating from 1915-1962), which made for the most architecturally interesting and beautifully decorated Visitors Centers we’ve seen.
We knew our visit to small, urban Hot Springs NP would be a rare departure from the breathtaking landscapes we normally see in the park. But I still struggled with the fact that the hot springs are so altered from their natural state. The mountainside springs are hidden by cement covers to keep out contaminants and the waters are piped away to be divided between several private, commercial operations that still run on Bathhouse Row. Normal visitors to the park probably can’t afford the $80 for a traditional soak experience or even the $20 for 20 minutes in a communal pool. We settled for filling our water bottles with the piping hot spring water as it gushed through the many public fountains.
In fairness, commercial enterprises were corralling the springs for profit starting way back in the 1830s – long before the park was created in 1932. So the park does an excellent job of preserving the unique history and tradition of the bathhouses. We really enjoyed our tours of the opulent buildings and learning the ways of both the operators and patients who were enchanted by the curative powers of the hot springs. After our visit, I can’t say I would throw all my eggs in that medical basket, but I definitely wouldn’t mind 3 weeks of daily hot baths and massages!
I hope you enjoy our Hot Springs National Park video tour of Fordyce Bathhouse. And what the heck? Maybe ask your doctor if Hot Springs is right for you! 😉