The hot springs flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain, part of the Ouachita Mountain range. In the park, the hot springs have not been preserved in their unaltered state as natural surface phenomena. They have instead been managed to conserve the production of uncontaminated hot water for public use. The mountains within the park are also managed within this conservation philosophy in order to preserve the hydrological system that feeds the springs.
People have used the hot spring water in therapeutic baths for more than two hundred years to treat rheumatism and other ailments. While it was a reservation, the area developed into a well-known resort nicknamed "The American Spa" which attracted not only the wealthy but indigent health seekers from around the world as well.
The park includes portions of downtown Hot Springs, making it one of the most easily visited national parks. There are numerous hiking trails and camping areas. Bathing in spring water is available in approved facilities at extra cost. The entire "Bathhouse Row" area is a National Historic Landmark District that contains the grandest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America, including many outstanding examples of Gilded Age architecture. The row's Fordyce Bathhouse serves as the park's visitor center; the Buckstaff is currently the sole bathhouse operating in its original capacity. Other buildings of the row are currently in various states of interior restoration.
The park has become increasingly popular in recent years, and recorded over 1.5 million visitors in 2003, as well as nearly 2.5 non-recreational visitors.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to see what Native Americans referred to as the Valley of the Vapors when he and his men reached the area in 1541. Members of 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. 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. The Quapaw lived in the Arkansas River delta area and visited the springs.
In 1673 Father Marquette and Joliet explored the area and claimed it for France. The Treaty of Paris 1763 ceded the land back to Spain, however in 1800 control was returned to France until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
In December 1804 Dr. George Hunter and William Dunbar made an expedition to the springs, finding a lone log cabin and a few rudimentary shelters used by people visiting the springs for their healing properties. In 1807 Jean Emmanual Prudhomme became the first settler of modern Hot Springs, although after he regained his health following two years of bathing in the hot water and eating local foods, he returned home to Louisiana. Not long afterward John Perciful and Isaac Cates arrived.
Having been placed in a reservation southeast of Hot Springs in the 19th century, on August 24,1818, the Quapaw Indians ceded the land around the hot springs to the United States in a treaty. After Arkansas became its own territory in 1819, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation. Twelve years later, in 1832, the national reservation was formed by Congress, granting federal protection of the thermal waters and giving Hot Springs the honor of being the first “national park” to be designated for such government protection. The Hot Springs Reservation was set aside for public use as a park on June 16, 1880.
In 1921, by act of Congress, the site's name was changed from the Hot Springs Reservation to the Hot Springs National Park. Growing to over , it included Hot Springs Mountain, North Mountain, West Mountain, Sugar-Loaf Mountain and Whittington Lake Park. It later was expanded to .
The springs are all grouped about the base of the Hot Springs Mountain, with a flow well over a half million gallons a day. The hot water is supplied to the various bathhouses with resulting income going to the U.S. Treasury. There are miles of roads and trails over the mountains. The park is open throughout the year.
The first bathhouses were really little more than brush huts and log cabins placed over excavations cut in the rocks to receive hot water that flowed from the springs. More elaborate bathing facilities soon developed, with wooden troughs delivering water from hillside springs to bathhouses along the east bank of Hot Springs Creek. Some of the tufa covering the hillside was excavated to accommodate the bathhouses. The narrow street along the west side of the creek was connected to the bathhouses by narrow bridges.
After direct federal supervision was exercised in 1877, major improvements were made. The creek was covered with stone arches, and above a street a hundred feet wide was built. All the squatters were evicted, rubbish cleaned, and a centralized plumbing system was begun. This was completed around 1890. In 1950 central cooling towers limited the maximum temperature to a safe level, so individual bathhouses no longer needed their own cooling systems.
The park operates a public campground at Gulpha Gorge, about two miles (3 km) from downtown Hot Springs.
The city of Hot Springs (incorporated 1851) is governed under State and municipal law. The National Park Service exercises no control or supervision over any matters connected with the city. The city's buildings are as close as across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row, and has extended beyond the narrow valley in which the springs are located and spreads out over the open plain to the south and east. The climate is good throughout the year. The elevation of the city is above sea level, with surrounding hills rising another . In earlier days the city was a summer resort, but hotels have now long stayed open during the winter due to many northerly patrons escaping the winter cold.
During the peak popularity of the hot springs, until the 1950s, the many patients staying for three weeks, six weeks, or longer were a large source of business for the numerous hotels, boarding houses, doctors, and drugstores. As the daily treatments required only an hour or two, the visitors' idle time created opportunities for other businesses in the town.
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.
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, when a rest was necessary (often with a week at the sulphur springs near the Ouachita River). A second three weeks' 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 process described in 1878 was a hot bath of 90° to for about 3 minutes (timed with a sand-glass). This was followed by another three minutes with all but the head in a steam box, or if milder treatment was prescribed, sitting atop the steam box covered with a blanket. During this the bather is also drinking hot water from their coffee-pot. After these eight to ten minutes of treatment, the bather is well rubbed down and thoroughly dried. The blanket-covered customer then would walk briskly back to their quarters to lie down for at least a half hour to let the body recover its normal temperature. Sleeping at this stage was considered dangerous.
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 degrees. Toward the end of the 1880s Russian and Turkish baths were offered, and in the 1890s German needle baths and Scotch douches (concentrated stream of hot or cold water, often used on the back) were added.
Although details of services were left to bathhouse operators, the Park's superintendent set various rules. In the 1930s a tub bath could not take more than 20 minutes and shower no more than 90 seconds. During the next decade shower time was reduced to a minute, with maximum temperatures specified for several services. After a bath of about 98 degrees, the patient might spend 2-5 minutes in a vapor cabinet, get 15 minutes of packs (wet, hot or cold), followed by a tepid needle shower and light massage and alcohol rub.
By 1980 one reporter described getting a 20 minute bath, two minutes in a steam bath, 15 minutes wrapped with hot packs, and resting in a cooling room for 20-30 minutes.
The current modern facilities are oriented toward spa style or pool services.
There have been nearly two dozen pay bathhouses open at the same time, with about nine of those within the park's "Bathhouse Row" (these numbers have varied for reasons such as the Quapaw now using the space formerly occupied by two bathhouses). Nine of the bathhouses were associated with hotels, hospitals, or sanatoria. The water is the same for all, but the prices charged for the baths varied in accordance with the equipment and accommodations furnished by each facility. The charges for the services of the attendants are the same and include the necessities except towels, blankets, bathrobes, laundering, rubbing mercury, and handling of invalids.
In 1929, prices for single baths ranged from $1 to $1.40, while a course of 21 baths was $16 to $24. Baths were offered at the Arlington Hotel, Fordyce, Buckstaff, Eastman Hotel, Maurice, La Mar, Majestic Hotel, Quapaw, Hale, Imperial, Moody Hotel, Ozark, St. Joseph's Infirmary, Superior, Ozark Sanatorium, Rockafellow, Alhambra, Pythian (colored), and Woodmen of Union (colored).
At present on Bathhouse Row only the Buckstaff is open, with the Quapaw scheduled to open in 2008. The Arlington Hotel, Austin Hotel and Convention Center, and The Springs Hotel & Spa also offer hot spring baths using the Park water.
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, who suffered from such diseases as the waters of the hot springs had an established reputation in benefiting. However, admission was not extended to mild and transient cases with should yield to ordinary treatment, but were reserved for those of a serious and obstinate character, which, though resisting ordinary methods of relief, were promised a rapid and permanent recovery from the use of the waters of the spring.
The facility now known as the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center was built in 1933 as the second Army-Navy hospital. It has been used by the state for over 40 years.
The Government free bathhouse for the indigent was established by Congress on December 16, 1878. The Ral Hole mudpit and pool were closed, and later the first Government Free Bathhouse operated at the site.
During the 1880s a few of the open springs gradually dried up. Corn Hole, a popular spring for people to soak their feet, dried up in 1882. Other open springs were either covered over by the government or the bathhouse owners to prevent their pollution.
Nearly 100,000 baths a year were given to the poor. Applicants for free baths were required to make an oath that they were without and unable to obtain means to pay for the baths, with violations being a misdemeanor subject to fine and/or imprisonment. Tickets were issued to those who, after examination, were found to be suffering from diseases which were reasonably expected to be benefited from the baths.
A new bathhouse was built in 1904, with separate facilities for black and white patrons. The materials used in construction were of poor quality. A new bathhouse was built off the reservation, and it opened in 1922.
The Government free bathhouse was a concrete building fully equipped for bathing large numbers of people under sanitary conditions. In 1878 the Army and Navy opened a free dispensary on the second floor, which remained open for two years. In 1916 the Public Health Service opened a clinic for the examination and treatment of indigents taking the free baths.
The Park Service reminded people that they had to provide their own board and lodging and to have return travel fare, due to many destitute invalids who arrived each year with the mistaken the belief that there was a public institution at which they would be cared for free of charge.
The free bathhouse closed in 1957, when it was much more economical to have the few indigent customers distributed among the commercial bathhouses. The poor applied at park headquarters and upon approval by a physician were sent to a participating bathhouse, which was reimbursed by the government.
The area is primarily forest. The northern slopes of the ridges and basins provide a suitable habitat for deciduous forest dominated by oak and hickory. Pines predominate on the south sides of the ridges. Bison, wapiti, mountain lion and wolf left the region after European settlement. Present day fauna include squirrel, rabbit, opossum, fox, coyote, skunk, raccoon, , weasel, mink, rat, frog, and armadillo. Some migratory birds following the Mississippi Flyway spend part of the year in the vicinity.
The water comes from rain which falls in mountains to the north and northeast. Flowing downward through cracked rock at about one foot a year, the meteoric water migrates to estimated minimum depths of 4,500 to and achieves high temperatures in the deep section of the flow path before rising along fault and fracture conduits. Under artesian pressure, the thermal waters rise and emerge through the Hot Springs Sandstone between the traces of two thrust faults, along several northeast-trending lineaments. Some rainwater from near the springs mixes with the deep hot water before discharge. The trip down takes about 4,000 years while the hot water takes about a year to reach the surface.
The heat comes from the natural heating of rocks as depth increases. The composition of the water indicates it is heated rainwater which has not approached a magmatic source, so no volcanic action is involved in the formation of these hot springs. The result is the mildly alkaline, pleasant tasting solution with dissolved calcium carbonate.
The exposed rock types in the vicinity of the thermal springs are sedimentary rocks of Mississippian to Ordovician age, with the exception of younger igneous rocks (Cretaceous age) exposed in two small areas about 6 and southeast of the thermal springs (Potash Sulphur Spring and Magnet Cove, respectively), and in many very small dikes and sills. Most dikes are less than wide. There have been 80 dikes noted about southeast of Hot Springs, on and near the Ouachita River. There is no indication that igneous rock occurs where the thermal springs discharge.
The sedimentary rocks in the vicinity of the thermal springs consist of shale, chert, novaculite, sandstone, and conglomerate.
During most of the Paleozoic era, what became the Ouachita Mountains was the bottom of a shallow sea, where several sedimentary layers were created. About 500 million years ago a collision of the South American Plate with the North American Plate caused the shale and sandstone layers to fracture and fissure, creating mountains of the folded rocks. The thermal springs emerge from the plunging crest line of a large overturned anticline in the Zigzag Mountains of the Ouachita anticlinorium. The overturned anticline plunges toward the southwest into the Mazarn Basin. There are two recognized major thrust faults trending nearly parallel to fold axes that define the northern and southern limits of the thermal springs discharge area. The northern fault extends nearly parallel to Fountain Street northeastward about onto the southeast flank of North Mountain, and dips about 26 degrees north. At the northern extent of the thermal springs, this fault is suggested to form along the bedding contact of the Hot Springs Sandstone and Stanley Shale, with the Stanley Shale forming the hanging wall of the fault. The southern fault extends northeastward about roughly along the axis of the Hot Springs anticline, and dips about 44 degrees north. It has been proposed that a fault splits away from the southern fault, trends west and connects with the northern fault. A natural ravine trends along the location of this fault. Extensive cracks, joints, and fissures in the Bigfork Chert, Arkansas Novaculite, and the Hot Springs Sandstone allow the water to flow in the thermal springs area. Dissolved minerals in the water precipitate to form the white to tan travertine or "tufa rock" seen near the openings of the hot springs.
The water all comes from the same deep source, but surface appearance of the springs differed. What was called Mud Spring had a tepid ooze where there was no danger of being scalded. Springs acquired names such as Magnesia, Big Iron, and Arsenic. Big Iron's water, with significant iron oxide, would precipitate ocherous crusts and stains. Arsenic Spring, on the other hand, contains no detectable traces of that substance. The water from many springs is now combined in one supply, with the total amount of water varying from 750,000 to 950,000 gallons a day. The temperature averages about 143°F (61°C). Maximum temperatures have declined about since records have been kept.
In 1905 curative characteristics were being ascribed to radium and Professor Bertram Boltwood of Yale examined these waters. There is a measurable level of radioactivity primarily due to dissolved radon gas, with some radium. At the time collection and distribution equipment was designed to retain the radon gas, while now it is designed to allow it to escape. The level of exposure to radiation that results from bathing appears to be similar to the level that would result from sitting in the sun for the same period of time. The park water is considered well within safe limits and similar to other natural waters throughout the world.
Drinking water is dispensed from several hot water jug fountains. The hot water is naturally potable. Two cold water springs (Happy Hollow and Whittington Springs) are treated using ozone filtration. Regulations prohibit private individuals from selling the park's waters.
|Chemical||Parts per million|
|Free Carbon Dioxide (CO2)||9.7|