Hot Springs: Genteel Soul Brings’em Back

Hot Springs is presently enjoying a cultural and indusrial boom unparalleled in its colorful past, but it’s the genteel soul of the European-style spa nestled cozily in the craggy arms of the Ouachita Mountains that continues to lure visitors back time after time.

Historian Inez Cline says the resort has always been elegant.

“It never was wild, even in the early days as a frontier town. It never had the saloons-with-swinging-doors atmosphere,” she says.

Even though three major fires roared through the spa during the past century, several elegant homes survive that suggest the gentility of a past age.

Wildwood, completed in 1884, is a 15-room showplace mansion that is open to the public. It’s located in the older Park Avenue section of town.

The Swanson House at 868 Quapaw was built in 1889 by a Captain Huie and is a replica of one of his river boats. He ordered it for his bride who, upon first seeing it, decided it was too secluded and refused to live in it.

The O’Neal Home, a towering three-story dwelling at Third and Grand, was built in 1881 to house a man’s mistress. At that time it was far enough from town to keep the lady discreet but available. Today it’s near the heart of Hot Springs.

At the absolute heart of the city is Bath House Row.

“The Row is probably our only unique architectural resource,” Ms. Cline says.

The grandly ornate structures stand languidly behind Magnolia trees on downtown Central Ave. They’re regulated by the federal government and house the thermal baths that originally launched Hot Springs as a favorite tourist spot.

Indians first discovered the magical quality of the waters and declared the springs hallowed ground and laid down bow and arrow to bathe in peace in what they called the Valley of the Vapors.

Hernando DeSoto found thermal bathing to his liking in 1541 and told fellow Europeans of the relaxing and healing aspects of the springs. He returns every summer to the Mid America Amphitheater duririg performances of the spectacular outdoor drama, “Hernando DeSoto, Conquistador.”

In 1833 Congress created the Hot Springs Reservation to protect and preserve the springs and in 1921 the federal government declared the Reservation a National Park.

Today nearly a quarter of a million thermal baths are given annually and contemporary bathers, like the Indians, lay aside concerns of the day as they soak in the 100-degree water. A single bath ranges from $3.40 to $4.30 and an optional massage costs either $4.40 or $4.85. The baths are considered both medically therapeutic and a rare, affordable luxury.

Two of the original 47 springs remain open for public inspection along the Row while the remainder are sealed so the water can be collected and distributed to the bath houses and to the drinking fountains around the city where jugs are filled for home consumption.

Dr. Fredrick Nichols of the University of Virginia surveyed the Row for the National Park Service and calls it one of a kind in America.

Nichols jokingly referred to the Spanish Revival buildings as early Cecil B. DeMille because the row of colorful, glamorous structures would seem more at home on a Hollywood sound stage than in the heart of a southern town.

Larry Martin, a real estate research and development specialist who helped prepare a Master Plan for future development of the National Park, shares Nichols’ fascination for the Row but he is equally infatuated with the Central Avenue business sector that faces the Row.

“Hot Springs is a haven for those of us who admire turn of the century cast iron commercial structures,” Martin says. “There are several buildings along Central Avenue in the downtown section that are prime examples of this type of architecture and give the Avenue something of a San Francisco kind of lived-in feel.”

Martin considers the entire downtown striking.

“Hot Springs has a unique downtown section,” he says. “It’s a viable downtown, a downtown where you can walk and be safe night or day. And it’s a downtown people really use. You can see people window shopping 24 hours a day and they all appear to feel comfortable doing it.”

Restaurants, gift shops, clothing stores, rock shops, and souvenir centers stand side by side with several auction houses. The auction houses or galleries provide entertainment and an occasional bargain as art treasures, diamonds, or other, more mundane, items are sold to the highest bidder.

New and restored business buildings offer eloquent testimony to the vitality of the city and provide a blend of sights that keep the visitor on his toes.

The National Park and the city are separate entities on paper, but in reality they blend into a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking urban bustle and sylvan calm.

Just behind the Row is a shaded mountain-side brick promenade where the sightseer may walk night or day and talk to and feed tame squirrels, chipmunks and birds, and psychically erase the outside world.

Sugar Loaf and Indian Mountains, two of the National Park’s five peaks, are undeveloped, but Hot Springs, North and West Mountains are crisscrossed with miles of improved hiking trails, bridle paths and motor drives leading to panoramic views of eclectic beauty.

And, including a mini-park in the business sector, the city maintains a string of half-a-dozen parks throughout its munici-pal boundaries, each providing a place to walk or picnic or simply to sit and breathe the fresh, unpolluted air.

Three man-made lakes, Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita, are only minutes from downtown and offer 60,000 boatable, ski-able, fishable acres of year-round aquatic joy.

Hamilton and Ouachita spill into the Ouachita National Forest.

The complex and contrasting mix of mountains, lakes and vegetation protected by govermental regulations produce spiritually exhilarating landscapes every season of the year.

Historian Cline thinks the people who call Hot Springs home add to the spa’s lure.

“It’s good that tourists see races and take baths while they’re here, but they should also take the time to visit with some of the locals,” she says. “You can find any accent you want here and any background by talking to the waitress who serves you dinner or the owner of the shop where you buy a Hot Springs diamond. Our people seem to thrive and become more open by seeing so many different visitors coming into their places of business.”

Many thought the death knell had sounded for Hot Springs a decade ago when casino gambling faded into the past. But city fathers grabbed fraying bootstraps and hurled themselves upright toward today’s healthy economy.

A major theme park is under construction.

A new and soul-quieting Mid America Park is a reality. It is home to a 1600-seat amphitheatre, the nearly-finished Mid America Museum, Garland County Community College, the Quapaw Vocational Technical School, and industrial sites.

“We’re more alive today than we’ve ever been,” says Ms. Cline. “I love to study our past but so much is happening, it’s sometimes hard to think about anything further back than yesterday.”

Expect Traffic Snarls

If you plan to drive to Hot Springs any weekday or Saturday between February 3 and April 1, expect bumper-to-bumper traffic twice a day – for the hour or so just before 1:30p.m. post time at Oaklawn Park and for the 30 to 45 minutes after the last race, usually 6 p.m.

City buses travel from various points in town to the track but private vehicles create a massive congestion.

A $5 million purse program for the meet will provide a daily average purse distribution of $100,000 and four $100,000 stakes are scheduled for the Racing Festival of the South, the final week of the meet, so record attendance is likely.

If all you want is a day at the races, then everything you could possibly want or need can be found within the giant Oaklawn complex which has three restaurants and refreshment centers scattered throughout.

Food, drink and race fans will abound.

If you’re at all people-shy, you might want to visit the track Monday through Thursday when the crowds are normally smaller. For most of the meet, Friday and Saturday turnouts are overwhelming.

Gate admission is $1. Reserved seat prices are $1.50 on weekdays and $3 on Saturdays.

Children under 16 years of age are not admitted.

If you are making a day visit, you might want to leave before the last race to avoid the traffic and to allow time to drive to the top of West Mountain for a spectacular view of the city.

An early dinner in any one of several excellent restaurants would allow time to catch the first show at the Vapors or at the Derby Dinner Theatre, the two major show places in Hot Springs.

Other entertainment, including unknown rock or western performers and instrumentalists, is available at any number of night spots.

But the Vapors, enlarged and renovated prior to the 1977 season, books top acts off the Las Vegas circuit and the Derby complex provides the tops in country and western.

The Derby will open with a seating of 600, enlarged from its previous 450 and a new 200-seat room, the Derby Show Lounge, will debut this year. It will feature cocktails, dancing and floor shows.

Unless you make reservations in advance for one of the 3,000 or so hotel and motel rooms, you may run into trouble if you decide to spend the night. Especially on a weekend. Room rates are increased for the 50 day meet and usually require advance requests.

Tourist attractions open in February arethe Alligator Farm, Josephine Tussaud WaxMuseum, Dryden Pottery and Hot SpringsPottery.

Oaklawn . . . A Fifth Season

HOT SPRINGS, ARK. (Dec. 29) – In Arkansas there is a fifth season which offers more excitement than winter, summer, spring or autumn. It is the Oaklawn thoroughbred horse racing season, lasting 50 full days and occurring at the Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs, Arkansas, one of turfdom’s most prestigious locations.

This year’s Oaklawn meeting is February 3 through April 1. The fifth season offers $5 million in purses and is expected to draw over one million spectators, a claim which over the years has established Oaklawn Park as Arkansas’ number one tourist attraction. The track opened in 1904.

Much of the success of Oaklawn is due to its top management team, headed by Charles J. Ce la, president, and a former president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, and Oaklawn vies president and general manager W. T. Bishop. Their staff has spent months preparing for Oak-lawn’s 1978 opening. Oaklawn’s 110-acre area is well manicured. Its track is considered one of the safest and most uniform in existence. Some2,400 thoroughbreds will be quartered at Oak-lawn and nearby farms.

Oaklawn offers many traditions. There is the Racing Festival of the South, placed in the last seven days of the meeting and including seven stakes, with four $100,000 events. There are seven other stakes events, scattered throughout the 50 days, containing $25,000 and $50,000 purses. The Arkansas Derby is a $100,000 event and customarily draws the largest crowd of the year.

The conveniences of Oaklawn include three restaurants offering a variety of delicious meals, refreshment centers located throughout the Clubhouse, and one of thoroughbred’s most modern Grandstands designed to assure good track views no matter where you sit. Another bonus begins in March when Oaklawn’s Infield is open for spectators.

The Racing Festival of the South


Purse $100,000 Added ● Saturday, March 25 Three-year-old fillies/1 mile and 1/16


Purse $25,000 Added ● Monday, March 27 Three-year-old colts and geldings/6 furlongs


Purse $15,000 Added ● Tuesday, March 28 Three-year-olds bred in Arkansas/6 furlongs


Purse $100,000 Added ● Wednesday, March 29 Four-year-olds and up fillies and mares/1 mile end 70 yards


Purse $25,000 Added ● Thursday, March 30 Four-year-olds and up/6 furlongs


Purse $100,000 Added ● Friday, March 31 Four-year-olds/1 mile and 1/16


Purse $100,000 Added ● Saturday, April 1 Three-year-olds/1 mile and 1/8


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