IMPULSIVE TRAVELER

Soaking in the charms of Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas

Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, Ark., is lined with elegant old bathhouses, some still in use and some being restored.
Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, Ark., is lined with elegant old bathhouses, some still in use and some being restored. (Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau)
[Hot Springs National Park]
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

In a town called Hot Springs, I expected to bathe in actual hot springs.

I expected wrong.

The National Park Service long ago covered many of the 47 springs in Hot Springs National Park to protect them for use by the bathhouses that lined Central Avenue in the city's historic downtown.

During the Golden Age of Bathing, people flocked to this Arkansas town looking for a cure for such ailments as syphilis, hemorrhoids and just plain weary old bones. Among the crowds were gangsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano and others, who also frequented the town's casino, racetrack and nightclubs. (And let's not forget that President Bill Clinton grew up in Hot Springs, though let's not dwell on that, either.)

To get oriented, I took a stroll down Bathhouse Row, which a sign declared to be "a significant national landmark in the culture of leisure." The architecture of the bathhouses varies from Victorian to Mediterranean to Mission Revival; inside some are elaborate stained-glass windows. Business here was at its peak in 1946, but by 1974, the miracles of modern medicine had made the baths obsolete. Only two of the bathhouses are in operation; five others are being restored, and one is now the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Fordyce Bath House, which operated from 1915 to 1962, is a museum displaying traditional bathhouse equipment, such as the Hubbard Tub, installed in 1939. An overhead transport lowered patients into the deep tub for syphilis treatments. "Is this the torture chamber?" asked another visitor as we studied the unusual contraption.

Thankfully, there was no such device at the Quapaw Baths & Spa, where I had my first bath. Instead, there were four mineral-water pools in one large coed bathing area. "When you're done, your skin will feel like this," said the middle-aged woman at the front desk, holding out her arm. I hoped my skin would end up as smooth.

I put on my swimsuit and went out into the bathing area. Each pool was set at a different temperature: 91, 94, 101 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. I positioned myself in front of one of the jet streams in the 91-degree pool for a back massage. The water felt a little cool, so I moved over to the 94-degree pool, where a Hot Springs resident named Vic was soaking, as he does almost every day for the water's therapeutic effects. "It works," he told me.

My adventurous spirit kicked in, and I went straight to the 104-degree pool. Too hot. I returned to the 94-degree pool, but after a few minutes I craved more heat and got into the 101-degree pool. Perfect. But I'd been soaking for an hour, and my skin was getting prunish.

The next morning, I returned to Quapaw for a private bath. The attendant led me to a room with a whirlpool bath that smelled like lavender. She pointed to a golden bell and told me to ring if I needed her. "I'll be back in 20 minutes," she said.

Twenty minutes later, another attendant banged on the door, interrupting my reverie. "Time to get out," she said.

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