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Home / Browse / Hot Springs (Garland County)
Latitude and Longitude:
35.02 square miles (2010 Census)
35,193 (2010 Census)
January 10, 1851
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Hot Springs is situated along the Ouachita River in the Central Ouachita Mountains division of the Ouachita Mountains. It is the largest city in the Ouachita Mountains and has been a resort center since its establishment in the early nineteenth century, but it is also known as a historic locus of illegal gambling, mafia activity, and political corruption. President Bill Clinton, born in Hope (Hempstead County), grew up in Hot Springs, and the city has attracted and produced many noteworthy politicians, artists, and writers throughout the years, including Mary Lewis and Marjorie Florence Lawrence.
Pre-European Exploration through European Exploration and Settlement
The area around Hot Springs was occupied by Native Americans until about AD 1600; the most recent native inhabitants of the area were likely related to the historic Caddo Indians. Local legend speaks of the thermal springs as constituting a neutral ground in which various tribes, even those at war with each other, could co-exist in peace, at least temporarily, but these legends are no doubt later embellishments devised as part of an emerging tourist economy. However, there is evidence for early mining of area novaculite, which was used for various tools and spear points. Spanish explorers of the expedition of Hernando de Soto may have passed through what is now Garland County, but there is no evidence that de Soto himself visited the hot springs.
Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
The Hunter-Dunbar Expedition up the Ouachita River in 1804 included a four-week study of the hot springs, though the explorers were unable to discover the springs’ water source. The first permanent white settlement was established in 1807 by Louisiana planter Emmanuel Prudhomme. The site soon attracted regular visitors throughout the spring and summer months, as people sought the reputed beneficial effects of the thermal springs, and, by 1820, there opened the first structure that could be considered a hotel. By the early 1830s, the springs were proving a major attraction, and, in 1832, Congress reserved the area now known as Hot Springs National Park for federal use, exempting it from settlement. When the town of Hot Springs incorporated in 1851, it was home to two rows of hotels, along with the bath houses and the usual concomitant businesses, and the city attracted not only seekers of leisure but also numerous invalids hoping to find relief in the area’s thermal waters.
By 1860, the number of slaves in Hot Spring County was 613, just over ten percent of the population total of 5,635. Many slaves were employed at the hotels of Hot Springs, and even one hotel advertised that its warm baths were available for “invalid Negroes,” who would then be shipped back to their owners after treatment.
Civil War through Reconstruction
In 1862, when Governor Henry Massie Rector feared that Little Rock (Pulaski County) might be captured by Union troops, he relocated the state records to Hot Springs. From May 6 to July 14 of that year, Hot Springs served as the state capital. The Confederate state government then returned to Little Rock, relocating to Washington (Hempstead County) the following year when Union troops finally did advance upon and capture Little Rock. Hot Springs was never occupied by Union troops and largely escaped the violence of the war save for two minor skirmishes that occurred on February 4, 1864.
Though what was then the Hot Springs Reservation was protected from settlement in the 1830s, settlement and construction occurred near the springs nevertheless. Both before and after the Civil War, three claimants used various legal means to establish ownership of the property. The complicated situation included acts of Congress in 1870 and in 1877, as well as a case that was finally decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1876. Benjamin F. Kelley was appointed by Congress in 1877 as the first superintendant of the reservation.
Kelly initiated a number of engineering projects, allowing private owners to convert the previously ramshackle downtown bathhouses into a row of attractive buildings built in the Victorian style; this, combined with the city receiving a rail connection from what would eventually become the Rock Island Railroad in 1875, transformed Hot Springs into a cosmopolitan spa that would attract visitors from across the nation. The luxurious Arlington Hotel was also completed in 1875 and was, at the time of its completion, the largest hotel in the state. It was built by businessman Samuel W. Fordyce and others who invested heavily in Hot Springs.
Post Reconstruction through the Gilded Age
Not only did African Americans have access to employment in Hot Springs, they also had access to the same sort of bathing facilities that attracted wealthy whites to the area. In 1878, the federal government established a simple frame building over what was popularly known as the “mud hole” spring in order to service the poor, who could bathe there for free. Initially, the site was open to all regardless of gender or race. A new brick building was erected in 1891, but it was remodeled in 1898 to provide for racial and gender segregation, though all still had equal access. Until the bathhouses were desegregated in 1965, a number of bathhouses operated that were devoted to a black clientele.
In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings baseball franchise began spring training in Hot Springs. Other teams soon followed suit, and the city continued to serve as a major site of spring training until the 1920s, by which time the franchises had moved to places with warmer climates in the winter such as Florida and Arizona.
In 1887, the Army and Navy Hospital, the first combined general hospital treating patients from both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, opened in downtown Hot Springs. It was the first hospital of its kind in the nation and specialized in arthritis and other ailments that were frequently treated with therapeutic baths. One of Hot Springs’ most popular tourist attractions, Happy Hollow, began in 1888 as a studio that specialized in humorous photographs. The studio remained in operation until the 1940s. The oldest surviving structure in what has become known as Bathhouse Row is the Hale Bathhouse, which dates from 1892–93; the others are early-twentieth-century constructions.
Early Twentieth Century
Thoroughbred horse racing started in Hot Springs with the construction of Essex Park in 1904, although less formal horse racing had frequently occurred in the nineteenth century. The following year, Oaklawn Park opened, and it was soon the only racing venue in the city. However, a state law prohibiting betting on horse races was passed in 1907, and the park closed, though it was used for other purposes, including an early Arkansas State Fair. The track reopened and closed a number of times in the coming years.
On June 19, 1913, Will Norman, an African American, was lynched after reportedly attacking the fourteen-year-old daughter of his employer, Judge C. Floyd Huff. According to the newspaper account, approximately 5,000 people turned out to watch or participate in the lynching. Though the black population of the city dropped by the time of the next census, perhaps in response to the lynching, by 1930 it had recovered and included an established middle class.
Leo McLaughlin was elected mayor in 1926 and fulfilled a campaign promise to run Hot Springs as an “open” town, one where gambling was permitted by local authorities. Illegal gambling had long been a staple of life in Hot Springs, but the McLaughlin administration carried this to a new level. McLaughlin also oversaw an extensive political machine in Hot Springs that employed rampant voter fraud in order to deliver support to favored candidates. During his twenty-year reign, the city became a haven for numerous underworld figures, including Owen Vincent “Owney” Madden and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Even Al Capone was a regular visitor to the city. The Southern Club was one of the favored hangouts for many of these gangsters. The relationship local authorities had with these mob figures occasionally put it at odds with state and federal government. Writer Shirley Abbott has penned three memoirs that relate to growing up in this period of Hot Springs’ history, including The Bookmaker’s Daughter.
In 1929, Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L) under the leadership of Harvey Couch, which had previously built Remmel Dam along the Ouachita River in Hot Spring County to generate electricity, began construction on Carpenter Dam. The project was completed two years later and immediately proved a boon to the local economy. Carpenter Dam impounds the 7,200-acre Lake Hamilton along the southern and southwestern portions of the city. Numerous tourist enterprises and housing developments have emerged along the shores of Lake Hamilton.
Many wealthier African Americans traveled to Hot Springs for vacation during the days of segregation. The U.S. Supreme Court case of Mitchell v. United States (1941) was, in fact, precipitated by the only African American in the U.S. Congress at the time, Representative Arthur Wergs Mitchell of Illinois, who was traveling to Hot Springs for vacation and forced out of first-class accommodations after his train crossed into Arkansas. In the city, there was a “Black Broadway” along Malvern Avenue where many famous musicians played.
World War II through the Faubus Era
Hot Springs experienced some industrial development as well during the World War II years. Bill Seiz, a Hot Springs promoter and business leader, was able to secure from the federal government an aluminum plant between Hot Springs and Malvern (Hot Spring County). He also managed to attract a shoe factory and helped to create the city’s industrial park.
After World War II, several veterans organized to challenge the political leadership of the McLaughlin machine in what came to be known as the GI Revolt, a reform movement that had an impact in several Arkansas counties. In the 1946 election, only reformer Sid McMath was able to win a primary campaign in Hot Springs—that of prosecuting attorney. However, the reformers were able to uncover evidence of massive voter fraud and, as independents, swept the fall elections in Garland County, with Earl Thornton Ricks replacing McLaughlin as mayor.
The IQ Zoo opened in 1955 to showcase the accomplishments psychologists Keller and Marian Breland made in the training of animals. It remained a popular destination until its closure in 1990.
In 1960, the Army-Navy Hospital was turned over to the state, becoming the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center, now managed by Arkansas Rehabilitation Services.
Illegal gambling continued in Hot Springs even after the ouster of the McLaughlin political machine. So notorious was the city’s reputation that closing down gambling in Hot Springs became a major issue in the 1962 gubernatorial race, and the explosion of a bomb in the Vapors casino in January 1963 made the problem of organized crime in the city a widespread concern. Soon after Winthrop Rockefeller took office as governor in 1967, he ordered the Arkansas State Police to crack down on gambling in the spa city. The State Police were able to put an end to illegal gambling in Hot Springs, though it brought them into conflict with local power brokers and even law enforcement officers. The well-known Hot Springs brothel owner Maxine Temple Jones, in prison at the time, disclosed a great deal of information on illegal gambling in return for a full pardon.
Despite the closure of the city’s gambling establishments, as well as the shuttering of the downtown bathhouses from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hot Springs continued to grow, especially as it transformed into a destination for retirees from around the country. The construction of a new convention center made the city attractive to national entertainment tours. Quapaw Technical Institute was established in 1969, and, in 1973, Garland County Community College was created; thirty years later, these were merged into National Park Community College (NPCC). In 1985, National Park Medical Center was built to replace the old Ouachita Memorial Hospital. The city is also served by the 309-bed St. Joseph’s Mercy Health Center. The twenty-first-century expansion of Hot Springs has been in the direction of Lake Hamilton.
Hot Springs attracted international attention when, in 2007, most of the members of the Monastery of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge, also known as the Good Shepherd Home, which was founded in 1908, were excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church for heresy.
On February 27, 2014, the Majestic Hotel, a major downtown landmark, caught fire. The hotel opened as a yellow brick building in 1893 and expanded with an eight-story, red brick addition in 1926; the hotel closed in 2006 and stood vacant. The older portion of the building was demolished due to the fire, while the newer section was heavily damaged.
Aside from the Hot Springs National Park and Bathhouse Row, there are numerous attractions in Hot Springs. The Hot Springs Music Festival occurs in late spring, while the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute hosts a ten-day film festival in October each year. The World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade began in 2004 and takes place on Bridge Street. Since 1958, the Miss Arkansas Pageant has taken place in Hot Springs. Oaklawn Park hosts the annual Arkansas Derby each spring. An amusement park called Magic Springs (later expanded to Magic Springs and Crystal Falls) opened in 1978.
The Arkansas Alligator Farm was founded in 1902 and remains a popular attraction. The Mid-America Science Museum features interactive science exhibits and programs geared for young people. The Madame Tussaud Wax Museum, housed in the former Southern Club, is a noteworthy downtown attraction, as are the Gangster Museum of America and the restored historic headquarters of the Mountain Valley Spring Water company. Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre botanical garden, opened on the shore of Lake Hamilton in 2002. McClard’s Bar-B-Q became famous nationwide during the campaign and presidency of Bill Clinton. The Winery of Hot Springs offers wine from across the state.
For additional information:
Abbott, Shirley. The Bookmaker’s Daughter: A Memory Unbound. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1991.
Allbritton, Orval E. Dangerous Visitors: The Lawless Era. Hot Springs, AR: Garland County Historical Society, 2008.
———. Hot Spring Gunsmoke. Hot Springs, AR: Garland County Historical Society, 2006.
———. Leo and Verne: The Spa’s Heyday. Hot Springs, AR: Garland County Historical Society, 2003.
Anthony, Isabel, ed. Garland County, Arkansas: Our History and Heritage. Hot Springs, AR: Garland County Historical Society, 2009.
Bowen, Elliott G. “Mecca of the American Syphilitic: Doctors, Patients, and Disease Identity in Hot Springs, Arkansas, 1890–1940.” PhD diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 2013.
Brown, Dee. The American Spa. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1982.
Hanley, Ray. Hot Springs: Past and Present. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
———. A Place Apart: A Photographic History of Hot Springs. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2010.
Hot Springs, Arkansas. http://www.hotsprings.org/ (accessed April 27, 2010).
Jones, Ruth Irene. “Hot Springs: Ante-Bellum Watering Place.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 14 (Spring 1955): 3–31.
Norsworthy, Stanley Frank. “Hot Springs, Arkansas: A Geographic Analysis of the Spa’s Resort Service Area.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1970.
Raines, Robert. Hot Springs: From Capone to Costello. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013.
The Record. Hot Springs, AR: Garland County Historical Society (1960–).
Shugart, Sharon. The Hot Springs of Arkansas through the Years. Hot Springs, AR: Eastern National Parks and Monuments Association, 1996.
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 3/11/2015
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