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History Buffs

Here, the past is today’s fun.

History Buffs

Fun and popular spots in Hot Springs for history buffs.

Hot Springs, Arkansas, has been a resort town since its establishment.  The naturally thermal spring waters found here were believed to have healing properties, which is why presidents, athletes, outlaws, and other notable figures visited The Spa City.  Some interesting moments in early Hot Springs history include:

  • Native American tribes called this location the “Valley of the Vapors” and believed that the naturally hot springs had healing powers.  Even warring tribes are said to have bathed here in peace. 
  • Hernando de Soto was the first European explorer to visit Hot Springs in 1541.
  • In 1832, Congress designated Hot Springs as a federal reserve, essentially establishing the first national park.
  • In 1862, during the Civil War, Arkansas Governor Henry Massie Rector feared that Little Rock might be captured by Union troops.  He had all of the state records relocated to Hot Springs, and from May 6 through July 14 of that year, Hot Springs served as the state capital. 
  • The Arlington Hotel was completed in 1875, and was the largest hotel in the state at that time.
  • In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings baseball franchise began spring training in Hot Springs.
  • 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.
  • Between 1892 and 1923, eight bathhouses were built on what’s known today as Bathhouse Row.  This area along the Grand Promenade was designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1987.
  • Thoroughbred racing began in Hot Springs with the construction of Essex Park in 1904.  The following year, Oaklawn Park opened, and it was soon the only racing venue in the city.

Leo McLaughlin was elected mayor of Hot Springs in 1926, and fulfilled a campaign promise to allow gambling.  Illegal gambling had long been a staple of life in Hot Springs, but McLaughlin took it to a new level using voter fraud and other unlawful tactics to drive his political machine.  During his 22-year reign, Hot Springs became a haven for notorious criminals and mobsters, including Owen “Owney” Madden, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Al Capone.

These are some of the storylines in Hot Springs history.  Today, its heritage is preserved in many places around town.  Here are a few must-see sites for history buffs:

  • The Arlington Hotel, a Hot Springs treasure since 1875.  239 Central Avenue.  1-800-643-1502.
  • Bathhouse Row, a National Historic Landmark District.  Two bathhouses are still in operation: Buckstaff Bathhouse Company, 509 Central Avenue, 501-623-2308; and, Quapaw Baths & Spa, 413 Central Avenue, 501-609-9822.
  • The Gangster Museum of America offers a unique look at The Spa City’s mobster era.  510 Central Avenue.  501-318-1717.
  • Hot Springs Baseball Trail documents the birthplace of spring training.  Plaques are located at important sites along the trail.  Brochures are available for walking tours as well as digital tours using your smart phone.  1-800-SPA-CITY.
  • Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center located in the restored Fordyce Bathhouse.  101 Reserve Street.  501-624-2308 or 501-624-2701. 
  • Oaklawn Racing & Gaming, Arkansas’s favorite place to play, located at 2705 Central Avenue.  1-800-OAKLAWN.
  • Also, Anita Lynn Historic Tours offers professional guide services featuring 2.5 hours of sightseeing and storytelling of yesteryear.  Call 501-624-5912 for more info.

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