How to plan a vacation around the cool history of Hot Springs.
The Spa City – America’s First Resort
Hot Springs, Arkansas, gets its name from the naturally thermal spring waters found here. Flowing out of the ground at an average temperature of 143 °F, the hot springs produce almost one million gallons of water each day.
It’s hard to tell exactly how long people have been visiting the springs. Native Americans called this area “the Valley of the Vapors,” and it was said to have been a neutral territory where all tribes could enjoy its healing waters in peace. Spanish and French settlers claimed the area in the mid-1500s. In fact, famous explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to visit Hot Springs in 1541.
The hot springs were such a coveted natural wonder that in 1832, President Andrew Jackson designed Hot Springs as the first federal reservation. Hot Springs Reservation was essentially America’s first national park, predating Yellowstone National Park by 40 years.
In just a decade, the area changed from a rough frontier town to an elegant spa city centered on a row of attractive Victorian-style bathhouses, the last ones completed in 1888. When Congress established the National Park Service, Hot Springs Reservation became Hot Springs National Park in 1921.
Today, you can still soak in the thermal waters on historic Bathhouse Row. The hot springs are also pumped into several downtown hotels and spas. The water is even available at public fountains. The beautifully restored Fordyce Bathhouse now serves as a visitor center.
The Site of Infamy – A Haven in the Gangster Era
Visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, today, it’s hard to imagine the city as a hotbed for organized crime, such as gambling, prostitution and bootlegging. But from the late-1800s through the mid-1900s, especially in the 1930s, Hot Springs was a popular hangout for Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano, and other infamous mobsters. The safe, secluded scenic location of Hot Springs made it the ideal hideout. In order to understand how and why they chose this site, it’s necessary to reflect on the corruption that had been going on here for decades.
As early as the mid- to late-1800s, Hot Springs had been involved in illegal gambling. At that time, two families controlled these activities: the Flynns and the Dorans. The two families constantly fought over the city’s gaming rights – a competition that eventually led to the famous Hot Springs Gunfight in 1899.
During this realm of local rule, hotel rooms, saloons, and back alleys were the hotspots for cards and craps and casino-type gaming of all kinds. Hot Springs offered Las Vegas-style amenities before there was a Las Vegas.
Though illegal, and a felony under Arkansas law, the betting was no secret to the majority of local authorities. Police officers, judges, and even the mayor turned a blind eye to the industry either because they were being paid off by one of the families or were participating in the gaming themselves.
It’s easy to see how Hot Springs became a haven for criminals. One of the most notorious was Owney “The Killer” Madden, referred to as “The English Godfather.” Madden arrived in Hot Springs in 1935, seeking a slower lifestyle than the one he was accustomed to in New York City. Originally from England, Madden grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and is credited with putting the “organized” into organized crime.
Well respected and well liked, Madden settled into Hot Springs very easily. Eventually, more and more gangsters arrived. The word spread that Hot Springs was the perfect hideout for criminals running from police investigations. It is said that Al Capone and his bodyguards would rent out entire floors of hotels.
Gangster activity in Hot Springs came to an end in the 1960s, due to a federal crackdown on what the government called “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.”
Remnants of the city’s notorious past can still be found inside The Gangster Museum of America, located in downtown Hot Springs. The museum features classic relics, including old roulette tables, vintage slot machines, Madden and Capone exhibits, weapons, and a documentary in the museum’s theater.
A Winning Location – Baseball Legends’ Favorite Place to Play
In 1886, Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Famous for its hot mineral waters and Ouachita Mountain scenery as well as its hotels and nightlife, this bustling turn-of-the-century resort town was the perfect place for something no one had ever heard of: annual spring training for professional baseball. In time, five fields were built. Each spring, as many as 250 players came here to train, including the legends of the game.
The Hot Springs Baseball Trail preserves the places where legends stood, where records were set, and where baseball itself was shaped. At each site on the trail, you’ll find square, digital “codes,” that, when scanned by your smartphone, link to historic photos, audio clips and more. You can use your cell phone to access stories of the golden age of baseball in Hot Springs. You can visit www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com or a brochure with more information on the Hot Springs Baseball Trail is available at the Hot Springs Visitor Center.