For centuries the “Valley of the Vapors” has been known as a place
of peace & tranquility. A beautiful misty valley nestled in the foothills
of the Ouachita Mountains where Native Americans gathered to bathe
in the natural healing waters that were in abundance here.
“Peace” had a double meaning here; the naturally peaceful setting,
and peace among otherwise warring tribes.
You see there was an unwritten rule in the Hot Springs valley, one that
seems to have stayed with us through the ages. Differences were set
aside and all were welcome to take advantage of the magic of the
We saw this again in the 1800’s when a famous but unruly gunslinger
was escorted out of town, and in the Gangster era when even the
“bad boys” were good… as long as they were here.
So, your Hot Springs, AR vacation could be the best you’ve ever had!
Just don’t be gettin’ unruly pardner! Here’s a small listing of some of the
events in history that helped build Hot Springs AR into the Top Travel
Destination it is today.
1541 in Hot Springs AR History
The poor Indians demise began in 1541 when Hernando DeSoto and
his Spanish explorers found our little valley. They stayed just long
enough to take a hot bath, claim the area for Spain and leave a little
something for the Natives to remember them by; devastating European
diseases that wiped out countless numbers. DeSoto himself took ill and died in 1542 as they headed out of what would
become the Arkansas Territory. A fitting end as he and his “explorers” did
little more than bully & antagonize the Indians into leaving our peaceful valley.
Hot Springs AR History 1673
Over a hundred years went by until more explorers came. In 1673 it was
Father Marquette and a fella named Joliet that ventured to the area and
claimed it for France. At least these guys were nicer to the Natives.
They came down the Mississippi River and up the Arkansas but didn’t
make it all the way to Hot Springs. Then it was LaSalle and others that
followed to continue France’s claim for nearly another hundred years.
Adventurous French trappers and traders criss-crossed these mountains
throughout the late 1600’s, well into the 1700’s. Almost a hundred years
of French influence is evidenced by names like Petite Jean, the Fouche
LaFave River and Ouachita, which is the French spelling of an Indian
word meaning “good hunting grounds”. Pay attention sportsmen!
Native Americans were clued in to the abundant hunting and fishing found
here in the Ouachitas. Granted, it’s been a few hundred years but you will
find that abundance still exists today! Come try us for a winter season!
Who says your Hot Springs AR vacation has to be in the summer?
Imagine yourself cozy by the fire in a Hot Springs AR cabin, packing
for your day of hunting in the beautiful Ouachita Mountains.
Hot Springs AR History 1763
The Treaty of Paris ceded the area back to Spain and all was quiet again
for a time, just the Indians and their Arkansas Jacuzzi’s!
1800 in Hot Springs AR History
Control of the Arkansas area was returned to France until the Louisiana Purchase.
Hot Springs AR History 1803
Now here’s where it really starts getting interesting!
Arkansas, and our hot springs become United States Territory
when President Jefferson dropped some dough on the French.
And aren’t we glad he did?!
We could be saying “viva la France” instead of “Woooooo-Pig-Souie“!
(Razorback fans? C’mon, where’s my boys?)
Hot Springs AR History 1804
The “Prez” decided it was time to send someone to investigate the “hub-bub”
surrounding this misty little valley in the country’s newly acquired territory.
Enter Dr. George Hunter & William Dunbar, who arrived in December of that
year, on the first US Govt. commissioned expedition. They found a lone log
cabin and a few rudimentary shelters that had been built by persons visiting
the springs for their healing properties.
Thank goodness Hot Springs AR cabin rentals available today are a bit
more modern; four walls, running water, heat, and everything!
Before departing, they visited all the springs, measured their temperatures,
took samples to perform chemical tests and gathered other scientific data.
The party was held-up by a winter storm and had to hang out here for awhile.
(Awe, poor guys!)
Some passed the time by hunting buffalo (yeah, Arkansas had buffalo!), but
don’t you know they all took turns in the tub while waiting for the snow to melt!
Hot Springs AR History 1807
A man named Prudhomme arrived to become the 1st settler in Hot Springs AR
He built a cabin right by the springs and was soon joined by a couple other fellas,
John Perciful and Isaac Cates. These first residents were very quick to realize
the springs’ potential to become a health resort.
Through the early 1800’s people came and went. Some stayed for good, others
returned home citing their ills were cured by the thermal springs.
During the early years of development many claims to ownership would be
made by many different folks.
But you have to understand, as far as the US Gov. was concerned, all these
lands still belonged to the Quapaw Indians. Therefore none of the early settlers
actually had a legal claim.
Hot Springs AR History 1818
The Quapaw Indians ceded the land around the hot springs to the United States
in an August 24th treaty. Ceded, now there’s an interesting term. I wonder how
the Quapaw referred to it? 1819 – Arkansas officially becomes it’s own territory.
To protect this unique national resource and preserve it for the use of the public,
the Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and
adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation.
Hot Springs AR History 1832
Well dang! It took twelve years but on April 20, President Andrew Jackson
signed legislation to set aside the land including the hot springs. This makes
Hot Springs National Park the oldest national park, predating the great
Yellowstone National Park by forty years.
Unfortunately, Congress failed to pass any legislation for administering the site.
As a result, no controls were exerted in the area, and people continued to settle
there, building businesses around and even over the springs.
Hot Springs AR History 1836
Arkansas becomes the 25th State. There are a little more than 14,000 widely
scattered settlers in the entire state.
Hot Springs AR History 1849
By the mid-1800s, the springs were being claimed by several private citizens.
The government was forced to flex a little muscle to re-establish its jurisdiction.
The newly formed Department of the Interior assumed that responsibility.
Eventually the conflicting claims led to a series of lawsuits, which were not
completely settled until many years later.
Gambling in Hot Springs gets it’s first mention as visitors tell of their exploits
while here “convalescing”.
1850‘s – Hot Springs AR History
The first bath house was built by John C. Hale in 1854 and the now famous
Bath House Row is born. The “order of the day” for this period was parties,
balls, concerts, and BBQ‘s.
However, in the 1850’s, commercial theater was introduced to Hot Springs.
After the construction of a small theater in 1859, an actors’ stock company
soon arrived. A local newspaper boasted that Hot Springs was the only
“watering place in the South, if not the whole country, which affords
theatrical amusements to its visitors”.
Now we don’t call it a “watering place” anymore but we do still provide many
amusements and the opportunity to pamper yourself at a Hot Springs AR spa.
1860‘s – Hot Springs AR History
In 1860, Hot Springs’ population was officially 201. Hot Springs serves as the
Arkansas State Capital for a brief period back in 1862 when Governor Rector
moved his staff and the state records there because of a rumor that the Federal
troops were about to march on Little Rock.
The city of Hot Springs is “burned out” during the American Civil War and all
development ceases for a time. Then in 1865, businesses were re-established
and more people with enterprising business ideas moved back into the town.
1870‘s – Hot Springs AR History
By now many people are playing a part in the development of the bathing
industry in Hot Springs. The bathing industry is without a doubt what put
Hot Springs on the map.
After the war, these entrepreneurs developed the area vigorously, and the
construction boom is coming. By 1875 there are five bath houses, 12 good
hotels and many smaller hotels and boarding houses. The Arlington Hotel
completed construction around this time.
A narrow-gauge railroad line from Malvern to Hot Springs that was known as
the “Diamond Jo Line” is completed and travel to Hot Springs, AR gets much
easier and safer. Safe passage by train was a key element necessary to greatly
increase the number of visitors to Hot Springs, AR. Before the trains, you got
here on horseback or by horse-drawn carriage. You know, like the “noon stage”.
And after all, it was the 1870’s! Being “held up” was not uncommon!
Visitors with medical needs were usually coming to stay for a while and
often had a few months worth of cash with them. Easy targets for bandits!
Hot Springs AR History – Outlaw Style!
Some of our more famous visitors at the time included Frank & Jesse James,
and their visits happen to coincide with two robberies along Malvern Road.
Frank actually ended up back in Hot Springs later, working at the Happy Hollow for a time before he died.
Legal rulings from Hot Springs AR History
In 1877, the court rules against all the would-be private land owners, once more
establishing government control over the area.
The Hot Springs Commission was authorized to reconfirm the boundaries of the
reservation and handle any remaining claims.
In the same year Benjamin Kelley was appointed the first superintendent of the
Hot Springs Reservation. Regulations for bathing at the springs were established,
surveys were made and finally the springs and the mountains around them are
permanently set aside as Hot Springs Reservation.
The average price for a soothing hot mineral bath in 1877 was only 4 bits.
(that’s 50 cents for you city folk). Hot Springs, AR now had gas lighting
and even some electricity!
As more and more hotels, bathhouses, and other businesses prospered in
Hot Springs, the population continuously rose.
People were drawn to new opportunities allowed by the developing bathing
industry. Hot Springs was one of the most important business places in the
State west of Little Rock at this time.
Did I say earlier that the government had gained control of the area?
I did, didn’t I?
Well, in 1878, the Secretary of the Interior ordered the further clean-up of the
springs, namely the removal of the wooden shanties built over some of them by
locals. Superintendent Kelley carried out this order, but a mob confronted him
the next day and threatened to hang him, then they rebuilt their shanties.
When even the U.S. Marshal was unable to stop the construction, Kelley sent
for federal troops. On October 8th, Company E of the 13th Infantry arrived to
protect U.S. property and keep the peace.
Now we’re off like a rocket! Everybody knows who-owns-what, whether they
can build-or-not and Hot Springs, AR can get on with transforming from a rough
frontier town to an elegant spa city, with new buildings, landscaping, & elaborate
The uncertainty of land ownership greatly influenced the quality of construction
that occurred in Hot Springs during the 1870s. Not only were the commercial
buildings and some residences built with inexpensive and readily available lumber,
but most bathhouses were too. Now new construction was occurring in the boom
town, and the existing buildings were being improved and enlarged too.
The building activity of the 1870s continued into the 1880s and 1890s as the
population of Hot Springs and its number of visitors continued to increase. To meet the ever-growing demand for accommodations, new hotels and boarding
houses replaced the smaller and less sophisticated structures of decades past.
Hotels built after 1880 were usually of brick construction, larger and more
able to provide the amenities that were becoming desired by the visitors.
Those of you interested in period architecture will appreciate a stroll
Downtown to view the buildings from the late 1800’s, still in use today.
A perfect vacation package for such a person should include a stay at a nostalgic Hot Springs AR Bed and Breakfast.
Hot Springs AR History – In the late 1800’s
Horse racing became popular in Hot Springs. From January to March, several
races were run daily. The Essex Park Race Track opened in 1904, and a year
later, the Oaklawn Race Track opened. People enjoyed coming to bet on the
exciting horse races and continue to do so today — Oaklawn is still with us!
By 1884, gambling had became so profitable in Hot Springs that control of the
gaming was split between the two “bosses” of the day, Frank Flynn and Major
S.A. Doran. These rivals had a major gun battle on our streets that same year.
The shootout had a higher body count than the famous 1881 Tombstone fight.
It pitted lawmen against lawmen — the Garland County Sheriff’s Office vs. the
Hot Springs Police Department! One worked for one boss, and one for the other.
In the ensuing gun battle, 3 men were killed and 3 others, including Flynn, were
wounded. It was a very sad day in the pages of Hot Springs AR history.
Hot Springs AR History – Vigilante Style!
Within a few hours, a vigilante group called the Committee of Thirteen had
formed and gathered up as many gamblers as they could find. Then they
“pointed” them (bayonet point that is!) to the trains for hasty departures.
Gambling in the spa city had taken a hit, but before long it would be revived
and come on stronger than ever. News of the shootout in the Spa City made
the papers from NY City to CA and this left the city fathers distressed.
After the gunfight, lines of visitors rushed to take the next train out of town.
Hot Springs depended on the tourist trade for its economic health, and a
battle between local badge-wearers in the middle of Central Avenue was
not exactly good for business.
The age of the prosperous bathing and gambling industries in Hot Springs
was a magnificent time in Hot Springs AR history. Though the popular
gambling establishments drew a bit of criminal activity to the town, they
along with other Hot Springs entertainments were a part of the whole
It was not only the magical waters that helped develop Hot Springs,
the town could not have thrived without three other main factors:
entrepreneurs to build businesses, railroads to connect Hot Springs
with the outside world, and the other entertainments to further relax
and cure the ailing.
Speaking of “curing“, Hot Springs gets its first hospital when the
Sisters of Mercy come to town in 1887. Two brave sisters were sent
from Saint Mary’s Convent in Little Rock, took over the Adams Hotel
and converted it into St. Joseph’s Infirmary. That building now houses
the Arkansas School for Math & Sciences.
We had another famous visitor in 1887, the notorious Wyatt Earp.
Wyatt had stopped in Hot Springs, AR for a some R&R. He began to
get belligerent when his luck was sliding at the tables and got a visit
from Chief of Police Toler. Toler was a pretty tough fella himself and
made sure Wyatt understood that “unwritten rule” of peace in the
Valley of the Vapors.
All was well until the next evening when Wyatt was drunk and losing
again, and Chief Toler was summoned once more. One warning was
all you got, even if you were Wyatt Earp, and Toler disarmed the
famous gunslinger and showed him to the edge of town.
In 1889 standard gauge rails replaced narrow gauge rails on the
Hot Springs rail lines, making direct routing to Hot Springs possible.
The government authorized a number of ambitious landscaping and
building projects in the 1890s. These included a grand entrance,
mountain drives, a lake park on Whittington Avenue, fountains,
and a brick bathhouse for the indigent. All to further enhance the
visitors’ experience, and most are still in use, or at least viewable today.
By 1901 all of the springs had been walled up & covered to protect them.
Hot Springs AR History includes one of the very first Walgreens opened.