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Hot Springs: The Valley Of Vapors

Updated on September 27, 2015

Horse Shoe Bath House

The Horse Shoe Bath House, in 1909 advertised as "one of the coziest medium-priced bath houses in Hot Springs"
The Horse Shoe Bath House, in 1909 advertised as "one of the coziest medium-priced bath houses in Hot Springs"

Hot Springs National Park

The famed Spanish Explorer, Hernando DeSoto, called it "The Valley of the Vapors,” when he discovered it in 1541.

Today, it’s known as Hot Springs National Park in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Before DeSoto, Native Americans held the site to be sacred. Various tribes gathered at the healing waters to bathe. The springs were considered neutral ground where all animosity and differences were set aside.

The Spanish explorers stayed just long enough to claim the land for Spain and leave European diseases that devastated the local population. Desoto himself became sick and died in 1542 as they were leaving what would become known as the Arkansas Territory.

The Ozark Bathhouse

The Ozark Bathhouse, along Hot Springs' famed "Bathhouse Row"
The Ozark Bathhouse, along Hot Springs' famed "Bathhouse Row"

Reputed To Heal Illness

Though not scientifically proven the mineral waters are reputed to heal illness and afflictions for those who drink the water or bathe in it. Therefore, many have come to the renowned springs seeking cures. It’s believed veins of quartz are responsible for the healing energies of the waters.

The average water temperature is 143-147 degrees and the water flowing today took over 4,000 years to filter down through the sedimentary layers. There are two camps of thought concerning what produces the high temperatures. Some believe water percolates very slowly down through the earth’s surface until reaching superheated areas and then rushes rapidly back to the surface. The other contends high pressure forcing water through small fissures causes it.

Hot Springs

Oldest Federal Reserve

Hot Springs National Park is the oldest Federal Reserve in the United States. Hot Springs National Park was established in 1921. It became the nation’s first National Reservation in 1832, to provide federal protection predating The Yellowstone National Park by about 40 years. The City of Hot Springs is the only one located within a national park.

Over the centuries the land has been laid claim to by one country or group after another. In 1673, the French found it and claimed it France. When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the area again came under Spanish rule. In 1800, ownership went to Napoleon’s French Empire before President Thomas Jefferson purchased the land in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. However, the President considered the land as still belonging to the Quapaw Indians making any previous claims null and void.

The Civil War

During the Civil War most residents fled to Texas or Louisiana and remained there until the war ended. In 1862, after the Union won the Battle of Pea Ridge Confederate Governor Henry Rector feared the capital city of Little Rock would soon be captured by Union forces. Therefore, he moved his entire staff from Little Rock to Hot Springs. However the Union Army didn’t attack as expected and Rector moved the state government back to Little Rock…only to have Little Rock fall to the Union in September 1863.

Following the war, Hot Springs was visited by guerrilla bands loyal both to the Union and the Confederacy. They pillaged and burned the town until only a handful of buildings were left.

The city then underwent a construction boom of bathhouses and hotels and the population quickly increased. The first bath house was built in 1854 by John C. Hale and the famous “Bath House Row” was born. Bathhouse Row today, is a group of eight architecturally significant structures. Most of these were built between 1912 and 1923. Two bath houses, the Buckstaff and the Quapaw, are still in operation.

By 1873, six bathhouses and twenty-four hotels had been built. A multi-millionaire from Chicago built a railroad running from Hot Springs to Malvern, Arkansas. This railroad attracted many visitors to the city. In 1875, Samuel Fordyce, a businessman from Ohio, built the Arlington Hotel, the first luxury hotel in Hot Springs.

By 1884 gambling had become a profitable business and gambling control was split by two factions…Frank Flynn and Major S. A. Doran. Competition became so fierce these rivals had an all out gunfight in the streets. The causalities outnumbered the body count of the famous 1881 shootout in Tombstone at the OK Corral.

A vigilante group formed within hours and rounded up as many gamblers as they could locate and put them on the next train out of town. Even so, visitors rushed to get out of the city.

The City of Hot Springs in Garland County has had many famous residents, the most famous of which was former President Bill Clinton, who spent his boyhood there. However, there were also a few infamous people who spent time in the city. Frank and Jesse James visit to the historic town coincidently coincided with two robberies.

In 1887, the notorious Wyatt Earp dropped in to relax with a bit of gambling. Earp became quarrelsome when his luck at the tables turned sour. He received a visit from Chief of Police Toler, who had a reputation of being a pretty tough person himself. Toler informed Earp of the unwritten policy of peace in the “Valley of Vapors”. However, the next evening found Earp losing again. This time Toler disarmed the famous gunfighter and ran him out of town.

By 1921 the city had become a popular resort featuring gambling, a national park, thermal water spas and horse racing. These activities attracted the likes of gangsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

Today, Hot Springs boasts many annual events including the Documentary Film Festival Hot Springs Music Festival, the downtown Bathtub Races, Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival, Hot Springs Jazz Festival, Hot Springs Blues Festival and the World's Shortest Saint Patrick's Day Parade.


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I lived in the Fort Smith Area for years. Alma is where my grandparents lived. I went to Hot Springs and many other places I'm just beginning to start writing about. Stay tuned.

    • onegoodwoman profile image


      7 years ago from A small southern town


      An article about my homestate, that doesn't make us out to be backward, illerate rednecks.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Interesting history! I wish I could attend those music festivals. Great hub, voted UP!


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