They were known as "the hot springs of the Washita" when the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In the decades that followed, word of the curative powers of those mineral waters spread across the young nation.
"The practice of medicine was still in its infancy, but the therapeutic benefits of hot mineral spring water had been well established worldwide for millennia," Sharon Shugart writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "During the next 29 years, a few local settlers worked to turn the springs into a privately owned health resort, while others petitioned the federal government to make them accessible for everyone. The latter group prevailed. On April 20, 1832, the U.S. Congress set aside the area now known as Hot Springs National Park to preserve the springs for public benefit.
"As the government spa evolved, it continued to operate for the benefit of the public by setting a range of treatment costs to give rich and poor alike access to the waters while allowing the destitute to bathe without charge. . . . By 1923, fire-resistant brick and stucco bathhouses (some magnificently appointed) had replaced all of the deteriorating Victorian structures. On Aug. 25, 1916, Congress established the National Park Service, and Hot Springs Reservation came under its administration. Hot Springs Reservation became Hot Springs National Park on March 4, 1921."
The 1832 congressional act, which preserved 2,529 acres, was signed by President Andrew Jackson. Technically, Yellowstone National Park is the nation's oldest national park. Though it wasn't called a national park at the time, Hot Springs Reservation predates Yellowstone by 40 years and has a strong claim to being the oldest national park. The Department of the Interior was created in 1849 and took over management from the General Land Office. Land disputes were common in those early years.
"In 1877, Congress authorized a commission to establish new reservation boundaries, sell excess lots, tax the thermal water and appoint a reservation superintendent," Shugart writes. "Gen. Benjamin F. Kelly--an old friend of railroad magnate, hotelier and bathhouse owner Col. Samuel W. Fordyce--was selected to be the first Hot Springs Reservation superintendent. Entrepreneurs flocked in to implement ambitious building and business plans, while the Interior Department poured funds into engineering and landscaping projects.
"In just a decade, the area changed from a rough frontier town to an elegant spa city built around a row of attractive Victorian-style bathhouses, the last ones completed in 1888."
The steady decline of the bathing industry started in the 1950s. Bathhouses began shutting down. The Fordyce closed in 1962. It was followed by closures of the Maurice, Ozark and Hale in the 1970s. In 1984, the Quapaw and Superior closed. The Lamar closed the next year, leaving only the Buckstaff in business.
In recent years, the National Park Service has done a wonderful job finding uses for seven of the eight bathhouses. Only the Maurice remains empty. The national park grew to about 5,500 acres through the decades.
Earlier this year came the best news that has come Hot Springs' way in a long time. Congress approved the Great American Outdoors Act, which will provide the NPS with $6.5 billion during the next five years for maintenance projects nationwide. Hot Springs should benefit greatly from the additional funds, as should the other six NPS facilities in Arkansas.
While Hot Springs is the only designated national park in the state, the other six facilities bring visitors and increase the quality of life for those who already live here. The kind of cultural and recreational amenities they provide will be crucial to the state's efforts to attract and retain young, talented workers since they're all about quality-of-life amenities.
The other six NPS properties are:
• Buffalo National River: Like Hot Springs, it attracts visitors from across the country. It was the first U.S. stream to receive a national river designation when President Richard Nixon signed the law that put it under the NPS on March 1, 1972. Park boundaries and acreage were part of the legislation. Under the law, total acreage couldn't exceed 95,730 acres.
Hunting and fishing were allowed, and most permanent residents had an option of using their land for another 25 years. Park visitation now averages more than 800,000 people per year.
Visitors can access the 135 miles of river at launch points. There also are more than 100 miles of trails. In June 2019, Buffalo National River was designated the first International Dark Sky Park in Arkansas.
• Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site: Civil rights tourism is an increasingly important part of the travel industry, and Central High is an iconic spot in the civil rights movement. The NPS has been involved at the site since 1998. What was originally the home of Little Rock High School was completed in 1927.
Architects John Parks Almand, George Mann, Eugene John Stern, Lawson Delony and George Wittenburg designed a $1.5 million structure that The New York Times described as the most expensive school ever built in the United States.
Central High is the only fully functioning high school that's also an NPS national historic site. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982.
• Arkansas Post National Memorial: U.S. Rep. William Norrell of Arkansas introduced a bill in 1959 to make Arkansas Post an NPS unit. On July 6, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill. Arkansas Post was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 15, 1966.
There are two units. The Memorial Unit covers 389 acres with a visitors' center and 2.5 miles of paved trails. The Osotouy Unit covers 360 acres and was added in November 1997. It contains the site of a Quapaw village along with an archaeological site.
• Fort Smith National Historic Site: The site preserves the remains of two military posts, two jails and a federal courthouse. The city of Fort Smith began reclaiming the property in the 1950s.
Judge Isaac Parker's courtroom was restored in 1957. In 1961, the NPS took over. Lady Bird Johnson, the nation's first lady, came for the official dedication in 1964. National Historic Landmark status was obtained in December 1960, and major renovations were completed in 2000.
• Pea Ridge National Military Park: U.S. Rep. Clyde Ellis of Arkansas began corresponding with the NPS in 1939 in an effort to preserve the civil war battlefield at Pea Ridge. In 1956, a bill was finally introduced to make Pea Ridge a national military park. On July 20, 1956, Congress enacted legislation to accept a 5,000-acre donation from the state of Arkansas.
The park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in October 1966. In February 2010, a $1 million renovation was completed. It included an expanded museum with interactive exhibits about the 1862 battle.
Pea Ridge is considered one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields in the country. It also contains more than two miles of the Trail of Tears that was followed by some members of the Cherokee Nation.
• President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site: The newest NPS site in Arkansas preserves the home at 117 S. Hervey Street in Hope where Clinton lived with his grandparents the first four years of his life.
The 2,100-square-foot home, which was built in 1917 for Dr. H.S. Garrett, has been open to the public as a museum since June 1997. It contains six rooms, including a living room, bedroom, kitchen and the nursery where Clinton slept as a baby. Clinton's grandparents, Eldridge and Edith Grisham Cassidy, purchased the house in 1938.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.