November 11, 2010

Hot Springs National Park, Hot Springs, Arkansas

We have arrived at America's oldest national park. Most people say Yellowstone was the first national park, and that is true in name only. Hot Springs was set aside 40 years earlier in 1832 to protect the mountains and springs, as this site became America's premier hot springs resort for "curing" the ailments of people.

I actually came to Hot Springs back in late October 1998 to present my Master's research at the North American Bat Research Symposium. I flew to Austin to visit with Samy and then onto Little Rock. I stayed in Hot Springs for parts of 4 days and enjoyed it immensely. So, it is interesting to return again now, 12 years later, at about the same time of year, and with a much greater understanding of the ecological and geological processes of the region, so that I can put everything into better context.

One of the springs
The hot springs come out of the ground at 143 degrees F. They are not related to any volcanic activity. They originate as rain water percolates down through cracks in the rocks to over 8,000 feet below the surface. Down there, the rocks themselves are very hot simply because of the pressure of the rock above. It is estimated to take 4,000 years for the water to drop down and return to the surface. So, what we see now in terms of volume is a reflection of the conditions back then.

The pressure of all that descending water forces the rising waters up very rapidly (called an artesian process). It comes out in about 73 springs around Hot Springs Mountain. Native Americans used the hot springs for thousands of years before Europeans discovered them. Legend has it that all of the tribes of the area laid down their arms and allowed equal access to the "healing waters".

The first European references goes back to Hernando De Soto explorations of the region in 1541, who described it as the "Valley of the Vapors". As time went on, more and more people visited the hot springs as treatment for ailments of all sorts. Soon tents and log cabins began to pop up over the springs offering various vservices. Eventually, public outcry to protect the springs from claims and exploitation led to the U.S. government setting aside 4 square miles as a National Reserve. It was the first time the government set aside land solely for its natural resources.

Bathhouse Row
As time went on, larger and more elaborate structures were built. Hot Springs Creek ran between bathhouse row and the merchants across the way and was becoming putrid and polluted, so it was placed into a tunnel and the U.S. government engineered a collection and distribution system so that each bathhouse had equal access to the waters.

By the late 1800's, train lines were built to hot springs and people of all socio-economic status were coming to bath in the waters. The noveau-rich of the U.S. wanted to endulge in the spa culture prominent in Europe and large neo-classical stone structures began to replace the wood structures that preceeded them. By the early 20th century, Hot Springs entered the "Golden Age of Bathing".

However, as medicine improved and many of these ailments were treated with actual cures, the number of people visiting steadily declined. Many of the bathhouses closed down or fell into disrepair. Only the Buckstaff has remained open all these years.

But, the National Park Service has taken it upon itself to renovate and encourage the reopening of these structures. Today, much of bathhouse row is refurbished and some of the structures are starting to reopen as either bathhouses or museums.

The old Fordyce Bathhouse is now the park service visitor center and you can tour it to see how it was like to be in a bathhouse back in the glory days. Today, people still flock to Hot Springs to gather the waters in public fountains by the gallon-full and bathe at the spas. We saw pickup trucks full of plastic milk jugs being filled to be hauled away to who knows where.

National Park Visitor Center in the old Fordyce Bathhouse
In the next post, I'll discuss hiking on the trails at Hot Springs National Park and take you up to the top of the tower with panoramic views of the entire landscape!

The spring running under the Fordyce with large quartz crystals sticking out of the rock

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