The deep eroded limestone valleys and ridges of the Eureka Springs area lie on the eastern edge of the Springfield Plateau. Local history maintains that in 1856, physician Alvah Jackson on an expedition with his twelve-year-old son healed the boy’s eye infection after bathing it with water from one of the springs. Recognizing an opportunity, the doctor was soon bottling and selling the water, labeled “Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water.” The reputation of the regional springs spread steadily, and after the Civil War, bathing facilities proliferated. The discovery that the water was not particularly medically efficacious did not interfere with the development of the community or deter health seekers.
Eureka Springs was formally established in 1879, and its population in the 1880s of just under four thousand has never been surpassed, though the number of people in the town was and remains much higher in the summer tourist season. In 1882, Powell Clayton, an engineer and the ninth governor of Arkansas, founded the Eureka Springs Improvement Company (ESIC), to which he recruited friends he had made in the Union Army. The ESIC’s goal was to develop Eureka Springs into a spa and tourist center. Essential to its success was the construction of an eighteen-mile railway branch line, the Eureka Springs Railroad, to join the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway (the Frisco) at Seligman, Missouri. Because flat buildable land in Eureka Srings’s hilly terrain was limited, ESIC leveled some areas and built several miles of limestone retaining walls. In 1886, a grand spa hotel, the Crescent (CR14), went up. But the town’s heyday was relatively short-lived; by around 1910 the number of visitors to the springs began to diminish, and the Great Depression slowed traffic further. The late twentieth century, however, saw a renewal of interest in this picturesque mountain town, less for the springs than for the attraction of Eureka Springs’s beautiful setting and its historic buildings.
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