Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, the city of Hot Springs is famous for its thermal springs, bathhouses, and the natural beauty of its setting. Central Avenue (originally named Valley Street) forms the spine of the city, and it is along this street that the bathhouses were built. The section of the east side of the street where they cluster is known as Bathhouse Row. Hot Springs Mountain to the north of the cith is the source of approximately fifty thermal springs. The first hotel in Hot Springs opened in 1820 in a log dogtrot, and the first bathhouses began business in 1830. Because of the reputedly therapeutic qualities of the springs, in 1832 the federal government reserved for permanent possession four sections of land where the springs were located. But despite the public’s interest in taking advantage of the springs, the mountainous terrain made it difficult for health seekers to access the town. That changed after the Iron Mountain Railroad from Malvern was completed in 1875, and in less than ten years ten bathhouses were in operation. Helping accelerate growth was the 1874 designation of Hot Springs as the county seat.
The first rather primitive bathhouses were replaced in the early twentieth century by more modern facilities, luxurious in their appointments, and visitors flocked to Hot Springs. Adding to the city’s vitality was its lure, since 1870, as a major casino gambling venue, even though such activity was illegal in Arkansas. But in 1967 Governor Winthrop Rockefeller ordered the casinos closed, after which tourism declined, as did most of the bathhouses. Fortunately, eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row (Central Avenue) were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, thus ensuring their architectural survival.
From the 1880s the thermal waters had been made available to injured servicemen after the U.S. Congress established an Army and Navy General Hospital in 1882. The hospital was enlarged in 1933 with a massive seven-story brick building (Reserve Avenue at Central Avenue) that features a dramatic entrance tower rising in a series of setbacks. Disabled veterans continued to receive hydrotherapy treatments here for several years after World War II. In 1960, the facility was transferred to the State of Arkansas where it served as a rehabilitation center and from 2009 as a career training center.
Former president Bill Clinton lived for some of his childhood years (1954 to 1961) in Hot Springs. His house, set on the side of the hill behind a large terraced lawn at 1011 Park Street, was built in the late nineteenth century in a Queen Anne style and given a Tudor Revival remodeling in 1938.
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