In the meantime, the fight over property rights continued into Congress and the Supreme Court. In 1877, Benjamin F. Kelley was appointed as the first superintendent of the reservation. He soon initiated a number of engineering projects, allowing private owners to convert the previously ramshackle downtown bathhouses into a row of attractive buildings. This decision, along with the arrival of the railroad transformed Hot Springs into a cosmopolitan spa that would attract visitors from across the nation.
In 1878, the federal government established a simple frame building over what was popularly known as the “mud hole” spring in order to service the poor, who could bathe there for free. Initially, the site was open to all regardless of gender or race. However, a new brick building was erected in 1891 that was later remodeled to provide for racial and gender segregation.
Hot Springs Creek, which ran right through the middle of all this activity, drained its own watershed and collected the runoff of the springs. Generally, it was an eyesore, dangerous at times of high water, and mere collections of stagnant pools at dry times. In 1884 the federal government put the creek into a channel, roofed over it, and laid a sidewalk down above it. Much of it runs under Central Avenue and Bathhouse Row today.
In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings baseball franchise began spring training in Hot Springs. Afterward, more baseball teams followed and by the early 20th century, Hot Springs was known for its baseball training camps. The city would continue to serve as a major site of spring training until the 1920s, by which time the franchises had moved to places with warmer climates in the winter such as Florida and Arizona.
During the early 1900s, thousands of people flocked the area to experience the waters’ curative powers. Elaborate bathhouses were built to house the large number of tourists visiting for springs and spa treatments. By this time, electric trolleys, telephone lines, and new stores across from Bathhouse Row tempted visitors.
Thoroughbred horse racing started in Hot Springs with the construction of Essex Park in 1904, however, a state law prohibiting betting on horse races was passed in 1907. In the next decades, the park was reopened and closed.
During the early 20th century, a number of institutions related to health continued to thrive. The Crystal Bathhouse opened in 1904 for use by African Americans and the Levi Hospital was founded in 1914, which continues to operate today. However, the community also suffered a number of setbacks. A fire in 1905 killed as many as 25 people and destroyed nearly 400 buildings. Another in 1913 destroyed a significant portion of the city’s tourist district, including the Crystal Bathhouse.
In 1921, the government reservation was officially renamed Hot Springs National Park. Though it was officially the 18th unit in the new National Park Service system, because of its designation as a reservation in 1832, Hot Springs is considered by some, America’s first national park.
In 1926, Leo McLaughlin was elected mayor and fulfilled a campaign promise to run Hot Springs as an “open” town, which included legal gambling. As mayor, he reigned as the undisputed boss of Garland County politics for the next 20 years. During his time in office, many underworld characters frequented Hot Springs’ spas, and gambling became one of the town’s most popular forms of entertainment. The Southern Club became one of the favored hangouts for many of these gangsters, who included such names as Owen Vincent “Owney” Madden, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Al Capone.
Illegal gambling continued in Hot Springs even after the McLaughlin political machine was ousted. By 1962, the city’s reputation had become so notorious that it became a major issue in the gubernatorial race. The explosion of a bomb in the Vapors Casino in January 1963 made the problem of organized crime in the city a widespread concern. Soon after Winthrop Rockefeller took office as governor in 1967, he ordered the Arkansas State Police to crack down on gambling in the spa city.
Despite the closure of the city’s gambling establishments, as well as the shuttering of the downtown bathhouses from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hot Springs continued to grow. Today, it is called home to about 37,000 people.
Hot Springs National Park maintains Bathhouse Row, which preserves eight historic and architecturally significant bathhouse buildings and gardens along Central Avenue. Together, these bathhouses, nicknamed “The American Spa,” were built between the years of 1892 and 1923. These buildings, listed from south to north along the Row, include:
Lamar Bathhouse – This bathhouse opened on April 16, 1923, replacing a wooden Victorian structure named in honor of the former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. The present structure cost $130,000 to build. The stone, brick, and stucco construction is moderately Spanish in flavor and coordinates well with the five other bathhouses with Spanish motifs. The Lamar was unique in that it offered a range of tub lengths for people of various heights. It also had a small coed gymnasium with another separate area for women. The most distinctive exterior component is the sun porch with its windows of three sections and a wide center bay. The lobby, featuring a long counter of Tennessee marble, was the largest of the eight bathhouses on the Row. Murals and stenciling were added to the lobby and stairways sometime in the 1920s. In the mid-1940s, the interior halls and stairs were embellished with marble, ornamental iron balustrades, and silver glass interspersed with red panel wainscots. The Lamar Bathhouse closed on November 30, 1985. Today, the structure houses offices for park employees, the park archives, museum collection storage spaces, a small research library, and the park store, Bathhouse Row Emporium.
Buckstaff Bathhouse – Named for controlling shareholders George and Milo Buckstaff, this three-story building replaced the former Rammelsberg Bathhouse, a brick Victorian structure. The Neoclassical revival structure cost $125,000 to build and contains 27,000 square feet on three main floors. Because it has been in continuous operation since it opened on February 1, 1912, it is one of the best preserved of all of the bathhouses However, it has undergone many changes over the years. Originally it had a large hydrotherapeutic department, which only it, the Fordyce, and the Imperial offered. Classical in design, with imposing Doric columns and urns gracing the front of the building, the Buckstaff features taupe brick with white stucco and wood trim. It epitomizes the Edwardian style of classically designed buildings popular during the first decade of the 20th century. Colorado marble is used throughout the interior, particularly in the bath halls. The floors are of white and colored hexagonal tile in varying patterns. All levels may be accessed by way of stairs or the building’s original elevator, with an ornate interior reminiscent of the Golden Age of Bathing. The current capacity of the building is 1,000 bathers per day.