Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
I come to Hot Springs with an agenda. I want to relax in the curative waters, find a diamond and go home refreshed and rich.
After all, one of the world’s greatest baseball players as well as many of the world’s most notorious gangsters have found the waters restorative, and as for diamonds, just last year a man found a 6.19-carat diamond in a nearby park. Here, I figure, all is possible.
Of course, there’s a close relationship between possibility and luck, and Hot Springs is undeniably lucky. Located on the eastern edge of Ouachita National Forest, fifty miles from Little Rock, it’s surrounded by such natural beauty that in 1832 Andrew Jackson designated it a “special reservation.” As a result, Hot Springs claims the title of the country’s oldest national park.
It’s also the smallest, only seven times the size of New York City’s Central Park. To see how this compares to the larger countryside, we climb 306 steps to the third level of the Hot Springs Tower. There, below us, is a smattering of buildings surrounded by miles and miles of green forest and sparkling lakes. It’s special—and small.
But while many towns are surrounded by beauty, Hot Springs is also home to 47 springs that send 700,000 gallons a day of mineral rich water into its fountains, and indirectly fill its coffers as well. This is the real source of the town’s luck.
During its heyday in the Twenties and Thirties, bathhouses promising therapeutic soaks that could cure ills from bunions to syphilis attracted the rich, the famous and the infamous. They came for the baths, but they stayed for the fun.
Gambling and prostitution became major industries. Sports stars like Babe Ruth frequented the casinos and bars at night and sought hangover relief in the baths in the morning. Gangsters like Al Capone made deals with bootleggers who had stills in the nearby forests. By the time the feds cracked down in the Sixties, Hot Springs had the largest illegal gambling operation in the United States.
We stop at the Arlington Hotel to see the room where Ruth worked out when he wasn’t sweating out and where Capone stayed when he was hanging out. A stop at the Gangster Museum, which is filled with an old roulette table, vintage slot machines and other tools of the trade, provides us with gossipy tidbits on Capone and his fellow mobsters, including Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Frank Costello, and Owney “The Killer” Madden. A quote by Mae West, who The Killer bankrolled, protected and romanced, tells us he was really a sweet guy but could be “oh so vicious.”
I’m not sure if Ruth and Capone bathed at the Arlington or at the Buckstaff, which is the only one of the eight original bathhouses that is still operational, but my husband isn’t interested in following the footsteps of Capone anyway. Thus, I opt for the Buckstaff, which is only across the street.
The attendant asks me what kind of treatment I’d like. “I’ll have what Mae had,” I say. She tells me to disrobe. Nudity isn’t on my agenda, but I meekly follow her instructions, and she spends the next 90 minutes making sure that I’m thoroughly rubbed, pummeled and pampered. A long soak in 100º water is followed by a loofa rub, hot blanket wrap, sitz bath, vapor cabinet experience and needle shower. I emerge feeling more like a survivor than a star.
A great big diamond might help me feel, or at least look, more like a star, so we head to Crater of the Diamonds State Park. More than 75,000 diamonds have been found in this field since 1906, when the first one was discovered. Best of all, what you find, you get to keep.
The rules state that visitors can walk around and hope they spot a glittering rock, rent a small tool and search through the loose surface soil, or use special equipment and dig deep, an activity that is best for those who have previous experience.
Since we have no previous experience, I stroll and search, my husband digs and hopes, and after an hour we both come up empty-handed, dusty and in need of cleansing, if not restorative, baths.
En route back to our motel, we stop at McClard’s, the local barbecue joint that Bill Clinton, who grew up in Hot Springs, claims is one of the best restaurants in the world.
The waitress tells us that Bill favored the chopped beef sandwich with a side of beans. “Even when he was a devout vegan, he’d come in and sneak a bite of our barbecued beef,” she says.
Bill’s beef-and-beans sets us each back $10.13, including tax. It’s true. In Hot Springs, all things are possible. We can have a world-class meal even if we don’t find any diamonds. www.hotsprings.org
For more on these and other Arkansas attractions, see the Arkansas section of NAPKIN NOTES as well as the NEWS YOU CAN USE section of this website.