Gangsters Flocked Here For Decades for Healing Waters. Here’s Why You Should Go Now
I leaned back in the deep tub, warm bubbles swirling frantically around me and wondered about the lives of the thousands of women who had been here before.
I was in the Buckstaff Bathhouse, where guests have soaked in the natural warm mineral waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas, since 1912. These thermal waters thought to promote healing turned this small mountain town into a thriving resort where gambling and other illegal activities ran rampant.
The gangsters may be long gone, but you can still gamble at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort and bathe in the warm thermal waters on historic Bathhouse Row.
I spent a few days in Hot Springs, learning about its nefarious past and what it offers now, including gambling at horse races, luxuriating in baths in its thermal waters, downing a pint brewed with those hot springs, touring Hot Springs National Park, strolling in gorgeous gardens, mining for quartz crystals and chowing down on everything from pancakes to pizza along with the best cannoli I’ve ever had.
Oh, and did I mention I won $120 in slot machines despite having no idea what I was doing?
First, Let’s Learn a Bit of History
Hot Springs bills itself as America’s First Resort, a claim several other cities make. It was the first federal reservation designated by President Andrew Jackson in 1832, so it could be considered America’s first national park.
After the park service was established in 1916, the reservation became Hot Springs National Park in 1921. We learned plenty more about its history at the Gangster Museum of America, a perfect place to start a visit here if you’re into that history thing like I am.
I learned gangsters flocked here during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, a place where they could vacation, gamble and hope the healing waters would help the syphilis many suffered from.
Fun fact: Even though they may have been from rival gangs and bitter enemies, the gangsters put their guns aside in Hot Springs. Who wants to be involved in bloody killings when you’re on vacation? And I guess it’s harder to hide a gun when you’re strolling around a bathhouse in a towel.
Even though gambling and prostitution were illegal, both were wildly popular and helped draw visitors who were interested in more activities than just taking in the healing waters.
Local and state authorities looked the other way for decades, motivated by the sacks of cash that bought their silence. Then that spoilsport Nelson Rockefeller became governor in 1967 and overnight, the illegal fun came to a grinding halt.
Artifacts in The Gangster Museum include the death certificates of Bonnie and Clyde, the death mask of John Dillinger and gambling machines and tables from 100 years ago.
I also learned that Hot Springs is considered the birthplace of spring training for baseball, which was held in Hot Springs from the late 1800s to the mid 20th century. It started with the owner of the Chicago White Stockings, who wanted his team to travel to Hot Springs for the warmer weather, hoping the thermal waters would help clear their bodies of alcohol and climbing the mountains would make them more fit for the sport.
Experience the Healing Waters in Hot Springs
Thanks to the National Park Service, you can still visit Historic Bathhouse Row. These eight bathhouse buildings were built between 1892 and 1923 – it’s the most complete row of bathhouses in the country.
We started our visit with a ranger-led tour of the bathhouses and the surrounding area. Our guide, Cane West, told us that in 1947 more than a million baths were given in Hot Springs. I’m too lazy to do the math, but that’s a lot of naked people soaking in hot water on a daily basis.
Two of the bathhouses still operate as bathhouses with some of the others being repurposed as a brewery, gift shop and a hotel. Fordyce Bathhouse, opened in 1915, is now Fordyce Bathhouse Museum & Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center, and where we began our tour.
I loved seeing the rooms where the ladies would relax during treatment, the large gym where guests would exercise and displays of what people would wear for their visit. The women’s clothes looked more comfortable than their corseted daywear, but didn’t approach the freedom and comfort of today’s yoga pants and other athletic wear.
Taking the baths was seen as a therapeutic exercise, prescribed by doctors for just about anything that ails you.
I engaged in a traditional bathing treatment at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been giving these treatments since 1912 in the same manner. After checking in, disrobing and being encased in a sheet in the most fashionable way, I waited my turn for the multi-step process.
First, I was placed in a huge porcelain hot tub, the same one that that had been in use since 1912. A huge cylindrical motor that reminded me of an egg beater at the foot of the tub stirred up the water into massive bubbles that rose up around me.
The bubbles were a bit frantic for me so when my sweet attendant told me I had about 5-10 more minutes I asked to hop out early. After that I lounged on a table while the attendant laid hot towels on me.
Next was a stop in a sit-in steam cabinet, like a personal sauna, followed by a sitz bath, which looked like a mini tub you squat in. The last part was my favorite, an excellent 20-minute massage with a wonderful masseuse. The process takes about 1.5 hours.
The second bathhouse that is still operating is Quapaw, built in 1922. It has a different concept from Buckstaff. Rather than follow a routine, guests here can lounge in four different pools of varying temperatures that hold up to 50 people. Once you’re in you can stay as long as you like. You can also sign up for a 20-minute private soak, alone or as a couple.
Getting Outside in Hot Springs
For a 360-degree view of the city, head to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. I took the elevator up and stepped outside at the top of the 216-foot tower, but it was so cold and windy I made a quick loop around the outside before heading down one floor where I could still see the views, but from a place of shelter.
The gardens at Garvan Woodland Gardens are lovely, and we strolled around the 210 acres on a beautiful sunny day. Lucky me – thousands of the 150,000 tulips planted here each year were in bloom, with vast fields of red, yellow, pink and other cheeful colors swaying gently in the breeze.
The Anthony Chapel is stunning and a popular place for weddings. Children, and yes, grown-ups too, will love climbing up into the Evans Treehouse, which cost $1 million to construct.
For something completely different, head to Avant Mining, where you can pay a flat fee and dig in the dirt and mine your own quartz crystals, the most important gem of Arkansas.
After a stop in the gift shop and visitor center, we wound our way up Fisher Mountain until we came to the site, a huge dug-out section of red clay. I suggest you take some kind of small tool to dig with, although we did okay with our hands and managed to scoop up several of the multi-faceted gems.
This is a great activity for kids and we saw several who were having a blast digging in the dirt. You may want to take along some stain remover spray for any red clay stains.
Dining in Hot Springs, Arkansas
For breakfast try The Pancake Shop filling locals and visitors with fluffy pancakes and other breakfast fare since 1940. I couldn’t resist a pancake and took the tip from the server to cut a hole in the middle to pour the syrup in so it doesn’t dribble down the plate. Genius!
When I saw the size of the ribs at McClard’s Bar-B-Q I thought my plate might tip right over like Fred Flintstone’s car when he ordered a takeout portion of a giant rack of Brontosaurus ribs. This family business, a favorite of former President Bill Clinton, has been around since 1928 and is now run by Scott McClard.
Its plain white stucco exterior with red awnings, neon sign and no-frills interior is exactly what I look for in a barbecue joint.
For a healthy breakfast or lunch, try Kollective Coffee + Tea housed in a cozy space with a fireplace, tables and seating area. Try a quinoa or detox salad or one of the sandwiches for lunch. I opted for a Cuban panini with a cup of nourishing ginger carrot soup. I had a bite of a chocolate chip cookie and would return just for that.
Another option for lunch is Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery, a brewery and restaurant housed in one of the historic bathhouses. Owner Rose Schweikhart had the idea to open a brewery in the bathhouse, which had been vacant for decades. A few years and miles of paperwork later, the brewery opened, making beer from the thermal spring water of the bathhouse. It’s also the first brewery to operate in a national park.
I’m not much of a beer drinker but shared a flight of four 4-ounce tasters, choosing the sour beers that were really tasty.
The menu includes salads, sandwiches, burgers, chicken fingers and loaded baked potatoes.
To get your pizza and other Italian food fix, head to DeLuca’s Pizza, run by the wildly energetic and enthusiastic Tony Valinoti. The red brick walls of the interior are lined with giant glamour shots of attractive woman. When asked about it, Tony said there were some of his customers “who inspired him.”
We had giant pizzas and delicious chiocciole alla vodka, elbow shaped rigatoni is a vodka sauce, which one of our party declared the best he ever had.
I’m not a fan of tiramisu but was not shy in chowing down on the cannoli, which one reviewer said made her weep tears of joy. I didn’t cry – didn’t want to risk getting that crispy exterior soggy – but it was the best I’ve ever had.
Our fanciest dinner was at The Avenue at the Waters Hotel where appetizers included salmon carpaccio and shrimp cocktail. For an after-dinner drink and a view of Hot Springs, you can head upstairs to the rooftop bar.
Speaking of drinks, how could I turn down a drink at The Ohio Club, the oldest bar in Arkansas where gangsters, baseball players and other fun seekers have enjoyed a cold drink and perhaps some illegal activities since 1904.
We sat at the bar where I ordered an Al Capone, made with rye whisky and Grand Marnier. I’m not really into whisky, but why not raise a glass to the notorious gangster who enjoyed quite a few cocktails here himself.
Options for Staying in Hot Springs
If you’re into horseracing or trying your luck at the casino, the only place to stay is Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, which is connected to Oaklawn Park Racetrack and opened in 2021. You can walk out of the casino and straight into the bleachers to catch the next race.
My room was large and nicely decorated. It had a coffee machine, desk and mini fridge, three amenities that always make me happy. The lobby is spacious and the jewelry in the small gift shop was tempting.
There are several restaurants including a small food court by the casino. I made it to the well-equipped and spacious fitness center one day to use the treadmill. As a Fitbit addict, I have to get my steps in daily. When people ask me how I manage to fit in my clothes with all my traveling, this is one way.
Okay, confession. I rarely make it to a fitness center on a trip and have a wardrobe of pants that are stretchy and forgiving. But there’s no need to mention that.
The casino is massive. I took a walk through and just kept walking and walking and walking. It’s got more slot machines than I’ve ever seen with all kinds of flashing lights and noises to attract you to try your luck, along with live craps and live blackjack. There’s even a sportsbook area where you can bet on all kinds of sports.
I’m not a gambler but heard the casino was giving out reward cards for people over 50 the day I checked in. You got a scratch-off card that was good for an amount from $5 to $500. I got my penny out, scratched the card and it revealed $50 in credit.
Well, that was enough to inspire me to try to figure out the mystery of these hundreds of machines despite being historically risk averse when it comes to gambling. During a visit to Puerto Rico, I had a lesson in how to play blackjack and was given some fake money to bet. I was hesitant to wager very much on each hand, even though the money was fake – that’s how risk averse I am.
But I’m also no one to let a good credit go to waste, so I picked out one machine, sat down and inserted my card but was not successful in my efforts with how to actually get the machine to work and gave up. For the next two days, my rewards card sat on the desk in my room, that $50 credit luring me to try again.
On Friday at 8:30 a.m., an hour before I had to leave, I gave it one more shot. There was no one in the player services booth until noon, so I was on my own to figure it out. Where is the Slot Machines for Dummies sign I needed?
I finally figured out how to at least get a game going, then slot machined my way to a win of $120. After redeeming my tickets for a wad of one- and five-dollar bills, I left happy with bragging rights to call myself a winner.
Even if you’re not into gambling or horse racing, Oak Lawn is a lovely property that also has a spa and several bars and restaurants. And it’s a short drive to downtown Hot Springs.
For a smaller property just down the street, try The Reserve at Hot Springs. See our full story on this new luxury hotel.
For more info: Visit Hot Springs
– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief