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Many are making family travel plans for the year. One of the most searched travel options is our National Park System, and one of the travel destinations in Arkansas most searched is Hot Springs National Park.
The history of Hot Springs National Park (HSNP) dates back at least 3,000 years when five different Native American tribes used these hills to gather novaculite rock, also known as Arkansas whetstone. These tribes would use the stone to make materials for their day-to-day living like weaponry and building tools and found it a valuable commerce tool in trading and establishing an economic value.
Part of the exploration President Thomas Jefferson commissioned for explorers Dunbar and Hunter of the newly gained Louisiana Purchase included a specific mission to explore the tales of the hot springs north of the Ouachita River. What Dunbar and Hunter found were spring areas with shack-looking buildings built around them. While no one inhabited them at the time, it was evident that this was a transient area that attracted visitors.
A snowstorm kept the explorers in the area longer than expected, so they brought back minerals, observations, and creatures in these waters they had never seen. The attention of the springs grew, and as people came to visit, it became apparent that the hot springs would need protection. The thought was that regulation would protect the hot springs and land around them for all Americans to enjoy regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity or economic status. On April 20, 1832, the Hot Springs Reservation was established. It was the first time the U.S. Government set protected land, and their goal was to protect the water.
People felt the water had a curative nature and began overusing it and making it more accessible to others. Since it was coming out of the ground at 143 degrees, bathhouse owners moved the water into troughs, creating mud pools. They also built shacks and later wooden bathhouse structures. In the mid-1800s, an unofficial “Bathhouse Row” was developed, replacing the wooded structures with ornate and lavish buildings that created an experience around the pools adding hotels, boutiques, restaurants and spa services.
Even while transportation was still blossoming, roads were not paved, and no one had a cellphone. Word-of-mouth was the greatest asset to Bathhouse Row and the National Reservation. The father of the National Park system and her first Director, Stephen Mather, was a big advocate of the springs and knew its status needed to change for stronger protection and preservation. So, on March 4, 1921, Congress passed an Act to officially change the name to Hot Springs National Park (HSNP).
Public bathing practices began to shift in the mid-1960s, and some of the bathhouses started to close, leaving many empty by the mid-80s. It was time for a pivot and change to focus on the modern visitor. The government established a program to lease the 100-year-old historic buildings of Bathhouse Row to new businesses.
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