It's Oaklawn season, y'all. If you haven't already spent a weekend watching the ponies run, chances are you have plans to in the near future. But if you plan on making Oaklawn your one-stop shop for Hot Springs fun, you're missing out on a city full of natural beauty, unique sights and eclectic events.
So just how did Hot Springs come to be? Here's a snippet from the city's history.
Visitors can’t help but feel the thousands of years of history surrounding them — history that continues to bubble up every minute. The water in the hot springs comes from rainwater that fell more than 4,000 years ago. It percolated 2,000-8,000 feet into the earth where it became superheated by surrounding rock before rising and emerging at 147 Fahrenheit – and nearly pure – from the area’s 47 hot springs.
While no one knows when the first human visitors came to what is now Hot Springs, authorities believe Native Americans — including the Tunica, Caddo, Quapaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and other groups — were using the springs as a peaceful gathering spot as long as 10,000 years ago. The Native Americans called the area “the valley of the vapors,” where tribes could put aside their differences and enjoy the rejuvenation of the springs. Oddly enough, this area became “neutral ground” again in the 1930s when mobsters from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles came to Hot Springs to get along and away from it all.
The Gangster Era
From the 1920s through the 1940s, Hot Springs flourished as a place where the famous and infamous came to enjoy the thermal waters, luxury hotels and illegal gambling and bootlegging, especially in the 1930s. Gambling hotspots included The Ohio Club, Hot Springs oldest bar, and The Southern Club (now the location of the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum), which was reputed to be owned by mobster Owney Madden. He was one of the founders of the New York mob, was part of Murder, Inc., and owned Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.
Infamous mobsters such as Al Capone were frequent visitors, with Capone taking up part-time residence in Suite 443 of the Arlington Hotel. Mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano was arrested in Hot Springs on the promenade behind the Ozark Bath House. He was in town gambling and taking the baths.
Illegal gambling was permanently shut down in Hot Springs in 1964, thanks to a federal crackdown on what the government called “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.”
Remnants of the city’s notorious past can still be found inside Hot Springs’ Gangster Museum of America, which showcases old roulette tables, vintage slot machines, Madden and Capone exhibits and gangster weapons.
Hot Springs Now
Hot Springs continues to make history with its fine restaurants, entertainment venues, art galleries and incredible natural beauty. On a cool night, while strolling down Central Avenue, a visitor can actually see the steam vapors drifting down from the hillside springs as they have for thousands of years. It’s a momentary glimpse into history that is offered only in Hot Springs.
Today, Hot Springs’ lakes have become the major draw to the area, and they’re the perfect complement to a resort known for its water. Hot Springs began to expand this resort reputation in the 1930s with the construction of Lake Catherine and Lake Hamilton to the south of downtown Hot Springs, and in the 1950s, Lake Ouachita was created, earning the area its “Tri-Lakes” nickname.
See the full history, shopping guides and more on the Hot Springs Guest Guide website.