Most national parks are wild places, places with primeval forests, surf-pounded shores, or deserts that stretch unpopulated for miles. Often encompassing tens of thousands of wilderness acres, they are sanctuaries where man is but a transient visitor. And then there is Hot Springs. With little more than a thousand acres, the park lies in the midst of a bustling city; and its focal point is not mountains or forests or glaciers or geysers but Bathhouse Row
The bathhouses, built early in this century and elegantly replete with marble floors, elaborate fountains and even stained-glass windows, are monuments to the gilded age of this famous health spa. Here the faithful came, and continue to come, seeking cures for their afflictions in the streaming, naturally carbonated mineral water that issues from dozens of hot springs on a nearby slope. Whether bathed in or sipped, this shimmering, crystal-clear elixir supplies relaxation for the body and solace for the soul. Among the many notables who have visited the spa over the years are the boxers “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and John L. Sullivan, the author Stephen Crane, and the evangelist Billy Sunday.
Hot Springs National Park
Of course there has not always been a city here, nestled among the folds of the Zig Zag Mountains: the narrow cleft through the mountains where Bathhouse Row now stands was once a wooded glen. Local Indians, the first to partake of the springs’ healing waters, knew it as the Valley of the Vapors and considered it a sacred place. A stream gurgled through the glen, fed in part by overflow from the hot springs, which spilled from terraced hillside pools hemmed in by natural dams made up of mineral deposits. Dense forests covered the mountains, and bison, elk, deer, and bear roamed the land.
Today the forests remain, but much else has changed. The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto wandered into modern-day Arkansas in 1541, searching for gold, and may have visited some of the springs. During the two centuries that followed, French trappers occasionally stopped by and bathed in the mineral waters. After the United States acquired the area as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Jefferson sent a pair of scientists westward to examine the springs. Their enthusiastic report sparked the first influx of settlers and health seekers, who gradually transformed the region. The once pristine stream now flows through a tunnel beneath the broad avenue that frosts Bathhouse Row. And most of the springs have been enclosed and covered to ensure the remarkable purity of the water. (Since it is naturally sterile and free of contamination, the first rocks brought back from the moon were stored in water from the springs while scientists examined them for signs of life.) Nowadays the spring water is channeled to a central holding reservoir and then piped to the various bathhouses.
And plenty of water there is. The average daily flow from the springs is 850,000 gallons, enough to fill more than 20,000 bathtubs to the brim each day. Slightly laced with dissolved calcium, silica, bicarbonates, and other minerals, the water emerges from the earth with an average temperature of 143º F.
According to an Indian legend, the springs were the home of the Great Spirit, who warmed the water with his breath. Modern scientists have a different explanation for this remarkable outpouring of steaming liquid. The main source of the water is a broad valley to the north of the springs. Underlain by a deep formation of highly porous rock known as Bigfork Chert, the valley forms a natural catch basin. Over the eons, rainfall has been seeping slowly downward through pores and crevices in the chert to depths of 4,000 feet and more. There it becomes heated by contact with hot rocks of the earth’s interior. The water escapes back to the surface through joints and fractures in surrounding deposits of Hot Springs Sandstone.
The downward journey of the water is slow, perhaps merely a foot each year. Scientists estimate that, on the average, water bubbling from the springs today fell as rain in the valley some 4,000 years ago. The return journey is much faster; once the heated water reaches the zone of joints and fractures, it surfaces in about a year. The minerals are dissolved from the rock as the water percolates slowly downward through the Bigfork Chert. The water also contains carbon dioxide and other gases, but these are held in solution by immense pressure in the depths. Once the water shoots to the surface, however, the carbon dioxide gas is released as sparkling bubbles.
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