Have you ever heard of the “Golden Age of Bathing?” In 1832 the U.S. government set aside four sections of land in what is now known as Hot Springs, AR to protect the natural hot springs for the nation. These are not volcanic hot springs, smelling of sulfur and other minerals, but rain water that has percolated down thousands of feet through faults in the rock, warming 4° F for every 300 feet. The superheated water then rises through the springs reaching the surface at an average temperature of 143°.
Hot Springs National Park was not at all what I expected. Before doing any research I envisioned open, rock lined pools of steaming water. What we discovered was a National Park in an urban setting, with Bathhouse Row. Monumental bathhouses had been built in the early 1920’s as spas to heal all kinds of maladies with the healing waters of the hot springs. They incorporated what was then state of the art technology and physical therapy. They were expensive and catered to those who could afford it, but the government operated free bathhouses for those who could not afford those on Bathhouse Row. The Army/Navy Hospital (Now the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center) used the spring water for treatments of sick and injured military members and veterans immediately after WW II.
Today the Hot Springs National Park is on the east side of Central Avenue and the town of Hot Springs is on the west. Bathhouse Row is still there although many of the bathhouses are now restaurants and brew pubs. The Fordyce Bathhouse is now the NPS Visitor Center and you can take a Ranger-Led tour of the building and its facilities. The Lamar Bathhouse houses the NPS gift shop. The Quapaw and Buckstaff Bathhouses are still active.
We tried to get a reservation at the National Park campground (Gulpha Gorge) but it and all the nearby campgrounds were fully booked due to a film festival in the area. We opted for Plan B and stayed at the FAMCAMP at Little Rock AFB where we had no problem getting a site.
The FAMCAMP is nice with many pull-through sites. While the Air Force’s Frequent Camper Program has been discontinued, those with active booklets are allowed to continue. We were able to use one of our coupons for a free night of camping.
We finalized our plans to visit the Hot Springs and left early in the morning to make the 70 mile drive and to arrive when the Visitor Center opened at 9:00. We checked out the Ranger-Led tours and got some questions answered by the staff. Our first tour described how the hot springs were created and the initial establishment of the Hot Springs National Reservation in 1832. We were also given an opportunity to taste the water from the cool springs. I’m not sure what the benefit is, but the National Park Service allows people to fill containers of spring water for their personal use. We saw several vehicles loading many jugs of spring water into their cars while we were there.
We did some exploring and picture taking and returned to the Visitor Center for the Fordyce Tour. In 1915, reviews proclaimed the Fordyce Bathhouse as the best in Hot Springs. This tour gave us personal insight into the most luxurious bathhouse on the row. Even the locker rooms were classy. Bathers would shower, soak in a hot tub while being massaged, then have a cool bath and relax in a drying room. Everyone was catered to, making sure all of their needs were met. There were also treatment rooms for specific cures including a form of acupuncture and electric shock. There was a full gymnasium for exercise and galleries for relaxing and concerts.
Above Bathhouse Row is Hot Springs Mountain with an observation tower. We drove to the tower and then hiked the two mile Hot Springs Mountain Trail. In the 1930’s “health-seekers,” as they were called, would hike these trails as a part of their treatment. The view from the tower was great. We were able to see into Bathhouse Row and the entire Hot Springs Mountain area.
After our hike we returned to Bathhouse Row and treated ourselves to a soak in the Quapaw Bathhouse. The experience was unique in that there were five different pools with different temperatures. It was nice to move to a different pool to prolong our stay by going to a cooler pool before returning to the hotter one.
After our soak we wandered around town and I got a chance to hang out with Al Capone outside the Ohio Club where he was a frequent visitor. The town of Hot Springs took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Capone and his friends. Capone made a point of not using the National Park facilities so he would not place himself in a federal jurisdiction.
Our final stop was the Superior Bathhouse which is now a pub and brew house. (They brew their own beer with thermal spring water.) It seemed appropriate to treat myself to a flight of brews to go with dinner.
We spent the next day relaxing and shopping. The last thing we saw on our way out was a C-130 cargo aircraft outside the gate. Every Air Force Base I have ever seen has an aircraft on display outside the gate, but this one was special. This C-130 was tail number 60518. This is a special aircraft. A C-130 can carry six pallets, 92 combat troops, or 64 paratroopers. That seems like a lot until you hear the story of tail number 60518.
The Vietnam War came to a close of April 30, 1975 with the fall of Saigon. As the North Vietnamese Army was approaching Saigon, the U.S. launched a massive evacuation mission to remove thousands of Americans and Vietnamese from Saigon. In the final hours of the evacuation, Tan Son Nhut air base was a war zone in itself with over one hundred aircraft burning on the flight line. On April 30th Tail number 60518, piloted by South Vietnamese Instructor Pilot Major Phoung, was last C-130 Hercules remaining and hundreds were storming the aircraft, seeing it as their last hope. As the C-130, designed to hold less than 100 people, began to taxi it was loaded with 452 people including 32 on the flight deck. The loadmaster advised Major Phoung that he was unable to close the cargo ramp. Major Phoung slammed on the brakes, hoping that the jarring movement would slide everyone forward and allow the ramp to close – it worked! The aircraft was overloaded by at least 10,000 pounds and used every inch of the runway and overrun to lift into the air. The C-130 has been the workhorse of the airlift fleet and on this mission the Hercules was truly worthy of its name.
Next stop – Pensacola, FL