By Steve Bergsman
My wife and I booked a room at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, because it was the grande dame of hotels in this once-booming tourist town that is partly ensconced in the Hot Springs National Park.
Unfortunately, the Arlington, which was built in 1924, is down at the heels, but if you want to go where history was made then this is place. You just have to ignore the chipped walls, cracked sinks and the fact that the hotel was without water for about eight hours the day we checked in. Word has it that the building was acquired and the new owners will spend $55 million to refurbish. I say, "Yahoo!"
You want to know what happened at the Arlington? I was told that President John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe checked into the hotel separately but at the same time, and he wasn't the only president to stay there. The list includes Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who grew up in Hot Springs.
Al Capone used to stay at the Arlington, taking up a whole floor. This wasn't unusual in the 1930s. Hot Springs, with illegal gambling halls such as the Southern and Ohio clubs, was Las Vegas before Las Vegas. It was considered neutral territory, and everyone from Capone to Lucky Luciano to Bugsy Siegel came to relax from the business of being a gangster.
The history of the infamous in Hot Springs began a long time before Capone. In the late 1800s Jesse James got his start robbing stagecoaches in the area. On the other side of the tin star, Bat Masterson would come here, although by that time he had hung up his badge and became a sportswriter. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey also stayed at the Arlington
Babe Ruth was a regular, which wasn't unusual. So many Baseball Hall of Famers from the first half of the 20th century came to Hot Springs that the town became part of the game — literally. In 1886 Cap Anson took his Chicago baseball club to Hot Springs for training and play, thus inventing spring training. Into the 1930s things weren't as organized, and ballplayers would come to Hot Springs to work out on their own — and play other things besides baseball.
A plaque erected outside the Arlington reads: "The old Arlington Hotel ... was the site of the infamous arrest of New York Giant's manager John "Mugsy" McGraw. Apprehended by a U.S marshal for unlawful gambling ... The current hotel hosted such baseball notables as Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, Hank Greenberg, Jimmy Foxx and Joe DiMaggio."
A primary reason for baseball players coming to Hot Springs was for "taking the waters." Ballplayers were a fun-loving aggregation that tended to drink heavily and carouse late. They believed a hot bath regimen would "boil out" the impurities in their system.
That brings us back to Hot Springs' raison d'etre, the thermal waters that emerge from the earth. Native Americans originally lived in the area, but when settlers started coming farther west they, too, discovered the hot springs and, believing in the healing powers of the waters, they began to visit in increasing numbers. Thomas Jefferson heard about the hot springs and sent explorers. It became so renowned that in 1832 Andrew Jackson set aside the land, in effect creating a national park before the concept existed. In 1921 the area became a true national park.
By the late 1800s the city began to boom, and beautiful baths and large hotels were constructed. The peak years were probably the 1930s, although the busiest year for treatments was 1946. That was because thermal waters were used to treat servicemen after World War II. Then hot mineral water treatments and the nature of leisure travel changed, and the Hot Springs economy cooled down. However, the Park Service is committed to saving the beautiful baths. It has taken over one of the buildings and created a museum in another.
We decided to take the treatments at our hotel. We entered its healing area, which is not like the beautiful karmic spas of today but more like the therapeutic European spas circa 1930. We each took the hot baths (20-minute whirlpool soak in thermal waters), brief sauna and then hot-towel wrap. Once we recovered, we each went for a massage.
All things that go around come around, and thermal water treatments and spas are once again in vogue. New hotels are being built near the national park, and a number of old properties in the town could use the major rehabilitation the Arlington is getting.
Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean would party all night and take the waters in order to play ball the next day. FDR believed it eased the woes of polio. Al Capone wanted to take a break from mayhem. Me, I just needed to get ready for a long drive the next day.
WHEN YOU GO
President Bill Clinton grew up in Hot Springs, and you can you can learn about his life at the William Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, just an hour away.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The historic Buckstaff Bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is one of the many places where visitors can take the thermal waters. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.