Sunday, June 25, 2017

Spring hunting in Eureka Springs

Sweet Spring
Green Cove Springs in Clay County, Florida recently opened new facilities around their legendary artesian spring. Around the spring head formed concrete creates what looks like a wading area dotted with large limestone boulders. From what I can tell from the photo posted by the City, it looks like the entire spring is now protected with a decorative iron fence. After sharing the image on Facebook, someone noted that they thought it looked  "odd".

Image from the City of Green Cove Springs

Springs in Florida have been piped, pooled, and protected since they first became resources for taking the waters in the 19th century. Bathhouses were built around the water like the grand spring house at White Sulphur Springs in North Florida. In order to create a space where the Victorian tourists felt comfortable, natural spring basins were contained and 'improved upon' by man. In my opinion, Florida's springs are one of the state's greatest natural resources, and the fact that we have felt the need to improve upon them has always fascinated me.

But in Arkansas the springs in most cases do not create large pool-like basins – they are often small trickles that emerge from rocky hillsides. I was fascinated to see how the thermal waters were pooled and piped into bathhouses in Hot Springs. Northwest of Hot Springs, in the mountain town of Eureka Springs, I was interested in how the built environment around the waters of the healing springs had evolved.

Eureka Spring mural shows, l-r, Native Americans, tents of early settlers, and Eureka Springs as a boomtown.
One of those hillside springs had a small tub like depression carved into the rock, supposedly by Native Americans who used it for healing purposes, and it may have been the reason the entire town came into being. This spring, now known as Basin Spring, is located in the heart of the historic downtown. The spring's reputation of healing powers first caught the attention of Dr. Alvah Jackson, who set up a hospital using spring water to treat wounded Civil War soldiers from both sides. The Doctor's cave hospital soon grew into a successful business, and when his associate was cured of a "crippling disease," the word soon spread. Founded in 1879, the town of Eureka Springs exploded with growth, and "visitors flocked to the original encampment of tents and hastily built shanties," according to

Basin Spring

Today Basin Spring is a great example of how beloved water resources are often "piped, pooled, and protected." Basin Spring Park occupies space next to the Basin Park Hotel carved out of the surrounding hillside. A decorative arch proclaims the waters there to be the "Balm of Life" and a large fountain is the focal point of the park. Beneath the fountain, the plumbing resembles that of a contemporary home, so it is unclear if the water in the fountain is from the spring or the local water supply. 

A stairwell leads up the hill and where more pipes and valves appear to collect the famous healing waters. The view of the town is outstanding from that vantage point, and it is amazing to me that what was once the 4th largest town in the state, sprung up almost overnight based merely on its reputation for miraculous springs. 

Pipes under the fountain in the park

Pipes near the apparent source of the spring


A vintage travel brochure published by the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad titled "Heart of the Ozarks" claims that the "City of Healing Waters" boasts some fifty springs within the city limits. The website says there are actually sixty-three. For the few days I was in town, I made it my mission to locate as many of the springs as I could.

Sweet Spring

Named for the taste of the water, this spring trickles out below street level, so twin sets of twisting stairs were created to make it accessible. Like a number of the springs throughout the city, Sweet Spring was surrounded by gorgeous landscaping. In this case, the manmade enhancements to the springs are quite pleasing to the eye.

Harding Spring

Next down the street is Harding Spring, named for a photographer who often used the spring as a backdrop for tourist photos. It is also the site of a famous healing where young Jennie Cowan regained her eyesight from using its waters after seven years of blindness.

Beautiful landscaping surrounded many of the city's springs

Crescent Spring

Further down the road is Crescent Spring with its ornate gazebo, originally built in 1885. Located close to the Crescent Hotel, this spring who's flow is a mere trickle today, was said to have remarkable healing power, "almost as much as the Basin." 

Grotto Spring

On the opposite side of the Crescent Hotel is Grotto Spring, located within a grotto-like cave. I visited around dusk, after a ghost tour at the Crescent Hotel, and must it admit finding this spring especially creepy!

Magnetic Spring

Said to magnetize anything metal that came in contact with the water, Magnetic Spring is located just outside the town's central commercial district. It was reputed to help cure addiction and it has two structures  – a pavilion covering the spring and a picnic pavilion. I met a man there who frequented the site and he said he had recently seen someone soaking their legs in the water in search of healing.

Calif Spring

Located next to the small Eureka Springs history museum, this spring appears to have stopped flowing. Ironically when I asked about the location of the spring at the museum, they didn't know where it was.

Congress Spring

I was stumped trying to find this one, supposedly near the town's Carnegie Library. On my second trip to an antique store, I noticed a small sign in the back window. Looking through the window I could see what looked like a cave out back. When I asked the store owner about it she told me to pull up the floorboard. Congress Spring was running right underneath the building! She said they've done die trace studies and have never figured out where the water ends up.

Congress Spring runs under the floor of the building on the left of this image

I noticed this sign...

... and saw a cave behind the building

The water flows right beneath the floor!

Gadd Spring

Another surprising discovery was a spring located inside a gift shop. While Congress Spring was secretly hidden beneath the floor of an antique shop, Gadd Springs is actually used in the promotion of gift shop.

Springs everywhere

On our last night in Eureka Springs, my wife and I dined at the Grotto Wood-Fired Grill and Wine Cave. The greeter led us through the dark restaurant to the table in the corner, next to a rocky formation. Upon further investigation, there was a spring emerging from the rocks, and water flowed downward toward a drain. I was ecstatic to be able to dine right next to a flowing spring, (plus the food was excellent as well, I highly recommend dining there.)

As we left we climbed down some steps after dinner,  I noticed water seeping out from rock under the main commercial street. Then I noticed water running across the parking lot. Seemingly in Eureka Springs, there are springs everywhere. For a spring hunter like me, it's amazing. I was astounded at the vast number of springs, and how the reputed healing power of the water was responsible for the creation of an entire town carved out of steep Ozark hills. While the water is not revered as it once was, the town itself seems as healthy and vital as ever.

Water seeps from a hillside

Spring water flows across a parking lot.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Taking the waters in Hot Springs

When the attendant asked for my sheet, there was no turning back. I had stripped off my clothes, stuffed them into a locker, and entered the men's bathing area clad in only a thin cotton sheet. What I was about to experience was close to the what visitors to Hot Springs would have participated in 100 years ago, in this very bathhouse, including the nudity.

My wife and I journeyed to Hot Springs, Arkansas to feed my curiosity about the history of medical tourism connected to springs. In Florida after the Civil War, elaborate facilities housed bathers who found our springs to have great curative powers. Places like Green Cove, White Sulphur, and Suwannee Springs were home to elaborate bathhouses with ornate Victorian-style facilities such as hotels and spas for their upper class clientele.  For a brief time hydrotherapy became an important treatment for curing a variety of ailments, and sanitariums and spas offering methods for healing involving water popped up all over Florida. Henry Flagler's Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine had elaborate spa facilities; John Harvey Kellogg opened a branch of his Battle Creek Sanitarium in Miami Springs; and the Seventh Day Adventist Church practiced hydrotherapy at the Florida Sanitarium in Orlando. Studying the history of hydrotherapy in America wet my appetite to experience the practice myself. That's how I found myself naked in Hot Springs, warily handing over my bed sheet to a stranger.

From Fordyce to Buckstaff
While touring the elaborately restored Fordyce Bathhouse, the Park Ranger shared that two of the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row still allowed one the opportunity to soak in the famed mineral waters. Quapaw Baths and Spa offered a more contemporary spa experience with facials, massage, and "Hot Stone Alignment." The Buckstaff Bathhouse, however, offered the ultimate "thermal mineral bathing experience" that was virtually unchanged from what bathers have undergone in Hot Springs for decades. After the Ranger's description of the Buckstaff process, even my wife, who is not a fan of spas, agreed that we had to give it a try.

Detail of the lobby of the Fordyce Bathhouse, restored by
the National Park Service.
Detail of the spectacular stained glass at the Fordyce Bathhouse.
Fountain and tile work in the lobby of the Fordyce bathhouse.
Unlike the Buckstaff, the Quapaw offers a communal bathing area
like those in Europe and Asia (no nudity.)

At the Buckstaff
We arrived at lunch time when the baths were closed and were told to return at 1:30. By 1:15 the line had all ready began to form in the lobby, and we waited for our chance to sign-up. Buckstaff offers a variety of services, but we signed up for the Whirlpool Mineral Bath treatment that included a tub bath, sitz bath, vapor cabinet, needle shower and hot pack towel treatment for $33.

Buckstaff Baths opened in 1912 and is the only Hot Springs bathhouse that still provides the traditional bathing experience. The bathhouses on Bathhouse Row catered to different clientele – while the decor and architecture of the Fordyce bathhouse obviously catered to the upper end of the economic spectrum, the more Spartan appointments of the Buckstaff make it clear that it was for folks with less means. The building itself has a covered porch along the front with enormous columns that appear to poke out between eye-catching blue and white striped awnings. The lobby is smaller and more minimally decorated in comparison to some of the more upscale neighbors like the Fordyce which boasts beautiful fountains and tile work in the lobby to entice guests.

Buckstaff Bathhouse. Library of Congress.

After we paid for treatments my wife and I split up; as is tradition the baths are segregated by gender. The women's baths were on the second floor, the men's on the first floor adjacent to the lobby. I was the first male in the men's bath after the staff's lunch break, so it felt a bit odd as I began my bathing experience in a large facility without any other bathers. After depositing my clothes in a locker, I headed into the bathing area, a large open room that appeared to take up the entire back of the rather large building. In the center of the room were rows of vinyl covered tables, much like those you would see used by contemporary massage therapists. Along the walls were various marble stalls with various hydrotherapy devices; sitz baths to my right, enormous tubs on my left. I didn't have time to look around much as the bath attendant, dressed in entirely in white, (as is the tradition), led me to my mineral bath.

A note of self-disclosure, I have always been modest about nudity. In middle school swimming class I wore underwear under my bathing suit so I wouldn't have to be naked in front of the other kids. While I'm not that kid any more, I must admit I was a bit uncomfortable getting buck naked in front of a complete stranger at Buckstaff Bathhouse.
The men's changing area at the Buckstaff. Library of Congress.

Little has change since this photo was taken. Library of Congress.
Here's what the tub looks like, sans plumbing. Library of Congress.

Hot mineral bath
The attendant helped me into the enormous tub. He instructed me to place my feet on the far end of the tub and lean back. The water felt hot at first, but I got used to the temperature fairly quickly. The temperature gauge by my right foot showed it was 104 degrees. The hot mineral water comes from 45 separate springs on the side of Hot Springs Mountain and the average temperature of the water at its source is 143 degrees. Here is an explanation from the Park Service of why the water is hot:

Rain water collected throughout the recharge area northeast of town slowly converges at a maximum depth of probably between 6,000 to 8,000 feet at a point just west of the Bathhouse Row area. Here the rocks are cut by a series of large faults. Cracks and fractures associated with these faults provide the hot water with an escape route up to the surface. Heated by the natural heat gradient within the earth, the trip up is so rapid, that there is very little cooling of the water. Of the approximately four thousand years it takes the rainwater to make its round trip, perhaps only a year or so at the very most is needed to get back up the surface.

The whirlpool was created by a vintage looking device that looked like a cross between a kitchen mixer and outboard engine. It was attached to the tub above my left foot and the electric engine was perched just above the water. I wondered what would happen if it were to fall from its perch – I could see the headlines in my mind: "Florida man electrocuted in Hot Springs mineral bath." I did my best to put those fears out of my mind and relax into the warm flowing water.

The whirlpool motor at the Buckstaff was similar to this one. Library of Congress.

At one point the attendant added more water to the tub and it was noticeably warmer coming out of the tap. I was promised a 20 minute soak but I could tell by the clock on the wall it was much more like 15 minutes. By the time the attendant returned with a towel to take me to the sitz bath, I was so comfortable in the tub that it took great effort on my part to remove myself from the warm mineral waters.

Sitz bath
The attendant then led me to the sitz bath which had a small wooden seat resting in it that he proceeded to scrub with Ajax. I figured it was because my short stature might require a boost to fit correctly. I sat in the little tub while warm water cascaded over my mid to lower back. It felt heavenly, like taking a long warm shower (but without the guilt of wasting water or electricity.)  After a few minutes I was once again rousted from my relaxed state to cross the room for my vapor cabinet experience.

Here's a vintage illustration of a sitz bath.
Sitz bath in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
Vapor cabinet
My only previous experience with steam bathing was a very short stint in the steam room at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa. I found it hard to breathe and impossible to see. Traditionally at Hot Spring bathhouses there are two types of vapor cabinets, the type where one's head is exposed and the walk-in type. I was taken to the walk-in type for two minutes of steam. I found it hard to breathe through my nose, so I breathed through my mouth. The air had an interesting earthy, sweet taste. Soon sweat was oozing out of every pore in my body. While at first I found it to be claustrophobic and uncomfortable, again by the time the attendant came to get me out I didn't want to leave!

Fordyce Bathhouse vapor cabinet.
Sweating in a vapor cabinet. Library of Congress.
Buckstaff Bathhouse walk-in vapor cabinet. Library of Congress.
Hot pack treatment
The attendant asked if I had an area of my body that I would like "packed" with hot towels. Remembering how good it felt to have warm water pouring on my lower back in the sitz bath, I asked him to apply the towels to my back. I laid face down on the table and warm damp towels were applied to my back. Then I was wrapped up tightly in sheets like an Indian papoose. There is something calming and relaxing about being confined like this, a similar treatment was used in asylums to calm agitated patients. Ten minutes later the attendant returned to take me to the needle shower.

Hydrotherapy treatment, image from the Willard Digital Collection/Willard Library
Needle shower
I'd seen images of people in needle showers with hoses pointed at their backsides that looked like cruel torture devices. They still have the equipment in the Lightner Museum in the spa of the former Alcazar Hotel. So I wasn't quite what to expect as I stepped into the Buckstaff's needle shower. The website defines a needle shower this way:
A needle bath or needle shower directed jets of water all round the torso. Sometimes the water flow could be adjusted, and a particular setting was promoted as a liver shower or bath, supposedly offering a stimulating massage for internal organs. Its energizing effects were considered more suitable for men than women. Needle showers were marketed to gentlemen’s athletic clubs as well as private houses. Some people call them cage showers.
I found it to be relaxing, but was a little disappointed that the water pressure wasn't as epic as I had imagined. When the attendant returned the last step left in my hydrotherapy treatment was the cool down room.

Needle shower and sitz bath at Fordyce bathhouse.
Fordyce bathhouse needle shower.
Lightner Museum needle shower in St. Augustine. 

Needle shower in France, circa 1880.

Cool down
I was directed into a room full of massage tables where I was instructed to chill for about 10 minutes. The space was simple and sterile looking – white subway tiles on the walls, ceiling fans overhead, and a TV near the door. Another bather came in and I considered striking up a conversation to compare our experiences, but I was decided I was too blissed out and I didn't want to risk breaking the spell by talking. After a few minutes, I left and got dressed, and then went outside to wait for my wife. While I was seated in an Adirondack chair on the Buckstaff's front porch, some other tourists came by to pose for pictures. One of them was smoking and I almost felt like yelling at them for bursting my healthy bubble. It felt like every pore of my skin was open; every cell in my body relaxed. I decided to run to the gift shop next door before my wife got there and almost couldn't get out of the chair. I was that relaxed. It felt good.

The cool-down room in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
My wife did not experience the same level of relaxation that I did, and she later pointed out that the building was definitely showing its age. While it was not hospital clean, to me the age of the surroundings only added to the experience. The archival images from the Library of Congress used in this post are not that different from how it looks today, only with more wear and tear due to the passage of time. 

I was disappointed that I was not given drinks of spring water throughout the process as I had anticipated (my wife was). Hydrotherapy as practiced in the late 1800s and early 1900s included taking the waters both internally and externally. To compensate, my wife and I capped off our experience at the Superior Bathhouse, now a brewery, with the only craft beer brewed using hot springs mineral water. Now that's refreshing!

Superior bathhouse photo by Leslie Fisher for All About Beer Magazine.