“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to tell us about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the fun facts only locals know about.
In 1832—40 years before Yellowstone became the first national park—President Andrew Jackson preserved the hot springs of Garland County, Ark., for future recreation. From 1892 to 1923, eight bathhouses with complex piping were created near the springs to host visitors eager to partake of the waters. The site officially became Hot Springs National Park in 1921. Covering some 5,500 acres, it is the smallest national park and the only one located within a city.
The folds and faults of the Zigzag Mountains, which are part of the Ouachita Mountains, create a chute for rainwater to travel as far as 8,000 feet below the surface. Nearly 4,400 years later, the water shoots back up into 47 natural pools at an average temperature of 143 degrees Fahrenheit. To experience a rejuvenating hot springs soak, visitors must visit the bathhouses, which offer a variety of amenities and services. (One, the Superior, is now a brewery.)
In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings visited Hot Springs during the winter to prepare for their season. When they won the National League pennant that year, other teams copied their strategy, giving birth to baseball’s perennial tradition, spring training. From that point on, baseball’s best-known names, from Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron, regularly went to Hot Springs. Today, visitors can enjoy the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, which traces the steps of the big leaguers who came before, and an annual Hot Springs Weekend, when major league baseball returns to the state.
We recently caught up with Senator Alan Clark (R), right, whose Senate District 13 includes Hot Springs, to ask about this beloved travel destination.
There is so much to do and see at the Hot Springs. What are favorite attractions and sights for you and your family?
Hot Springs has a unique and diverse history with several books on the subject: from the Native Americans who gathered at the springs, to the expedition that President Thomas Jefferson sent up the Ouachita River after the Louisiana Purchase and “discovered” the springs, to Hot Springs becoming the first “reservation” made by Congress in 1832. Baseball spring training originated in Hot Springs, when first one team and then several came for the healing waters, the rich night life and the nice hotels. Babe Ruth hit a famous home run, and they still show you the spot where it landed at the Alligator Farm, which was a fair distance away.
Hot Springs was infamous for its illegal gambling, with lavish “secret” clubs throughout the downtown, and for the gangsters who came here to relax and build businesses. Al Capone was one of those. That illegal activity and law enforcement’s participation in it and protection of it even led to a shootout on the city’s main street between county and city law enforcement. The gambling era probably fascinates me most. I have hosted an event in the Al Capone Suite at the historic Arlington Hotel, which is where he actually stayed when in town. He preferred this room because at the time he could see down the street both ways and the room then had a back exit down the stairs (now a closet).
Hot Springs has a rich and varied history. Which part fascinates you most?
We like the simple things, and a stroll down the Promenade on the mountain behind Bathhouse Row to look at one of the old springs is great. Walking down Bathhouse Row, going in the bathhouses and the shops is a lot of fun. Hot Springs Mountain Drive and West Mountain Drive are not to be missed, or the lookouts over the community from there. Hot Springs Mountain Tower would be on my list. See if you don’t see the rim of a large extinct volcano from there. The Gangster Museum is interesting, and when the kids were younger the Alligator Farm, Tiny Town and the wax museum are among the best anywhere.
Almost everyone wants to drive by and see the house where President Bill Clinton grew up, although it’s a private residence and not open for tours. McClard’s Bar-B-Q, the barbecue that Clinton would have shipped to the White House, is a cool old diner/cafe with many famous entertainers’ and politicians’ pictures on the walls. I almost always take out-of-country guests there. The historic Vapors club, which was built by a gangster and known for having national acts there almost nightly for decades—and also known for once being bombed by rival gangsters—has been restored and is hosting great nightly entertainment. I can’t believe I almost forgot Garvan Woodland Gardens, one of the most beautiful gardens anywhere. There is just too much to enjoy here to remember it all. Some wonderful golfing, mountain biking and hiking trails too. And fishing. How did I forget fishing?
What else is great about your district? What other attractions should people see?
I have four lakes in my district and three state parks, in addition to the national park. Lake Ouachita is the largest lake in Arkansas and one of the cleanest in the country, known for great fishing, boating and diving. We camp there every year. Then on the southern edge of my district is DeGray on the Caddo River with a dam you drive across. They have camping and a fantastic lodge, and that includes an 18-hole golf course. I have two other historic downtowns that are revitalizing with new shops and a taste of the old in Benton and Malvern. We are in the early stages of building a biking/walking trail from the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock to the Hot Springs National Park, which will be about 50 miles and cross the historic Old River Bridge in Benton. This is an especially popular idea with bikers who already come to Hot Springs for some great mountain biking trails.
Ben Mathios is an intern in NCSL's Communications Division. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.