By Cecil Scaglione
Hot Springs Ark. —- It’s a travelers mantra when you’re on the road: “Don’t drink the water.” But that’s precisely why you come to this town built around the nation’s first national park, which was established in 1832 four decades before Yellowstone to protect four dozen thermal springs flowing out of the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain.
Water is as much a topic of talk here as are babies and baseball. Locals take it with them on their travels.
Bathhouse Row, erected during the early part of the last century and drew presidents, politicians and prostitutes to soak alongside gangsters, gamblers, and glamor girls, still stands across the
street from the tourist-crammed boutiques and ice-cream parlors along Central Avenue.
Capping its north end are the twin towers of the Arlington Hotel, where warm thermal water is still piped into guest-room washbasins and showers. Chicago’s Al Capone used to book the entire
fourth floor for himself, his staff, and his bodyguards to keep an eye on the comings and goings at the Suthern Club gambling complex across the street.
This town of 35,000 in the Ouachita Mountains an hour’s drive from the state capital, Little Rock, was considered by some in the 1930s to be the western border of organized crime in the United States. The most vicious gunfights were between local and neighboring law enforcement units clawing for the role of top dog to oversee mob and moonshine activities. Capone, like many of his contemporaries, visited America’s Spa City to gamble as well as “take the waters,” which “helped alleviate the symptoms” of his venereal disease, according to local guides.
Local tub-thumpers still work at luring health-and-fitness aficionados as well as those with just tired bones to soak in and sip some of the more than 700,000 gallons of water gushing out of the
earth here every day.
Before being embraced by a warm bath, you might want to walk, drive if you must, up the half-mile trail to the 20-story tower atop Hot Springs Mountain for a “Bird’s Eye View of Bill Clinton’s Home Town” the nation’s 42nd president grew up here and the nearby Diamond Lakes area, which draws boaters, water skiers, bathers, kayakers, canoeists, and fishing fans to its shoreline resorts.
You’ll also be looking over one of the nation’s favorite thoroughbred-racing tracks the 108-year-old Oaklawn. The proliferation of horse farms around the city has earned Hot Springs the nickname of “Little Lexington,” referring to the home of the Kentucky Derby.
If you time your visit right, you might catch some goodies tossed out by participants in The Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the World. A showman once said, “If it draws a crowd, it works.” This annual event works as crowds gather at and plug up blocks around 98-foot-long Bridge Street linking Central and Malvern avenues. It appears all you need to be part of the show is an inclination, but let the parade announcer know so you can be given proper attention.
About Cecil Scaglione: Cecil is a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer and for a number of years has been a world traveler, writer and currently a syndicated columnist.