Archive for January, 2018

The Spa City

Monday, January 22nd, 2018


We cross the bridges over Lake Hamilton as we enter Hot Springs from the south on Arkansas Highway 7.

Following the instructions of Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch, a former riverboat captain named Flave Carpenter led the site-selection efforts for what would become Carpenter Dam on the Ouachita River. It was 10 miles upstream from Remmel Dam, the first of the two dams that Couch built on the river to generate electricity for his growing company.

Work on Carpenter Dam began in February 1929. Construction was completed in December 1931. The lake created by the dam was named in honor of Little Rock attorney C. Hamilton Moses, who represented all of Couch’s business enterprises.

Guy Lancaster writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the construction and engineering firm of Ford, Bacon & Davis built a rail spur to the main Missouri Pacific Railroad line so materials for the dam could be transported easily.

“Gravel was mined from the river bank while wood was taken from the future lake bed area,” he writes. “In the end, more than 156,000 cubic yards of concrete were used for a dam that measures 115 feet high and 1,165 feet long. . . . A work camp, at one time housing 1,000 people, was established adjacent to the construction site. Construction was completed in December 1931 at a cost of $6.5 million. Carpenter Dam features two generators, which together produce an output of 56 megawatts. The dam was built to provide electricity to the AP&L system during hours of peak energy consumption; as such, it is credited with helping AP&L survive the Great Depression, the full impact of which Arkansas was experiencing as the dam was being completed.”

In addition to being an electricity producer, Lake Hamilton soon would become one of the most popular recreational sites in the state. It simply added to the allure of Hot Springs, which was booming in the late 1920s under the leadership of dictatorial mayor Leo McLaughlin.

“McLaughlin was elected mayor in 1926 and fulfilled a campaign promise to run Hot Springs as an open town, one where gambling was permitted by local authorities,” Lancaster writes. “Illegal gambling had long been a staple of life in Hot Springs, but the McLaughlin administration carried this to a new level. McLaughlin also oversaw an extensive political machine in Hot Springs that employed rampant voter fraud in order to deliver support to favored candidates.

“During his 20-year reign, the city became a haven for numerous underworld figures, including Owen Vincent ‘Owney’ Madden and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Even Al Capone was a regular visitor to the city. The Southern Club was one of the favored hangouts for many of these gangsters. The relationship local authorities had with these mob figures occasionally put it at odds with the state and federal governments.”

Hot Springs had been an attraction long before the mobsters discovered it. As outlined in the earlier part of this series that described the Hunter-Dunbar Expedition, Native Americans had been using the hot springs for hundreds of years. Early European settlers also visited.

“By the early 1830s, the springs were proving a major attraction,” Lancaster writes. “In 1832, Congress reserved the area now known as Hot Springs National Park for federal use, exempting it from settlement. When the town of Hot Springs incorporated in 1851, it was home to two rows of hotels along with the bathhouses and the usual concomitant businesses. The city attracted not only seekers of leisure but also numerous invalids hoping to find relief in the area’s thermal waters.”

The first Hot Springs Reservation superintendent was Benjamin Kelley, who was appointed by Congress in 1877. Under his leadership, Hot Springs grew as a resort.

Lancaster writes that Kelley “initiated a number of engineering projects, allowing private owners to convert the previously ramshackle downtown bathhouses into a row of attractive buildings built in the Victorian style. This, combined with the city receiving a rail connection from what would eventually become the Rock Island Railroad in 1875, transformed Hot Springs into a cosmopolitan spa that would attract visitors from across the nation. The luxurious Arlington Hotel was also completed in 1875 and was, at the time of its completion, the largest hotel in the state. It was built by businessman Samuel W. Fordyce and others who invested heavily in Hot Springs.”

Hot Springs also was helped by the fact that it had bathhouses for blacks, who had few other places where they could vacation comfortably in the South in those days.

“Not only did African-Americans have access to employment in Hot Springs, they also had access to the same sort of bathing facilities that attracted wealthy whites to the area,” Lancaster writes. “In 1878, the federal government established a simple frame building over what was popularly known as the mud hole spring in order to service the poor, who could bathe there for free. Initially the site was open to all regardless of gender or race. A new brick building was erected in 1891, but it was remodeled in 1898 to provide for racial and gender segregation, though all still had equal access. Until the bathhouses were desegregated in 1965, a number of bathhouses operated that were devoted to a black clientele.”

In the late 1800s, Hot Springs became the first home of baseball spring training, a fact that the city has only recently begun to celebrate again.

Thoroughbred racing came to the city with Essex Park and Oaklawn Park. These days, Oaklawn is flourishing thanks to the revenue provided by hundreds of electronic games in its large gaming area.

Louis Cella, whose family has been involved with the track for more than a century, was named in December as Oaklawn’s president. He succeeds his father, Charles J. Cella, who died Dec . 6 at age 81.

Charles Cella took over Oaklawn in 1968 following the death of his father, John G. Cella. In 2005, the Cella family and Oaklawn received an Eclipse Award of Merit for their contributions to racing.

Louis Cella had, in essence, been running the track in recent years as his father’s health declined.

Family-owned thoroughbred tracks are rare these days. Conglomerates such as Churchill Downs Inc. and the Stronach Group own multiple tracks. It’s also uncommon in an era of declining interest in thoroughbred racing to find an ownership group that’s raising purses on a regular basis. In that respect, those in Arkansas who love racing are fortunate.

In another respect, the Cella family is fortunate. That’s because Arkansas remains one of the few places in the country where a day at the races is considered a major social event — a reason to get dressed up and invite friends to come along for the day. We’re a throwback.

“Racing has been part of the Cella family DNA for generations, and we’re committed to keeping Oaklawn one of the premier racetracks in the country for generations to come,” Louis Cella said on the day he was named president.

Oaklawn was formed in 1904, but racing ceased in 1907.

Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled ‘an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.’ The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1907-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt.”

The Legislature passed a bill in 1915 to reopen the track, but that legislation was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays.

Large fires in downtown Hot Springs hurt the tourism industry and led business leaders to begin efforts to resume racing, which joined boxing and baseball as the most popular sports in the country.

“In 1916, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise,” Hodge writes. “Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex.”

Racing would become an on again-off again affair for years in Hot Springs.

Circuit Judge Scott Wood ruled in 1919 that the races were illegal, and the track was closed again. A bill legalizing racing was approved by the Legislature in 1929 and vetoed by Gov. Harvey Parnell.

Mayor McLaughlin helped create the Business Men’s Racing Association in 1934 and announced that there would be races that spring regardless of what anyone said. More than 8,000 people turned out on March 1, 1934.

In 1935, legislation permitting racing with pari-mutuel wagering cleared the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Junius Futrell. The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000. By 1961, what had been a 30-day meet was extended to 43 days. By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races for 60 days per year.

“The 1980s were great for Oaklawn,” says Eric Jackson, the track’s former general manager. “At the time, we didn’t fully appreciate just how great they were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began to face competition from new tracks in Oklahoma and Texas. We responded by instituting simulcasting, becoming the first track to offer full cards from other tracks. But while we were looking west toward Texas and Oklahoma, the casinos were being built to the east in Mississippi and to the south in Louisiana.”

An initiative that would have allowed several casinos in Arkansas — including one at Oaklawn — was tossed off the ballot by the Arkansas Supreme Court just before the November 1994 election. Oaklawn made another casino run in 1996 that failed 61-39 percent.

“We got sucker punched about a month before the election,” Jackson says. “We had gone into it with the idea that the companies operating casinos in Mississippi would not oppose us. .. Then they came after us. The ads were brutal.”

In 2005, the Legislature passed an act permitting Oaklawn and Southland Park, a greyhound track at West Memphis, to install electronic forms of gaming if approved by the city or county. The result at Oaklawn has been a decade of growing purses.

Thus Hot Springs had thoroughbred racing, the baths, Lake Hamilton, wide-open gambling and even baseball spring training for a time in those first decades of the 1900s. No wonder the gangsters from Chicago loved to vacation there.

The current Arlington Hotel opened in late 1924. The Park Hotel and the Marquette Hotel opened in 1930. The oldest of the eight existing bathhouses, the Hale, was built in 1892-93. The others were added in those boom years of the early 1900s.

The Army and Navy Hospital opened in 1887 as the first combined hospital to serve soldiers from both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. It treated tens of thousands of soldiers before being turned over to the state in 1960. The Levi Hospital, which opened in 1914 to offer mental and physical therapy, continues to operate.

The Arkansas Alligator Farm, founded in 1902, also still operates. Attractions that once were popular but have closed include the IQ Zoo, which opened in 1955, and Thomas Cockburn’s Ostrich Farm, which operated from 1900-53.

The decline of downtown Hot Springs began in 1967, the first year that Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller was in office. Rockefeller was from one of the world’s richest families, of course, and didn’t need the payoffs that had gone to other elected officials for decades.

“So notorious was the city’s reputation that closing down gambling in Hot Springs became a major issue in the 1962 gubernatorial race,” Lancaster writes. “The explosion of a bomb in the Vapors casino in January 1963 made the problem of organized crime in the city a widespread concern. Soon after Rockefeller took office as governor in 1967, he ordered the Arkansas State Police to crack down on gambling in the Spa City. State troopers were able to put an end to illegal gambling in Hot Springs, though it brought them into conflict with local power brokers and even law enforcement officers. The well-known Hot Springs brothel owner Maxine Temple Jones, in prison at the time, disclosed a great deal of information on illegal gambling in return for a full pardon.”

With casino gambling having ended, businesses began to leave downtown. Many relocated south on Highway 7 (which doubles as Central Avenue in the city) toward Lake Hamilton. We pass many of those businesses on our way downtown. Overall, Hot Springs has been largely stagnant for the past 50 years. In the 1970 census, the city had a population of 35,631. Forty years later when the 2010 census was released, the number was almost the same — 35,193 to be exact.

In the past several years, however, an amazing rebirth has begun downtown.

According to the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, 2017 saw:

— A record number of downtown commercial properties sold downtown. There were 30 commercial properties sold for sales of more than $9 million.

— More than $23 million in capital investments that went into downtown properties.

— The Downtown Association grow from 35 to 55 businesses.

The fire that destroyed much of the Majestic Hotel in the winter of 2014 was a wake-up call for Hot Springs. In the four years since the fire, downtown has seen:

— 86 businesses open or expand.

— 84 commercial properties sold at a total value of more than $50 million.

— More than $80 million invested in capital improvements.

As we drive up Central Avenue, the progress downtown is evident.

There’s no time to stop downtown on this day, however. It’s time to continue north through what I consider the most beautiful part of the entire trip, the stretch from Jessieville to Ola through the Ouachita Mountains.



Arkadelphia to Hot Springs

Monday, January 15th, 2018


As we head north out of Arkadelphia, we stop at what the signs on Arkansas Highway 7 proclaim to be “DeSoto Bluff.”

Historians will tell you that there’s no evidence that the Spanish explorer ever reached this point on the Ouachita River, but the name stuck locally.

When I was growing up just a short walk through the woods from this location, we simply called it The Bluff.

There wasn’t an easy way to get there in those days.

Now, there’s a paved parking lot adjacent to the highway, a paved trail and informative interpretive markers along the way.

Since the director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, Paul Austin, is with us, it seems only fitting that we park the car and walk the trail. After all, the Humanities Council paid for the signage. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Department of Arkansas Heritage also contributed funds that make it easy to enjoy one of the best views in the southern half of the state.

The trail was dedicated in July 2013.

The interpretive signage tells the story of the Caddo Indians who once lived here and also the Hunter-Dunbar expedition, which did indeed pass this bluff.

The expert on that expedition is the president of Southern Arkansas University, Trey Berry, an Arkadelphia native and a lifelong friend.

“The Hunter-Dunbar expedition was one of only four ventures into the Louisiana Purchase commissioned by Thomas Jefferson,” Berry writes. “Between 1804 and 1807, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the northern regions of the Louisiana Purchase; Zebulon Pike into the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern areas and two smaller forays; Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis along the Red River; and William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore the ‘Washita River’ and ‘the hot springs’ in what is now Arkansas and Louisiana.

“While the Ouachita River expedition was not as vast as and did not provide the expanse of geographic and environmental information collected by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the exploration of Dunbar and Hunter remains significant for several reasons. It provided Americans with the first scientific study of the varied landscapes as well as the animal and plant life of early southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In fact, the expedition resulted in arguably the most purely scientific collection of data among all of the Louisiana Purchase explorations.

“The explorers described an extremely active and vibrant interaction between the European and the Native American population. Hunter and Dunbar also reported many encounters with European trappers, hunters, planters and settlers as well as fellow river travelers plying the waters of the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers. Their copious notes also portray a region in which these European and Indian inhabitants harvested the abundant natural resources along the rivers and in the lands beyond.”

Berry says that the detailed reports showed that the hot springs already had “become an important site for people seeking relief from ailments and infirmities. The expedition met several individuals who had either been to the springs or were on their way to bathe in its waters. When the explorers arrived at the hot springs, they found evidence that people had lived there for periods of time to take advantage of the location’s medicinal virtues. A cabin and several small shacks had been built by people coming to the springs. The explorers used these dwellings during their visit.”

More than 200 years later, people are still coming to Hot Springs. We will be there by lunch on this day.

Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Scotland. He studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London before moving to Philadelphia at age 22. He later moved to Natchez, Miss.

“The president relied on Dunbar’s advice and his propensity for getting things done in the frontier of the southern Mississippi Valley,” Berry writes.

Hunter, a chemist and druggist, also was a Scottish immigrant. He lived in Philadelphia but liked to explore areas of rural Ohio and Indiana.

Near what’s now Monroe, La., the explorers obtained a flatboat with a cabin on its deck and hired an experienced guide named Samuel Blazier. They headed north up the river and crossed into what’s now Arkansas on Nov. 15, 1804.

“The landscape began to change from mainly pine forests to bottomlands with various hardwoods,” Berry writes. “When the team reached Ecore a Fabri (now Camden), the former site of a French settlement, two significant events occurred. First, the explorers found a tree with curious Indian hieroglyphs carved onto its trunk. The carvings portrayed two men holding hands and may have been the site of trade between Europeans and Native Americans. Second, on Nov. 22, as Hunter cleaned his pistol on the flatboat, the gun discharged. The bullet ripped through his thumb and lacerated two fingers. It continued through the brim of his hat, missing his head by only fractions of an inch. Hunter remained in severe pain and danger of infection for more than two weeks. His eyes were burned, and he could not see to record entries in his journals and was little help to the expedition.

“Near the current site of Arkadelphia, they met a man of Dutch descent named Paltz. The Dutch hunter knew the area well, and he informed the explorers of a salt spring located nearby, as well as other natural features. Paltz told them that he had ‘resided 40 years on the Ouachita and before that on the Arkansas.’ Hunter, Paltz and a small team investigated a salt pit and reported it to be of a substantial nature. The chemist conducted specific gravity experiments on the saline water and discovered it to be a high concentration of what he called ‘marine salt.’

“On Dec. 3, 1804, Dunbar and Hunter confronted the greatest potential obstacle to their journey. Near what is today Malvern or Rockport, an enormous series of rocky rapids, called the Chutes by the two men, stretched almost one mile before them. Dunbar described the formations as looking like ‘ancient fortifications and castles.’ Through strenuous efforts of cordelling, rocking the vessel from side to side and essentially dragging the flatboat between and over rocks, the team finally traversed the maze of boulders. Dunbar compared the roar made by the Chutes to the sound of a hurricane he had experienced in New Orleans in 1779.”

After making it to what’s now Hot Springs, the explorers begin their return trip on Jan. 8, 1805. The expedition arrived back in Natchez on Jan. 27, 1805.

Berry writes: “During the following weeks, Dunbar and Hunter settled their accounts and began to work on their reports to Jefferson. Dunbar’s journals arrived on the president’s desk more than a year before Lewis and Clark returned from their trip to the northwest. The Dunbar journals and later the Hunter journals provided Jefferson his first glimpse into the new territory from a commissioned exploration team. … Their voyage did not rival Lewis and Clark’s, but their journey up the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers — along with the explorations and journals of Freeman, Custis and Zebulon Pike — are important accounts that complete the story of Louisiana Purchase exploration.”

We walk back down the trail from DeSoto Bluff, get in the car and head north. We pass the Clark Ranch and cross the Caddo River just above its confluence with the Ouachita River.

The Buffalo River gets all of the attention in Arkansas, but the Caddo is one of the finest float streams in the state.

“For centuries, this unique waterway has carved its way through sedimentary rock formations, creating a broad shallow river valley and leaving miles of gravel along its path,” writes Brian Westfall of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “In some places, the nearly vertical beds of sandstone and novaculite create rapids and water gaps. The Caddo, known for extremely clear water, originates from cold-water springs southeast of Mena. In this region, the springs flow from the Bigfork Chert Ridge, which sits atop the Ouachita Mountains Aquifer, known for its high-quality water.”

Much of the upper Caddo flows east through the Ouachita National Forest. The most popular section to float is from Caddo Gap to Glenwood in Pike County.

“In the early 1900s, Glenwood was a thriving sawmill town that used the Caddo for pine log transport, storage and milling,” Westfall writes. “At Glenwood, the Caddo leaves the Ouachita Mountains behind. As the Caddo leaves the Athens Piedmont Plateau, the gradient drops dramatically, and the river holes become longer and deeper. This section covers about eight miles and ends near Arkansas Highway 182, about one mile north of Amity.”

DeGray Lake begins soon after this point.

After crossing the lower Caddo River at Caddo Valley, we pass the many motels and fast-food restaurants that make up that community. We cross under Interstate 30.

From DeSoto Bluff back in Arkadelphia, we could look to the north and see where the Gulf Coastal Plain ends and the Ouachita Mountains begin.

We enter the Ouachita foothills and can see DeGray Lake with the Ouachita Mountains in the background as we drive through the blasted-out rocks of what my father called Grindstone Ridge. This is one of the best views in the state and was once the cover of the official state highway map.

DeGray Dam across the Caddo River forms 13,400-acre DeGray Lake. A smaller dam below the main dam creates a 400-acre impoundment known as the Lower Lake. It was built so water could be pumped back into DeGray during times of drought and used again for hydropower generation.

“The site where DeGray Dam stands had been considered for a dam since 1909 when Harvey Couch, founder of Arkansas Power & Light Co., reportedly visited the area to consider it for one of his projects,” Guy Lancaster writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In the 1930s, the federal government carried out geological studies in the area, though nothing came of it. Congress finally authorized a dam there in the 1950 Rivers and Harbors Act, though the Korean War delayed the funding of the project. In November 1955, the Corps of Engineers held a hearing in Arkadelphia attended by Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman Oren Harris, both proponents of the project. Congress included the dam in the 1959 Water Supply Act but failed to attach any funding to it. Finally, in 1961, money was appropriated.”

Rather than the cold-water release used on nearby Narrows Dam on the Little Missouri River, the Corps of Engineers decided to have a warm-water release to protect native fish populations downstream.

Highway 7 now runs atop a three-mile earthen dike that was a key part of the project.

The gate was closed at the dam on Aug. 8, 1969, and the lake began to fill. I was about to turn 10 at the time. I can remember that my father would drive our family out to the area each Sunday afternoon to watch the construction and the filling of the reservoir.

DeGray Dam and DeGray Lake were dedicated on May 20, 1972. My Boy Scout troop — Troop 24 — helped direct traffic that day at the dedication site.

Support had built through the years for the establishment of a state park on the lake that would rival anything in surrounding states. The state Department of Parks & Tourism reached an agreement with the Corps of Engineers in November 1971 to lease a 938-acre site. Construction began in early 1973 on an 18-hole golf course. By 1974, a large marina and campsites were open. By 1975, the 96-room DeGray Lodge had become a reality. What’s now known as DeGray Lake Resort State Park remains the only state park with both an 18-hole golf course and a lodge.

The 30-mile trip from Caddo Valley to Hot Springs is a familiar one for me. Hot Springs was the “big city” when I was a boy, and we went there often to shop and eat out. The worst of the Highway 7 curves of my boyhood — including one that was known as Dead Man’s Curve just north of Bismarck — have been removed through the years. Still, it’s a curvy route as we make our way into the mountains.

The cypress bottoms we had experienced outside Camden earlier in the morning seem like a distant memory now.

Just before leaving the DeGray dike as we head north, we pass from Clark County into Hot Spring County. Hot Spring County was established in 1829 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature with land taken from Clark County.

“Ironically, the spring for which Hot Spring County is named is no longer within the county limits,” Jennifer Atkins-Gordeeva writes from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Garland County was created in April 1873 in response to complaints from the citizens of the city of Hot Springs about the difficult trip to the county seat, which was then Rockport. As a result, both the city of Hot Springs and the springs themselves (except for one near Magnet Cove) are no longer found in Hot Spring County.

“The county’s mineral resources include iron, novaculite, titanium, barite, clay and lignite. Magnet Cove got its name from the magnetic iron ore deposits that sent compasses spinning in the 1880s. There are 42 distinct mineral species and mineral combinations in Magnet Cove, some of which are found only in Magnet Cove, the Ural Mountains and the Tyrolean Alps.”

We next cross from Hot Spring County into Garland County. There used to be a liquor store — the Ship & Shore — that was on the county line, but it went out of business soon after Clark County voted to go wet in November 2010. When I worked in college at the Arkadelphia radio stations, Ship & Shore was the sponsor during the Oaklawn race meet for Jim Elder’s “Morning Line” program on the Arkansas Radio Network. Elder, one of the best sportscasters in Arkansas history, would work his way through the entries for each race on that program.

An advantage to the year-round gambling now at Oaklawn is that one no longer has to wait until thoroughbred racing season — the period from January until April that marketers once promoted as the Fifth Season — to get Oaklawn’s famous corned beef. We make plans to park at the track and walk through rows of what Oaklawn officials like to call “games of skill” so we can get our corned beef fix at a sports bar known as Silks.

It will be good to get out of the car for an hour.

Ahead of us on Highway 7 loom two mountain ranges that are separated by the Arkansas River Valley. We have many miles of Arkansas highway still ahead.