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A Hot Springs Fourth of July

For decades (eight of them to be exact) Arkansans have been drawn to Lake Hamilton each summer.

Carpenter Dam, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 1992, was the handiwork of Harvey Couch, the founder of Arkansas Power & Light Co. The site for the dam was 10 miles upstream on the Ouachita River from Remmel Dam, the first of AP&L’s two dams on the Ouachita River used for hydroelectric generation.

Construction of Remmel Dam began in May 1923 and was completed in December 1924. The result was Lake Catherine, a 1,940-acre lake named after Couch’s only daughter (he also had four sons).

Construction of Carpenter Dam began in February 1929 and was completed in December 1931. The result was Lake Hamilton, a 7,200-acre lake named after Couch’s legal counsel, C. Hamilton Moses.

Cabins soon began springing up around Lake Hamilton. At the same time, some expensive homes were built on the lake during the 1930s.

Melissa and I stayed this past weekend in one of those homes — the Hamilton House. For years, the restaurant in the Hamilton House was a favorite spot for us to dine on trips to Hot Springs. Dinner is no longer served there. It’s now a bed and breakfast inn.

Located on a peninsula with grounds covering almost three acres, it proved to be the perfect spot to enjoy the fireworks show on Saturday night. We sat on the Hamilton House dock as the fireworks exploded just above our heads. On the lake, hundreds of boats were anchored for the annual show.

The house was patterned after an Italian villa and has marble floors from Mexico, red clay tiles from Mexico and glass tiles from Italy. The chandelier in the main room originally was imported to San Francisco from Austria.

Within minutes of checking in, we had changed clothes and were headed to the dock for a swim in the lake. I then sat on the dock, which is shaded by a large mimosa tree, and watched the boats pass on a hot afternoon. There was a steady stream of watercraft.

“Nice spot,” one man yelled from his boat.

He was right — a shaded dock, a front-row view of the activity on the lake and the prime location for that night’s fireworks show.

In this summer of high gas prices and a slow economic recovery, it was good to see each of the “ducks,” the World War II-era amphibious vehicles that have for so long been a part of the Hot Springs tourism scene, packed with tourists.

Several weeks ago, I had asked Steve Arrison, the promotional genius who runs the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, how Hot Springs was faring this summer.

“We’re holding our own,” he replied.

On the weekend prior to the Fourth of July, the place seemed to be doing more than just holding its own. It was hopping.

The “ducks” are technically DUKWS. According to the website for National Park Duck Tours, the landing craft was developed “by the U.S. Army during World War II to deliver cargo from ships at sea directly to shore. The DUKWs then contained a hull pump that could pump 260 gallons of water per minute plus a hand pump that could also move 50 gallons per minute. The DUKW can climb up a 60 percent grade and also broach 18-inch high obstacles. Its range is approximately 220 miles on land and 50 miles in water, and its cargo capacity is 5,350 pounds. It was designed to transport up to 25 fully equipped troops on land or water.

“During World War II, the United States realized that an amphibious invasion of France from England was necessary to overcome the German occupation. Thousands of landing crafts and hundreds of cargo and transport ships would be needed to launch a successful invasion. DUKWs were engineered with maneuverability and great agility to help meet the challenge. They fought their way through choppy oceans, huge breakers and exited the water onto soft sand without losing traction to bring troops and supplies safely to shore.”

Prior to the fireworks show Saturday night, we dined at J&S Italian Villa, which is in a home once occupied by one of Couch’s four sons. The location is just above where the Couch Marina was located for many years.

The Couch sons were Johnson Olin Couch, Harvey Crowley (Don) Couch Jr., Kirke Couch and William Thomas (Bill) Couch. It was Bill who had the home on the lake that’s now a place for fine Italian dining. The four sons were outlived by the one daughter, Catherine Couch Remmel, who died in Little Rock in January 2006 at age 87.

In November 2002, brothers Jamal and Sham Afkhami transformed the former Bill Couch residence into a restaurant. They had owned and operated restaurants in the Dallas area for the previous three decades. The restaurant was packed Saturday night, and the food was outstanding.

I do, though, still miss ordering fried quail at Mrs. Miller’s.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was just building DeGray Lake when I was young in Arkadelphia, so Lake Hamilton was a lake of choice for Arkadelphians. I always envied those “old money” Arkadelphia families (if there’s really such a thing as old money in a town that small) who had lakehouses on Hamilton.

Childhood memories of Hot Springs revolved around special occasion dinners at Mrs. Miller’s and Coy’s (another restaurant I miss), sitting in the auction houses on Central Avenue (also gone) and (for more downscale entertainment) visits to Kmart and the Burger Chef. My hometown had neither a large discount store nor a chain burger joint at that time.

There are plenty of accommodations on Lake Hamilton if you decide to pay a visit. Those looking for upscale accommodations have their choice of the Hamilton House and Lookout Point Lakeside Inn. Ray and Kristie Rosset built Lookout Point in 2003 after becoming enchanted with Hot Springs. I’ve never stayed there but have heard nothing but good things about it.

Following a recent trip to Hot Springs, travel writer Sophia Dembling wrote a post on her blog headlined “Hot Springs Is Cool.”

She wrote: “The last time I was in Hot Springs it was kind of, um, worn down. It’s a pretty part of the country, but the fabulous old bathhouses that comprise Hot Springs National Park (there’s Hot Springs the city and Hot Springs the park) sat mostly empty and dejected. You could peer in, but you couldn’t go in, and they had nothing to offer but memories.

“That’s changing as the National Park Service is doing basic restoration on them (cleaning out the asbestos, fixing the wiring, adding heat and air conditioning) and renting them out. Maybe you’ve been dreaming about dropping out of the rat race and opening a business someplace lovely. This could be your opportunity.”

Dembling wrote a glowing article that ran June 2 in the Dallas Morning News.

“We’re, in essence, going back to our historic roots,” park superintendent Josie Fernandez told her when asked about the renovation of the bathhouses.

Of the Quapaw, which opened again in 2008 following a renovation costing almost $2 million, Don Harper told Dembling: “We knew people would come. On a Sunday, sometimes English is the third or fourth language you’ll hear in the pools.”

Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Ozark opened in 2009.

Lori Arnold of the museum told Dembling: “A lot of tourists think we’re going to be very Mod Squad, but we’re not.”

Other bathhouses are almost ready to be leased.

After some sad decades when downtown seemed to empty out and almost all retail and hotel development was south on Central Avenue toward Lake Hamilton, there has been a bit of rejuvenation in downtown Hot Springs.

In addition to the work on the bathhouses, the art gallery scene seems to be flourishing.

The Gallery Walk on the first Friday of each month attracts thousands of people downtown.

There’s also the Antique/Boutique Walk on the third Friday night of each month that features shops on the 100-200 blocks of Central Avenue such as The Villa, Tillman’s, Blue Lili and Bathhouse Soapery.

One end of Central Avenue, however, remains anchored by the closed, rotting, forlorn Majestic Hotel.

There are other empty giants — the Medical Arts Building (built in 1929 and, at 16 stories, the tallest building in the state for decades until Winthrop Rockefeller built the Tower Building in Little Rock in 1960), the 1926 DeSoto Hotel and more.

I still contend that a major economic development and historic preservation goal in Arkansas should be to attract more private investors to develop condominiums, quality apartments, additional restaurants and upscale hotel rooms in downtown Hot Springs. It’s a rare Arkansas jewel whose buildings should no longer be allowed to languish.

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