top of page

The Spa City


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.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Woodruff County

The phone rang early one morning back in 2018. On the other end of the line was the man who at the time was chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, Michael John Gray of Augusta. Even though it was

Eric Jackson's journey

I met Eric Jackson in the winter of 1979. I was a college student at the time. I was also sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia. That meant I could spend race days at Oaklawn Park

Romantic Calico Rock

It's Valentine's Day. I began thinking about romantic getaways that Arkansans might not know about and kept coming back to the Calico Riverview Inn at Calico Rock, the subject of my past two newspaper


bottom of page