Sunday, May 6, 2012

2012-12 Hot Springs Arkansas, Week 2

Hot Springs Arkansas
Week 2

Hot Springs Arkansas from NP Tower

Discovering the history of a place is most rewarding at least in my mind anyway.  One’s first thoughts are of the Hot Springs area are of the Hot Springs spa that line one side of the street along with manicured lawns and the row of magnolia trees in bloom.  Hot Springs National Parks is one of the very earliest parks created in the U.S. and I believe is the smallest of the all the National Parks.  The boundary is actually the center line down the middle of the main street in town. But along with the baths designed to heal what ever ails you on the opposite side of the street were all the shops, bars and casinos. The casinos are no longer in existence but The Ohio Club and Southern Club (now the Gambling Museum and The Josephine Tusaud Wax museum) and other buildings remain.  The Ohio Club is considered the oldest remaining saloon in Arkansas.  Well worth a stop in for a refreshing drink and a chance to soak up some of it’s history and local music especially on weekends.  Illegal gambling and the selling of booze during prohibition went on for quite some time.  Many of these casinos and bars were frequented by the likes of May West, Al Jolson, Sammy Davis Jr. Tony Bennett and Babe Ruth and even Bill Clinton since this is his home town.

And where there’s gambling, there were gangsters.  Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugsy Segal who they say came here to learn about the casino business before moving out to Las Vegas.  The casinos were all illegal but continued to run until around 1967.  Today the Oaklawn Racetrack which has horseracing a few months out of each year is now also a full fledged casino.  Though they are not allowed to call it that.  They call it a Gaming Establishment.  I guess with the past history of all the illegal casinos in town they didn’t want to encourage the use of the name casino.  I of course had to go check out the casino especially since they give new members $10 in hard cash and a discount in their restaurant.  The place was packed by 12:30 in the afternoon.  I essentially had my meal paid for and won a few extra bucks to boot.

The other thing I did was to visit the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum & Southern Club Gambling Museum.  Now I’m sure your aware that wax museums can be found all around the country in high tourist areas.  I’ve never been in one and thought it was about time to go see what it’s all about.  The wax museum is in the original building that the Southern Club was established, so it’s a mix of area history and kind of creepy wax figures.  Although there were a few good vignette settings, most appeared to be thrown together with used boards and old material.  From Jimmy Carter, to Elizabeth Taylor riding the escalator to the Last Supper and the Pope at the top of the stairs.  Around the corner to a series of torture victims in dungeon settings. And then onto Presidents and Kings. Many of the figures really looked like wax, though their faces were just as riveting, looking into the Popes eyes or Prince Charles who had way too much hair on his head. Seeing the vault through a back window where it still remains after it was buried under a ton of rocks as the mountain behind the building collapsed and destroyed about 20% of the building back in the early 60‘s.   Of course the owners dug it up and blasted a hole through the side of it to retrieve a reported $5 million dollars worth of silver and cash.  Needless to say, the illegal gaming business was profitable before they were put out of business.

Back at the campground from my view on a rise overlooking the small creek, I’m able to see the dry campers down below.  An interesting mix of  tenters.  The biker and his gal with a nice large rectangular tent, the kayakers who pull up in their car with the kayak on top.  They came in late and just threw their tent on the ground, didn’t open it up and just  bundled themselves up and laid on top of the flattened tent.  A couple camp sites down, another car pulls in, the guy sets up a hammock between two trees overlooking the creek.  Wraps himself in a towel and goes to sleep in the hammock next to the gurgling stream for sound effects.

Duck Tour

Doug w/ wooden Indian
The next adventure I took was to take a ride on the Duck Tour.  It’s a boat/vehicle that was developed and built during WWII.  It has wheels and can be driven on roads, then one drives it right into a lake and it becomes a boat.  But at only 3 mpg I wouldn’t be eager to go out and buy one tomorrow.  Of course they haven’t been made since the 1940’s so any that you may take a tour on are truly a part of history.  Now the tour I took was done by a young guy that one could say was truly a country boy, wise cracking with jokes and stories and we were told not to believe hardly anything he told us.  I was able to learn a little more about the history of the area and the fact that the Dixie Mob actually ran much of the town during it’s casino heydays.  Gov. Rockefeller ended all that around 1967 when he had the gambling establishments closed down, destroying all the gambling paraphernalia, arresting the owners and putting three police officers and a sheriff in jail.  It’s interesting to note that during the period of time before Anglo-Americans arrived, the Native Indians considered this a neutral zone where all tribes in the area could come and use the healing hot springs.  Later during the gambling era, the mobs and gangsters also considered it a neutral zone and would come here to gamble along with their rivals.  Each paying off the local authorities along the way so as not to be arrested while enjoying the area.  Al Capone was so secretive that he had a private staircase from his 4th floor hotel suite that went to a tunnel under the street and over to the Southern Club.  Never having to come out into the public to enjoy the local attractions.

And yes I do my little chores around the camper.  Vacuuming and cleaning house.  Course with a camper the cleaning doesn’t take near as much time as cleaning a big ole house.  I even did some spring cleaning and packed up some stuff for the Good Will Store.  I even straightened out one of my cabinets over the desk.  Figured it was time when things kept falling out every time I opened the doors.  Feels good to get organized.

On one of my last days in the Hot Springs Area I took advantage of the hot springs themselves at the Quapaw Baths.  One can use the pools for $18 a day.  It’s a beautiful setting right in the heart of the Bath House Row.  4 pools having spring water cooled down to between 95 and 105 degrees.  I met quite a few Russians enjoying the pools.  One gentleman said he would be in the area for 14 days and he had already come to the hot springs everyday for the past 10 days.  He didn’t look any younger than when he first started using the hot springs, so I gather I won’t either with my one day dip.  I’ll just have to keep searching for that fountain of youth.  Still, the hot mineral rich hot springs sure felt good.

Quapaw Bath House

The last time I was in the area I had taken the ride to the top of the viewing tower but since I hardly remembered having done it, it was time to take the ride to the top once again.  It’s a winding switch back road that leads to the top of the mountain overlooking Hot Springs.  So much so that one can see the front and back of their vehicle at the same time as one makes those wicked hair pin turns.  The outside elevator ride isn’t all that scary as there are huge X shaped steel girders surrounding the tower and elevator.  And of course the views from the top are pretty spectacular with the heavily wooded low mountain ranges surrounding the entire town.  I could see the high school Bill Clinton went to school in, the large Army/Navy Hospital that was the first in the country designed for rehab.  It is now run as both a local rehab facility and a Trade School.  And crystal clear views of the main street as it winds through the valley between the low mountain ranges going off in different directions on the north end of town.  Mist and fog hanging low in the early morning light between those mountain ranges stretching all the way to the horizon.

I’ll leave in another day or so heading towards my next destination, Bentonville Arkansas with a stop along the way to visit with more friends from my Desert Trail days.

Lots of extra photos on Picasa.

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