Hot Springs, Arkansas, gets its name from the naturally thermal spring waters found here. Flowing out of the ground at an average temperature of 143 °F, the hot springs produce almost one million gallons of water each day.
It’s hard to tell exactly how long people have been visiting the springs. Native Americans called this area “the Valley of the Vapors,” and it was said to have been a neutral territory where all tribes could enjoy its healing waters in peace. Spanish and French settlers claimed the area in the mid-1500s. In fact, famous explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to visit Hot Springs in 1541.
The hot springs were such a coveted natural wonder that in 1832, President Andrew Jackson designated Hot Springs as the first federal reservation. Hot Springs Reservation was essentially America’s first national park, predating Yellowstone National Park by 40 years.
In 1862, during the Civil War, Arkansas Governor Henry Massie Rector feared that Little Rock might be captured by Union troops. He had all of the state records relocated to Hot Springs, and from May 6 through July 14 of that year, Hot Springs served as the state capital. The Arlington Hotel was completed in 1875, and was the largest hotel in the state at that time. In 1887, the Army and Navy Hospital, the first combined general hospital treating patients from both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, opened in downtown Hot Springs. It was the first hospital of its kind in the nation. Between 1892 and 1923, eight bathhouses were built on what’s known today as Bathhouse Row. Thoroughbred racing began in Hot Springs with the construction of Essex Park in 1904. The following year, Oaklawn Park opened, and it was soon the only racing venue in the city.
In just a decade, the area changed from a rough frontier town to an elegant spa city centered on a row of attractive Victorian-style bathhouses, the last ones completed in 1888. When Congress established the National Park Service, Hot Springs Reservation became Hot Springs National Park in 1921. Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade were designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1987.
Today, you can still soak in the thermal waters on historic Bathhouse Row. The hot springs are also pumped into several downtown hotels and spas. The water is even available at public fountains. The beautifully restored Fordyce Bathhouse now serves as a visitor center.
Visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, today, it’s hard to imagine the city as a hotbed for organized crime, such as gambling, prostitution and bootlegging. But from the late-1800s through the mid-1900s, especially in the 1930s, Hot Springs was a popular hangout for Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano, and other infamous mobsters. The safe, secluded scenic location of Hot Springs made it the ideal hideout. In order to understand how and why they chose this site, it’s necessary to reflect on the corruption that had been going on here for decades.
As early as the mid- to late-1800s, Hot Springs had been involved in illegal gambling. At that time, two families controlled these activities: the Flynns and the Dorans. The two families constantly fought over the city’s gaming rights – a competition that eventually led to the famous Hot Springs Gunfight in 1899.
During this realm of local rule, hotel rooms, saloons, and back alleys were the hotspots for cards and craps and casino-type gaming of all kinds. Hot Springs offered Las Vegas-style amenities before there was a Las Vegas.
Though illegal, and a felony under Arkansas law, the betting was no secret to the majority of local authorities. Police officers, judges, and even the mayor turned a blind eye to the industry either because they were being paid off by one of the families or were participating in the gaming themselves.
Leo McLaughlin was elected mayor of Hot Springs in 1926, and fulfilled a campaign promise to allow gambling. Illegal gambling had long been a staple of life in Hot Springs, but McLaughlin took it to a new level using voter fraud and other unlawful tactics to drive his political machine. During his 22-year reign, Hot Springs became a haven for notorious criminals and mobsters, including Owen “Owney” Madden, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Al Capone.
It’s easy to see how Hot Springs became a haven for criminals. One of the most notorious was Owney “The Killer” Madden, referred to as “The English Godfather.” Madden arrived in Hot Springs in 1935, seeking a slower lifestyle than the one he was accustomed to in New York City. Originally from England, Madden grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and is credited with putting the “organized” into organized crime.
Well respected and well liked, Madden settled into Hot Springs very easily. Eventually, more and more gangsters arrived. The word spread that Hot Springs was the perfect hideout for criminals running from police investigations. It is said that Al Capone and his bodyguards would rent out entire floors of hotels.
Gangster activity in Hot Springs came to an end in the 1960s, due to a federal crackdown on what the government called “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.”
Remnants of the city’s notorious past can still be found inside The Gangster Museum of America, located in downtown Hot Springs. The museum features classic relics, including old roulette tables, vintage slot machines, Madden and Capone exhibits, weapons, and a documentary in the museum’s theater.
The Gangster Museum of America offers a unique look at The Spa City’s mobster era. 510 Central Avenue. 501-318-1717.
In 1886, Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Famous for its hot mineral waters and Ouachita Mountain scenery as well as its hotels and nightlife, this bustling turn-of-the-century resort town was the perfect place for something no one had ever heard of: annual spring training for professional baseball. In time, five fields were built. Each spring, as many as 250 players came here to train, including the legends of the game.
The Hot Springs Baseball Trail preserves the places where legends stood, where records were set, and where baseball itself was shaped. At each site on the trail, you’ll find square, digital “codes,” that, when scanned by your smartphone, link to historic photos, audio clips and more. You can use your cell phone to access stories of the golden age of baseball in Hot Springs. You can visit hotspringsbaseballtrail.com or a brochure with more information on the Hot Springs Baseball Trail is available at the Hot Springs Visitor Center.
Explore Arkansas’ own sin city with a self-guided tour inspired by a newly-released book that digs deep into Hot Springs’ sordid past: The Vapors - A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice by Hot Springs native David Hill.
Serving as a Visitor Center for Hot Springs National Park, the bathhouse first opened in 1915 and now offers a preserved glimpse of the peak of the bathing culture with a historically furnished museum.
Located at 1011 Park Avenue, the home is not currently open for tours but it currently under preservation for future use.
239 Central Avenue - The Arlington hosted hundreds of grand balls and social events since 1875. Politicians, dignitaries, actors, gangsters and entertainment and sports legends bathed in our bath house, danced to our music and enjoyed our splendor and charm.
336 Central Avenue - Arkansas' Oldest Bar, The Ohio Club was built in 1915 and has been a stop off place for many celebrities, such as Al Capone, Bugsy Segel, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano, Babe Ruth & Mae West.
105 Reserve Avenue - The Army-Navy Hospital opened to patients in January 1887 and was led by the Secretary of War, but control was handed off to the U.S. Army in 1957. During World War II, the hospital was at its peak business, having become the army’s leading medical facility in the country for treating patients with arthritis. Even after the close of the war, the hospital continued to grow, serving more than 100,000 veterans by 1945. In 1960, the hospital became a rehabilitation center and was run by the state of Arkansas.
810 Whittington Avenue - Previously located behind Weyerhaeuser, this historic baseball field is a highlight on the Historic Baseball Trail and features the home plate where Babe Ruth once launched a record-breaking (and still holding!) home run into the Arkansas Alligator Farm.
506 West Grand - Once the home of the infamous gangster, you'll find this as one of the major highlights on The Vapors Book Tour.
250 Central Avenue - The Southern Club was a gambling and entertainment facility established in 1893 that gained notoriety during the 1930s as a hangout for visiting gangsters. Among the oldest structures in Hot Springs, the club was constructed by Charles Dugan and Dan Stuart and ranked among the spa city’s most popular gambling houses, along with the Indiana and the Arkansas clubs. Al Capone became a frequent poker player at the club and always sat at an elevated table, where he commanded a clear view of the entire room. Visitors to the Madame Tussaud Wax Museum today can still spot original fixtures, furniture, wallpaper, paraphernalia, and architecture within the building and its exhibits, such as the marble staircase and the escalator.
Quapaw and Prospect Avenues are a predominantly residential historic district on the northwest side of Hot Springs. The area was developed between about 1890 and 1950, and contains a cross-section of architectural styles popular in that period. Although Colonial Revival and Craftsman style houses dominate the area, it has a particularly fine collection of Queen Anne Victorians as well.