Drive 90 minutes from Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, and you’ll find yourself in Hot Springs National Park, a protected tract of land that predates the US National Park system.
It became the Hot Springs Reservation in 1832 after being acquired almost 30 years earlier in the Louisiana Purchase, a land deal with France that brought in more than 800 million sq miles, from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Before that, Native Americans came to the springs to quarry materials for their weapons. It became an official national park in 1921.
Today, the park covers more than 5,000 acres of Arkansas’ greater Hot Springs area, comprising miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding. Prior to management by the government, the 47 or so namesake hot springs could be claimed by individuals, who would set up crude buildings on top and charge people to use the waters.
Later, the Victorian era brought in more luxurious bath houses, including the red brick Superior Bathhouse, which was known for its high-end service and affordable rates before closing in November 1983. It remained empty for years until the National Parks System began renovating Bathhouse Row for new tenants to move in.
Rose Schweikhart, a transplant from New Jersey, wanted to be one of those tenants. She applied for the park’s pilot leasing program, and after two years (and an 80-page proposal), she transformed the Superior Bathhouse into the town’s first craft beer tasting room in 2013. Sitting atop one of the natural hot springs, Schweikhart and her team make their beer using the springs’ 143F geothermal water (which is said to have healing properties).
“I think most people believed that a brewery was a great use of the bathhouse and of the thermal water – and of course everyone was excited to see another old vacant building being put to good use,” Schweikhart said.
Schweikhart first fell in love with beer while studying in Manchester and travelling through Europe. The pubs were not just a place to get a pint – they were a place that brought people together. “It is ritualistic to go have a pint at the end of the day and I love that aspect of their culture,” she said. “Beer becomes a cultural symbol of conversation and communication.”
Everything in the town of Hot Springs connects back to the water, which comes through pipes that lead out from the national park. For years, people have come from all over the country to fill up massive containers with the water that flows from the free fountains around downtown Hot Springs. These days, people are filling up at the taps at Superior Bathhouse as well – or taking their growlers to go.
“Really, I think everything comes together in an amazing full circle in a magical way, [starting as] water that fell as rain 4,000 years ago, heated to 143F degrees!” Schweikhart said.
Hot Springs’ surprising history
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Hot Springs was the United States’ first resort town, bringing in athletes, celebrities and even gangsters to heal themselves in the waters. Gambling and prostitution were legal, which provided additional pastimes.
Al Capone and his contemporaries were treated for sexually transmitted diseases and other ailments here. You can still visit his former hangout at The Ohio Club or even stay in his room, which had a secret door, at the Arlington Hotel.
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