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Michigan State University Press
Natural Museums: U.S. National Parks, 1872-1916

Natural Museums: U.S. National Parks, 1872-1916

by Kathy S. Mason
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870137112
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 08/28/2004
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 108
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Kathy S. Mason is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Findlay, Ohio, and has published widely in the areas of environmental history, women’s history, and social and cultural history.

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NATURAL MUSEUMS U.S. National Parks, 1872-1916

By KATHY S. MASON Michigan State University Press Copyright © 2004 Kathy S. Mason
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-711-2

Chapter One Origins of an Idea

Hot Springs Reservation

* * *

Although Yellowstone became the first national reserve to bear the designation "national park," Arkansas Hot Springs was the first attempt by the United States to preserve a natural resource for the public's use. Established in 1832, the Hot Springs Reservation placed forty-seven springs in central Arkansas under federal jurisdiction. Because the reservation did not possess the grand scenery or monumental attractions of Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Sequoia, America's earliest experiment in nature conservation has been largely ignored by park boosters and historians. Nonetheless, as America's nineteenth-century national parks were created for "the benefit and enjoyment" of the general public, so, too, did the Hot Springs Reservation develop into a resort that catered to the health and recreational needs of its visitors.

Even though the federally controlled reserve at Arkansas Hot Springs was unique in the early nineteenth century, its creation was inspired by the longstanding traditions of public, urban parks and royal forests in Europe. Many Americans were interested in the hot springs because mineral springs bathing was a time-honored treatment for illness and injury in Europe. In addition, the Hot Springs Reserve demonstrates how spas of the nineteenth century developed from being treatment centers for invalids to being fashionable resorts for the middle and upper classes. Finally, the federal government hoped that by controlling the healing waters of this developing health resort, the United States would avoid European criticism of American tastes. Specifically, Congress hoped to avoid the kind of national embarrassment that resulted from the environmental degradation and commercial development around Niagara Falls, America's most famous natural tourist attraction in the early nineteenth century.

* * *

The hot springs that attracted the attention of the U.S. government in the early nineteenth century are located in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. The springs produce slightly less than one million gallons of water per day, with the temperature of some of the springs reaching more than 140 degrees Farenheit. The mountains are heavily wooded and are popular with present-day hikers.

Native Americans utilized the hot springs for centuries. Prehistoric peoples probably quarried novaculite in the area. Many Indian tribes, including the Caddos, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Quapaws, settled in central Arkansas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The hot springs were a popular place to rest and recover from injuries or ailments. The Indians built no bathing facilities around the springs, choosing instead to sit or lie in natural pools or spring-carved channels. White Americans most closely associated the Quapaws with the springs, because that tribe's members were placed on a reservation in the area in the early nineteenth century. By 1818, however, the federal government had removed the Quapaws to present-day Oklahoma.

The first Europeans to visit the springs were probably Hernando de Soto's troops. Members of de Soto's army reported that in September and October, 1541, they had visited hot springs and had watered their horses at warm, brackish pools near the Ouachita river. Although nineteenth-century promoters of Hot Springs claimed imaginatively that de Soto and his men had found their "fountain of youth," de Soto himself did not live long after he left the supposedly healing, restorative waters of Arkansas.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, a small stream of white visitors from the southern United States and the New Orleans area frequented the Arkansas Hot Springs during the summer months, hoping to alleviate their arthritis pain or to regain their strength after extended illnesses. After the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Thomas Jefferson proposed an expedition into the region between the Red and Arkansas Rivers. Jefferson apparently had heard reports of hot springs in the area and was interested in their scientific and medical value. Jefferson appointed his friend, William Dunbar, and Dr. George Hunter to lead the expedition.

With a small military escort, the Hunter-Dunbar expedition left Natchez in October 1804. The party traveled up the Red River to the Black, and finally up the Ouachita. When the expedition arrived at the springs in December, Hunter and Dunbar found a small collection of crude shacks and huts that white visitors had built over the springs to protect themselves from the elements as they bathed. Dunbar and Hunter later reported that the springs had a reputation for providing great relief from rheumatism and joint pain.

During the next two decades, the springs continued to entertain a steady stream of visitors who came to restore their health. A few enterprising individuals built small rental cabins, while others made money by providing food for visitors. By the 1820s, doctors had established summertime practices at the springs, advising patients on the proper use of the waters. During the 1820s and early 1830s, small hotels were built and the first bathhouses, featuring wooden tubs, were constructed to accommodate visitors. Hundreds of people were traveling to the springs every summer.

John Pope, the territorial governor of Arkansas, saw both the springs' potential health benefits and the prestige that a resort could bring to the area, and lobbied the federal government to build a public bathing facility in the developing town of Hot Springs. Although Congress did not act on this proposal, it was willing to prevent the private "appropriation" of the springs. On 20 April 1832, Congress passed the resolution that "set apart" the springs and "the four sections of land" surrounding it. Thus, the Hot Springs Reserve was born.

Although Hot Springs was a forerunner to the world's first national park at Yellowstone, public parks and protected areas were not alien to America or Europe. Royal forests and hunting grounds had existed in Europe since the Middle Ages. Commons and gardens were protected places used by the general public. By the nineteenth century, most European towns and cities could boast of an urban park or "public walk" where residents could stroll and socialize. Such parks were a source of civic pride and were intended to provide wholesome recreational opportunities for the general public. Community walks and parks also provided refuge for residents of rapidly expanding, increasingly industrial European cities.

Keeping this tradition, the United States founded its earliest parks and reserves, in part, as recreation areas and escapes from hectic urban life. The most prominent U.S. example of a constructed, urban park in the nineteenth century was New York City's Central Park. Designed by America's premiere landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, this artfully designed green space was a recreational oasis for harried residents who wanted to retreat from the noise and bustle of the city.

Even though the Hot Springs Reserve's roots could be traced to Old World traditions, Congress's decision to establish the reserve was also influenced by the intense commercial development around Niagara Falls. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, Niagara Falls was probably North America's most famous natural attraction and one of its most popular tourist destinations. Nevertheless, tacky souvenir shops, seedy tourist hotels, scenic overlooks that charged visitors for a glimpse of the natural wonder, and colored lights projected onto the falls at night were a keen source of embarrassment for both the U.S. and Canadian governments. Visitors also had to contend with factories and other unsightly industrial structures when they came to enjoy the aesthetic merits of the falls. For many visitors, the view was made even less impressive by mills and other industrial enterprises that diverted water and diminished the flow over the falls. While the U.S. government generally valued industry over nature preservation, it was unwilling leave Hot Springs at the mercy of crass developers and hucksters.

Americans' general interest in health resorts and hot springs bathing could be linked to their longing for European refinement. European spas such as Bath, Baden-Baden, and Carlsbad, which had been retreats for the sick for centuries, became vacation destinations for the wealthy by the nineteenth century. America had its own versions of these fashionable resorts in the early 1800s. Saratoga, Newport, and French Lick, Indiana, evolved from quiet, undeveloped havens for invalids into major social centers. Foster Rhea Dulles, historian of American recreation, noted that visits to such spas became critical to maintaining one's place in polite society in the mid-nineteenth century.

Thus, the long tradition of spring bathing for medical purposes, combined with America's cultural insecurity, led to the establishment of Hot Springs Reserve. Hot Springs, however, was not immediately hailed as one of America's premiere resorts. Although its Arkansas location made Hot Springs an attractive destination for southerners, America's most famous and fashionable resorts, such as Saratoga in New York, were in the north. Travel to Hot Springs in the first half of the nineteenth century was also arduous, especially for visitors who were seriously ill. Most traveled by steamboat from New Orleans to Little Rock, and then took a hack or stagecoach to the springs. Some visitors took rude trails directly from the Mississippi. The Ouachita Mountains, which are considered picturesque by modern tourists and hikers, made travel by stage exceedingly difficult, with the trip from Little Rock taking a day and a half.

Although the resort's most frail patients endured a great deal of discomfort during travel, an unlimited supply of hot water for bathing must have been a supreme luxury for nineteenth-century Americans. This, combined with vague testimonials as to the healing power of the minerals in the springs, attracted new pilgrims with each passing year.

Hot Springs became a virtual ghost town during the Civil War. The number of summertime bathers, however, increased immediately after the hostilities ended. By this time, doctors had permanent practices at the springs, although many visitors chose not to consult them. While bathing rituals varied, depending on the policies of the bathhouses and hotels, the advice of physicians, or the preferences of the bathers, Hot Springs guests usually soaked in spring-fed tubs, sat in steam baths, or drank hot spring water in order to cleanse the body from the inside out. Although the bathhouses provided formal bathing rituals, complete with modern equipment (such as porcelain tubs) and bath attendants, many bathers chose to use open-air, spring-fed pools. One of the most popular in the 1870s was the Ral Hole. Bathers would soak in the pool or cover themselves with mud from the bank and lie in the sun. Female bathers used the pool in the morning, while the men claimed it in the afternoon.

The number of visitors increased substantially when the railroad extended to the growing town of Hot Springs in 1875. Hot Springs, however, had architectural and environmental problems that undermined the spa image that local business owners wished to cultivate. Most of the hotels were still modest, two-story structures. Furthermore, unsanitary conditions rose in town as visitation and development increased. The most visible threat to public health was the Hot Springs Creek, which had become a virtual sewer and hog wallow even though it ran through the center of town.

Until the 1870s, the federal government showed very little concern for the management of the springs or the regulation of bathing practices there. In 1877, however, Benjamin F. Kelley was appointed the first superintendent of the reserve. His and his successors' duties included setting and collecting fees from the hotels and bathhouses for use of the water, evicting squatters from the reserve, and providing baths for the poor. In the final two decades of the nineteenth century, the city of Hot Springs underwent a number of substantive changes. Most significantly, an archway and a paved road were built over the Hot Springs Creek, creating the resort's famous promenade. A federally controlled veteran's hospital was also constructed.

The most significant development in Hot Springs at the turn of the century, however, was the construction of increasingly luxurious bathing facilities along the promenade. The architecture of the new hotels and bathhouses was strikingly eclectic and anachronistic. Renaissance Spanish, French, Mediterranean, and even Byzantine styles were employed. The owners hoped that such facades would convey an air of European elegance; a modern-day writer labeled it a nineteenth-century Las Vegas. These co-opted Old World architectural styles, however, were a hallmark of the area's twentieth-century tourism, and brought ever-increasing numbers of visitors to town, including gangsters such as Al Capone. The gambling that these disreputable vacationers brought to town undermined the elegant spa image that hotel and bathhouse owners wished to cultivate.

Obviously, Hot Springs bathhouse developers were not concerned with creating a unique architectural style that would be more appropriate for the area. Furthermore, very few of the resort's early boosters showed any interest in promoting the natural surroundings as a means of attracting tourists. Early-nineteenth-century visitors to Hot Springs were concerned with recovering their health, rather than contemplating the aesthetic merits of the Ouachita Mountains. As travel to the springs became easier, however, visitors and promoters were far more likely to appreciate the area's natural beauty. Nonetheless, the bathing facilities and the springs that fed them were the primary concerns of the reserve's superintendent. In the late nineteenth century, all of the major springs in town were capped, in part to prevent pollution, but also to better regulate water distribution to bathhouses and hotels. Ironically, promoters sang the praises of the "Valley of the Vapors" even as the clouds of steam that had shrouded the mountains were reduced by the capping.

The federal government's lack of interest in the area's natural surroundings is striking, considering that the earliest national parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, preserved monumental natural attractions. Both the Hot Springs Reserve and the early parks, however, provided recreational opportunities for their visitors. Also, neither Hot Springs nor the other early national parks were intended to preserve wilderness. Hot Springs protected a resource that provided for the public's health and welfare, while Yellowstone and other nineteenth-century parks were meant to preserve exotic or remarkable natural phenomena. Wild lands protection initially was a byproduct. If anything, the earliest visitors to Hot Springs, who had to travel by stagecoach, viewed Arkansas's wild lands as a nuisance. Only when Hot Springs became more urbanized and travel became easier did visitors begin to appreciate the area's natural beauty.

The long history of Hot Springs as a spa, however, did appeal to romantics. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century promoters of the U.S. reserve often invoked Native Americans' past use of the springs, or the Spanish "discovery" of the area, in promotional literature. Of course, it was relatively simple for writers to create sentimental, romantic tales of Native American life in the area after the original inhabitants had been removed. One advertising pamphlet from the early twentieth century claimed that the springs' "clouds of healing vapors ... struck the primitive Indians with awe and they believed that the Great Spirit abode [sic] in them.... [A] peace pact was made, leaving the miraculous waters to the Great Spirit's own control." With claims that individuals from all tribes were "made whole" by the springs, the pamphleteer assured the reader that hot springs therapy offered mysterious, time-honored, and virtually miraculous results.

Indeed, most authors of tourist guides and promotional literature emphasized the area's antiquity. One hyperbolic tourist guide stated:

long before Cortez frightened the Aztecs, ... long before Columbus ruddered his way to America; yea, while the Crusaders were marching toward the holy Tomb, ah, before the mud wall of the village of Rome was dry, the North American Indians traveled hundreds of miles to Hot Springs, the fountain of youth, to sit in wise council and to regain their health.


Excerpted from NATURAL MUSEUMS by KATHY S. MASON Copyright © 2004 by Kathy S. Mason. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Before the National Park Service1
1Origins of an Idea: Hot Springs Reservation7
2A Worthless Wonderland: Yellowstone National Park17
3The "Gem of the Straits" Becomes a National Park: Mackinac Island29
4Nature's Majestic Marvels: Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant43
5Natural Gems or Inferior Parks? Wind Cave, Sullys Hill, and Platt53
6"That Future Generations May Know the Majesty of the Earth": The Establishment of the National Park Service, and Conclusions69

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