I’m lucky that my line of work enables me to travel all over the country, but some of my favorite trips have been to places right here in my home state of Arkansas. Recently I had the opportunity to visit northwest Arkansas and check out the hidden gem of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs. This town carved into a rocky ravine is on the national registry of historic places and is one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s top 12 distinctive destinations.
I love history so one of the first things I do when I visit a place is learn something about its past and Eureka Springs has quite a past. The town literally rose up out of the ground when people started converging on the area’s unique cold water springs. After the Civil War soldiers who had walked the land during the war came back to partake in the region’s healing waters – a treasure well known to the territory’s Native Americans. At the time medical treatments were limited and it wasn’t unusual for people to use natural healing waters as a treatment. In fact, it’s a tradition that goes back to biblical times and many still believe in the power of spring water today. In 1879 word began to spread about the springs and people started coming. And coming and coming. What was once wilderness went from a population of zero to 15,000 in one year and on July 4th, 1879 the members of the encampment decided to name the place Eureka Springs.
Now, you can’t go from zero to 15,000 without someone taking notice. Arkansas’ governor Powel Clayton recognized the potential of Eureka Springs as a tourist destination and set his mind to making it easier for folks to get there. On Valentine’s Day, 1880 the state of Arkansas declared Eureka Springs a city and by 1882 a rail line was built so people could get to it from anywhere in the country.
Not long after the railroad came to town the Crescent opened. This grand resort is perched at the top of the city and has the distinction of being the most haunted hotel in the United States. The oldest spirit in residence is that of a young Irish stone mason who died during construction of the building. Legend says he takes a particular shine to the ladies who stay in the hotel. Probably the largest number of ghosts arrived during the time when the hotel was a treatment center run by a charlatan who promised a cure for cancer.
In 1934 the Depression shuttered most of Eureka Springs including the Crescent Hotel. It sat empty until Norman Baker, a radio broadcaster with a good eye for a fast buck, purchased the building in 1937 and opened the Baker Cancer Cure Hospital. Baker bilked over $4 million from his clients before being arrested for mail fraud in 1940. Sadly many of the patients died under Baker’s care and some say they are still at the hotel. The Crescent sat empty through WWII and then in 1946 it was opened up again as a hotel. If scary is what floats your boat I suggest you take the Ghost Tour at the Crescent to learn about the hotel’s other-world guests. You’ll even get to visit the old Baker Hospital morgue in the basement.
In addition to a large population of ghosts Eureka is also home to a vibrant artists’ community and great restaurants. The area is well known for its rivers, hiking trails and lakes. Nearby Lake Leatherwood Park covers 1600 acres with an 85 acre spring fed lake formed by one of the largest hand cut lime stone dams in the country.
With its rich history and contemporary attractions, Eureka Springs is a fascinating and fun getaway.