Celebrating 100 years in the 501!

Story and photos
by Linda Henderson

This month, 501 LIFE is celebrating its 100th issue, and the National Park Service is also celebrating its 100th anniversary.

The National Park’s anniversary is being observed with special events all across the United States. America’s parks were established Aug. 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed an act to create the National Park System. There are 407 national parks, natural areas and historical sites.

Arkansas is the home to eight national parks, river and historical sites. Hot Springs National Park and Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock are two sites that are within the 501 area. These national sites are not only important to our history, but also contribute to our state’s tourism economy in a substantial way.

Hot Springs National Park’s history began even before the national parks were created. Hot Springs was set aside by Congress as a Reservation in April 20, 1832, to preserve the 47 natural thermal springs (143 degrees F) that flow from deep within the earth. This makes it the oldest unit of the National Park System. On March 4, 1921, Hot Springs was officially designated as the 18th national park.

The park includes Bathhouse Row – eight beautiful stone and mason buildings that line Central Avenue in Downtown Hot Springs. These buildings were built between 1911 and 1923. The park’s hot waters were piped to these bathhouses and were used as therapeutic bathwater for the eight commercial bathhouses. The eight buildings housed the hot mineral bath industry, which was a popular medical treatment for many conditions, illnesses and diseases during the early 1900s and into the 1970s.

After that time, the hot baths became less popular because of advances in medical care. The bathhouses began to close in the 1960s and continued closing into the 1980s. Many of the grand old buildings fell into disrepair and were left abandoned.

In 1987, the buildings were included as National Historic Landmarks. Since that time, they have been renovated and are used now as a visitor center, a day spa, art gallery, brewery and cultural centers. These very special buildings are the grandest collection of bathhouses in the United States.

The park also includes the Grand Promenade, which runs north-south between Reserve Avenue and Fountain Street. The Grand Promenade is lined with old growth magnolia trees, which bloom during the late spring.

If a day at the spa is not your thing, there are other activities in the park. There are 25 miles of hiking trails and a scenic drive up to the observation tower. The tower offers an aerial view of Downtown Hot Springs and other fun pursuits, including picnic and camping areas.

Little Rock Central High School, a National Park Service Historic Site.

The park has 5,500 acres of hardwood forest and a public hot spring fountain. Visitors to the park are welcome to bring their own water jugs and collect the warm water for their own consumption.

Central High School National Historic site in Little Rock is also a part of the National Parks System. This site serves as a symbol of the struggle to desegregate public schools in the 1950s. Little Rock Central High School was the location of the integration of nine African American students into the all-white high school in 1957.

Central High remains open and is the only functioning high school located within a National Historic Site. A visitor center is located across the street from the school. Visitors to the center will find educational and interpretational materials about the struggle through the stories of people involved. The center houses photos, recordings and documents about the time. A restored vintage service station is located within the site, which is located at 2120 West Daisy L Gatson Bates Dr. in Little Rock.

What a grand state we live in, so get out this summer and enjoy our Arkansas National Parks and National Historic Sites. Help celebrate our nation’s history and appreciate our natural area, monuments and cultural places. Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best about our parks, “There is nothing so American as our national parks.”

Linda Henderson
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