From Healing Springs to Illegal Gambling: the History of Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Jun 25, 2015

Eureka Springs has a long and fascinating history.  In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, KSMU's Michele Skalicky goes on a walking tour of an entire town that has been designated as an Historic Preservation District.

Ralph Wilson is working to keep the history of historic Eureka Springs, Arkansas alive by sharing stories about the city.  The Denver native, who came to the Northwest Arkansas in 2006, is one of two people who get paid to give tours of historic downtown.

"Of all I've done in my life, including being a teacher, trust officer at Union Bank in California, I enjoy this about as much as anything," he said.

The Walking Tours, as they’re called, raise money for the Eureka Springs Downtown Network, a nonprofit organization with a goal of supporting preservation and economic development in downtown Eureka Springs.

The tour starts in Basin Spring Park where Wilson talks about the town’s beginnings.  The springs in the area, which were rumored to have healing properties, brought the first influx of people to Eureka Springs in the 1870s.  In a few short months, the wilderness area was transformed into a bustling city as wooden houses went up on hillsides and hotels and boarding houses began to be built. 

You can taste the mineral deposits in the water at a drinking fountain in Basin Spring Park, and Wilson encourages tour participants to try it.

"It's got a little metallic aftertaste.  What is that?  Cancer didn't have a name on it 'til 1936.  They drank this water, and they were getting better from what they called wasting illnesses--multiple sclerosis, diabetes, all these things--and we now know that there's radium in these hills," he said.

The minerals in the water—radium, as well as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and zinc—provided relief for people suffering from a variety of ailments, according to Wilson.

Legends of a great healing spring in the mountains had existed among Native Americans for years.  Wilson said the Osage Indians came to the area that’s now Eureka Springs in 1770.

"Chief named Black Dog--the nation was dying off in North Dakota, and this information comes to me like all of my information from talking to people.  I've had people from the Osage Nation, which is now in Oklahoma, come here, and they gave me the real stories, which is good.  His people needed to bathe in this water," he said.

Wilson said the Indian chief had heard from medicine men and women about “magic, healing spirits” that hovered over the springs.

Another story tells of Harding Spring—the site of the alleged famous healing of 20-year-old Jenny Cowan—who had been blind after an illness.

"She asked God for a vision.  God directed her to come here, and they must have had a lot of faith  because they took everything they owned, put it in a wagon, came up here, chopped down trees and built a house, and she drank that water--she was directed to drink it for an entire year--she did, and she got her sight back," he said.

Stories like that one brought thousands of people to Eureka Springs, and the town quickly became a flourishing destination.  Before the railroad, the stagecoach would bring people in to town where often they’d stop at a bath house since they were grimy from the journey.  Wilson said visitors wishing to be healed would get a walking stick and a little tin cup and then walk from spring to spring drinking the water.

The water became polluted, he said, when in a rush to rebuild Eureka Springs after devastating fires in the 1880s and 1890s, wooden sewer lines were built too close to the springs.  At one time, the Ozarka Water Company, which bottled the spring water for more than a quarter of a century, had a glass-lined tanker car full of the water on every train out of town, according to Wilson.

Wilson explained that the metal in Basin Springs Park, which looks much as it did in the early days of Eureka Springs, came from  Chicago via Seligman, Missouri on a train and wagon.

As the group moved onto one of the town’s sidewalks, the history lesson continued.

"If you look down in this hole, Eureka--there's  a lot of it that we can't see," he said.

Two of Eureka Springs’ main downtown streets underwent major re-engineering in 1890.  Main Street, the town’s first official street, earned the nickname Mud Street since it was built in a low level gulch along a spring-fed creek, and run-off became a problem.  According to Wilson, the levels of Main and Spring Street were raised so much that businesses along them were required to create new entrances on the second floor.  The original entrances were walled off and now lie hidden in underground tunnels known as “Underground Eureka.” 

This tour allowed the group to see part of those tunnels. 

"Let me turn on some lights," said Wilson.

A dark corridor off the basement of one of Eureka Springs’ early buildings had openings in the limestone that once had doors leading onto the street.  While tour participants viewed the musty tunnel, Wilson told us that above where we were standing was where outlaw Bill Doolin, a member of the Dalton Gang, was captured by a U.S. Marshall.  The tunnels were a place, he said, where criminals hid.

"If Bonnie and Clyde kidnapped somebody, they'd hide in this hotel because they were safe," he said.

Wilson told us that we had just been walking on the sidewalk above the tunnel, and when we looked up, we could see what holds the city’s sidewalks up.

"Those are springs from old Conestoga Wagons and railroad rails," he said.

The tour was full of stories of characters of Eureka Springs’ past.  One was Carrie Nation, who came to Eureka Springs from Liberty, Kansas in 1906 to preach against what she saw as the evils that were taking place there.  The town was home to more than 20 brothels, saloons and gambling halls, according to Wilson.  They were able to operate, he said, by bribing the sheriff.  Nation and her supporters carried hatchets, and their headquarters were called Hatchet Hall.

"Hatchet Hall was a combination I'd say of AA and the Salvation Army.  She took in abused women.  She helped families, but she mostly preached against the evils of drinking," he said.

Wilson said Nation would drive her wagon to Basin Spring Park where she’d speak out against alcohol.  There are still hatchet marks in some of the town’s buildings.  Nation, sometimes accompanied by hymn-singing women, would march into bars, smashing bar fixtures and liquor.

When the Basin Park Hotel opened in 1905, Wilson said you would have had a difficult time finding a room there.  Your intentions in coming to Eureka Springs at that time, according to Wilson, weren’t so much about the town’s healing waters.  They were more about drinking and gambling. 

"That would have been a speakeasy door.  You'd have gotten a drink there, and the bartender would have said, 'are you up for a little gambling?' come on back," he said.

The tour guide showed us a cave-like room behind the hotel that contained slot machines.  A trap door goes under the street and under the stairway for a quick getaway, he said.  The town was raided by federal marshals and the sheriff, Erwin “Da Weasel” Deweese, who shut down illegal gambling operations, and Eureka Springs’ economy remained flat for about ten years, according to Wilson.

A mural painted on the side of Cornerstone Bank in 1979 tells the story of the town’s history.  It was done by Louis Freund who came to Eureka Springs in the 1930s.  Wilson said when the town was in economic trouble, Freund started contacting his creative friends from all over the United States.

"They came here, renewed houses, bought properties.  We were pretty much a ghost town.  The water was bad, and there was no more fun to be had in this town," he said.

Today, many artists call Eureka Springs home.

The entire city is a state historic district.

"Making ourselves a state historic district stopped us from becoming all paved parking lots and bad t-shirt shops," he said.

Wilson said they’re working to secure Underground Eureka so the tunnels can one day be explored.  And he said they’re also working to clean up the springs and hope to have a dispensing plant for the water again one day.

Find out more about the Walking Tours of Eureka Springs here.