Government Free Bathhouse

The Government Free Bathhouse in Hot Springs (Garland County) provided free baths to the indigent, sick, and injured who sought access to the local thermal springs, which were thought to have medicinal properties. Spurred into existence by an act of Congress in 1878, the free bathhouse operated until 1957.

In 1832, the federal government made the hot springs of Arkansas a federal reservation Businesses arose to offer food, lodging, and entertainment, but access to the water was free. After the Civil War, businesses tried to take ownership of the hot water. This enraged visitors, who felt that everyone had a right to access the water for no charge. On December 16, 1878, Congress passed compromise legislation that reaffirmed federal ownership of the water while also allowing businesses to charge for hot water treatments, if the businesses paid fees to the federal government. Congress also ordered federal employees at Hot Springs to “provide and maintain a sufficient number of free baths for the use of the indigent.”

To comply with this new requirement, the Department of the Interior built a simple, four-room, wooden structure consisting of pools and dressing rooms over the Mud Hole Spring in an area roughly between where the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center and the Quapaw Bathhouse stand in the twenty-first century. Bathers were separated by sex, but not by race. In 1879, the government provided 2,000–3,000 free baths every month.

In 1891, the government tore down the old wooden free bathhouse and built a larger, two-story, brick bathhouse on the site of the original structure. The new facility was so popular that the owners of for-profit bathhouses complained that people who could pay for baths were lying about their finances to get free baths. In response, the government began requiring anyone wanting a free bath to swear that they were unable to pay for treatment.

In 1901, the government began construction of a separate facility for indigent African Americans and separated bathers by race for the first time. Beginning in 1916, the government operated a free medical clinic on the second floor of the free bathhouse. In 1922, the government capped the Mud Hole Spring, demolished the old free bathhouse, and completed construction of a new, state-of-the-art, free bathhouse on Reserve Street, about a quarter of a mile east of Bathhouse Row.

After World War II, the rise of improved medications such as penicillin decreased the popularity of water as a medical treatment. By 1957, the government provided so few free baths that that it was no longer practical to operate a separate free bathhouse. Instead, the government began subsidizing treatment for the indigent at for-profit bathhouses. The free bathhouse on Reserve Street became a private business. In 1960, it was renamed the Libbey Memorial Physical Medicine Center, for former Hot Springs National Park superintendent Donald Libbey. In 2001, the National Park Service closed the center because the operators failed to eliminate E. coli outbreaks in the pools.

For additional information:
Carpenter, Kathryn Blair. “Access to Nature, Access to Health: The Government Free Bathhouse at Hot Springs National Park, 1877–1922.” MA thesis, University of Missouri–Kansas City, 2019.

Cockrell, Ron. The Hot Springs of Arkansas, America’s First National Park: The Administrative History of Hot Springs National Park. Washington DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2014.

Paige, John C., and Laura E. Soullière. Out of the Vapors: A Social and Architectural History of Bathhouse Row: Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Washington DC: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, 1988.

Christopher Thrasher
National Park College

Last Updated: 11/20/2020