An October 2004 trip
to Eureka Springs by btwood2
Quote: An unlikely combination of hippies and fundies reside in this artsy Ozark mountain town, which overflows with friendliness, creativity, old Victorians, and steep inclines, although many of its famed healing springs are barely trickling. Christ of the Ozarks looks down on old Eureka Springs, with resident ghosts and spas aplenty.
The Historic Loop (maps available at most local businesses) is a great introduction to Eureka Springs. As it winds its way around Victorian homes and bed-and-breakfasts in various states of repair and disrepair, every turn leads to more crooked offshoot streets and surprises. Drive it with your compact car or ride the Red Trolley Route. Historic, renovated, and grand, Crescent Hotel was one of my favorite attractions, with its extensive lovely gardens and grounds, a most unusual church down the slope, and a mysterious and somewhat dark past. Farther along, the loop turns into Spring Street, another highlight due to the profusion of natural springs landscaped with largely old stone walls built when ES was just beginning. Yet even farther down Spring Street, you’ll find unique shops and art galleries with everything from bronze sculptures to folk art to contemporary fine art.
Surprise! As the home of the Great Passion Play, I’d expected to find ES a fairly straight-laced, conservative town but was delighted to find old hippies and other nonconformist and colorful types in a relaxed atmosphere on the crooked streets and in the shops and galleries of the town itself. Modern spas have taken the place of healing springs. Several we ran into were New Moon Spa at Crescent Hotel, Serenity Spa at Basin Park Hotel, and Palace Hotel and Bathhouse.
Nearby places of interest we placed on our list for next time: Leatherwood Lake and City Park, Quigley’s Castle, and Blue Spring Heritage Center.
Nightlife? – What nightlife? We were just about ready to grab a bite before 4pm and found a likely looking eatery, where we were told, "You better order quick, ‘cause we close at 4pm." He said Eureka for the most part doesn’t have much of a night scene. (Festival weekends are another matter, however.) However, a bit farther down Spring Street, a tea house remained open for dinner (a bit pricey), and on the corner of Spring and Central, the Basin Creek Hotel upstairs dining room was another option.
GBLT-friendly: ES, largely revived by an influx of hippies in the ‘70s, prides itself on its open-mindedness and diversity. In fact, the town was just about to have its bi-annual (spring and fall) Diversity Days, celebrating people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations.
Getting around in ES: Eureka Springs has a delightful trolley fleet that traverses almost every inch of town and then some. Trolley "Park and Ride" lots are on the north and south ends of town. The six color-coded routes and stops are well-marked. They come by between every 15 to 25 minutes. An adult ticket costs .50 for a day pass; children are .
Wear your walking shoes: ES is MADE for people on foot. There are all kinds of trails and stairs winding up and down the steep terrain and among the springs right in town. Every corner you turn leads you to a new surprise or delight.
Restaurant | "The Balcony Bar and Restaurant"
We ordered a couple of amber beers and took a look at the menu. We didn’t get further than the very first thing on the appetizer list because it sounded so good: Ozark Mountain of Nachos. "Tri-colored tortilla chips beneath an avalanche of refried beans, onions, tomatoes, cheddar and jack cheese, and jalapeno peppers." Our waitress showed us with her hands that the plate was truly of mountainous proportions, so we didn’t even order the optional chicken fajita slices on top. About halfway through our beers, the steaming nachos in all their splendor arrived and we dug in. Just the right amount and proportion of everything left us feeling quite satisfied, adding a couple more beers before finishing. Cost: $7.50 for the Mountain, $12 for the four Amber Bocks.
Balcony Bar and Restaurant’s menu deserved more attention than we gave it, though. We don’t follow any rules about menus, primarily heeding our hunger and respecting our budget. Although Bob’s and my taste in foods differ to some degree, we can almost always find menu items appealing to us both. Sharing meals does the double duty of saving money and avoiding "doggie bags," a nuisance to carry when on foot. That said, Balcony Bar’s wild mushroom soup by the bowl or cup, coming with bread sticks, sounds particularly good to me. Under salads, Elise’s Swiss Melody with baked brie cheese topped with raspberry sauce and served with fresh seasonal fruit is an intriguing selection. There is a good selection of burgers and sandwiches, which includes the natural veggie burger and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The well-rounded dinner menu had 10 entrées (including baby-back ribs and steak, a couple of Bob’s favorites) and four desserts.
With our hunger (and thirst) quenched, we set out to explore the hotel. The restaurant also contains a fully stocked bar and cozy indoor dining with a fireplace in one corner. In the ancient-looking elevator, we pressed Rooftop Billiards, 6th floor. A vast light room with shiny hardwood floors, chandeliers, and innumerable windows in colored glass panes greeted us. It looked like more of a venue for conferences or weddings than billiards. A most curious sight awaited us downstairs in the lobby, which we’d rushed through on our way up to eat. A futuristic-looking time capsule of stainless steel cores sits in one corner, created in celebration of the new millennium in 2000, due to be opened in 2100.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 27, 2005
1905 Basin Park Hotel The
12 Spring Street
Eureka Springs, Arkansas 72632
In 1882, wealthy investors poured in money to develop ES further as a health center and retirement community. They also funded Eureka Springs’ railroad, running between 6 and 10 trains daily. Fire-vulnerable wooden buildings were replaced with improved structures built of brick and locally quarried limestone, sandstone, granite, and marble.
Tough times for ES came after the turn of the century. People’s attitudes were changing, putting more faith into science and new medical discoveries and less into healing waters. Though the automobile brought a resurgence of tourism in the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt a heavy blow. Many buildings were abandoned or torn down. ES was little more than a seedy semi-ghost town until the 1960s, when hippies discovered it at about the same time as Christian fundamentalist Gerald L. K. Smith. The Great Passion Play opened in 1968 in the hills above ES. Hippies revitalized the downtown section and springs, bringing art, music, and alternative ideas.
Seeping springs: Fifteen springs are designated on the map, five on aptly named Spring Street. When geographically isolated Eureka Springs first boomed as a health retreat, as many as 63 springs had been identified in the area. As we stopped at one spring after the other, each with its own distinct character, we noticed they didn’t seem to be very active. Rustically landscaped with lichen-overgrown rocks and vegetation, water was barely seeping from some and "Do Not Drink" signs were at others. Apparently this is due to problems with the old sewer lines and septic systems. The reduced flow may be due to a shifting subsurface karst (fractured limestone), changing the flow patterns of underground streams. One notable exception is Blue Spring, 10 minutes west on Highway 62. Every day it pours 38 million gallons of water into its lagoon.
Healing waters: Bathing in and drinking copious quantities of ES water were believed to preserve and restore health, and many successful cures were reported in the springs’ heydays. Some felt its curative secret was the water’s purity, others, the healthy lifestyle – combined with exercise, relaxation, and mountain air. Who knows, maybe someday, with increased underground flow and improved sewer systems, the springs will again be used for health cures. For more detailed information about the springs and their sources, check National Water Center.
Healing Springs of Eureka Springs
along Spring Street and all around town
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Attraction | "Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway"
In back of the station, an old railroad car has been converted into a snack bar, with an awning-covered wooden deck attached. Across the tracks, a 1908-made locomotive turntable is on display. It first functioned on air power, later using an electric motor. Farther along the tracks, a Georgia-Northern coach from the same era lies in artistic decay. One would never guess that this stripped wooden car with most of the windows missing once was equipped with fancy brass gas chandeliers in its glory days. At some point, they were removed and used in the railroad president’s home. A red caboose with peeling paint and a rusting locomotive wait to be restored. Already restored, a pneumatic air compressor and steam traction engine sit brightly painted in the sun. It’s nice to be allowed to wander freely among the old equipment. Inside the station, after being welcomed by the gray tabby station cat, you’ll find a gift shop, smaller railroad equipment, and black-and-white photographs of the old train-travel days on the walls.
Dining and excursion trains: But wait, a crowd of nicely dressed people has slowly been gathering, and now the shrill sound of a train whistle breaks the peaceful late afternoon. A green locomotive with brown and yellow trim comes chugging over the bridge from the old power plant, pulling three matching cars. As it slows and stops next to the station, we can see inside the dining car. Red leather seats and tables with folded white-cloth napkins and fresh flowers in vases beckon. Reservations are recommended for the 1.5-hour, 4.5- mile Dining Train ride. Prices for 2004: $30 for the ride and choice of one of three gourmet dinners. Also available are lunch trains ($20) and excursion trains ($10). Though we considered returning for one of the rides, we felt that 4.5 miles wasn’t quite enough distance to justify the expense.
As the train pulled slowly out with its load of diners, I thought back to the turn of the century, when this station and these tracks saw much more activity, with up to 10 trains daily coming from all over the U.S. disgorging hopeful health seekers intent on finding a cure in the famous springs.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 27, 2005
Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway
299 N Main St
Eureka Springs, Arkansas 72632
The Great Passion Play of Eureka Springs was founded in 1968 by right-wing ex-politician and radio preacher Gerald L.K. Smith and wife Elna. Smith, born in 1898 rural Wisconsin, decided to become a preacher at age 12. He became known for his eloquent oratory and "rabble-rousing" skills and worked for Louisiana Governor Huey Long until Long was assassinated in 1935. Smith was virulently anti-Communist and anti-Semitic, admiring Adolph Hitler, disbelieving the Holocaust, and against U.S. involvement in World War II. As presidential candidate for the white-supremacist Christian Nationalist Party in 1948, he advocated deporting blacks and Jews. In his waning years, he moved to Eureka Springs and funded the Great Passion Play and Christ of the Ozarks statue, downplaying his extremist past. Unbeknownst to many locals, he continued to produce articles for his anti-Semitic hate sheet, The Cross and the Flag, published in California. He died in 1976 and lies buried on Magnetic Mountain.
The Great Passion Play: As daylight faded, we found our seats near the middle of the huge 4,100-seat outdoor amphitheatre, which was less than one quarter full. Soon the performance began with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and proceeded day by day to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Throughout the play, the Jewish leaders are portrayed as shallow, greedy, and vengeful. The Jewish populace love for Jesus changes to hate without explanation. The Roman occupiers unsuccessfully attempt to dissuade the Jews, who will not be satisfied with anything less than Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Sadly, the blatant anti-Semitism and oversimplification of this Greatest Story vastly diminishes it.
Though I wasn’t aware yet of the extent of Gerald Smith’s bigotry and racism during our visit, it now overwhelmingly colors my feelings and impressions of this place. Having said that, we were impressed with the collection at the Sacred Arts Center and viewed an interesting video about historical bibles at the Bible Museum. The Berlin Wall segment, apparently authentic, has these words painted on it: Und geht es auch durchs dunkel Tal, ich habe keine Angst! – Psalm 23. Just beyond, Christ of the Ozarks looms angular, gaunt, and blazingly white in the sunshine, a severe figure, not particularly loving.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on February 28, 2005
The Great Passion Play
935 Passion Play Rd.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas 72632
The Crescent has a mysterious and varied past. For its first 20 years, it flourished, easily attracting and filled by tourists and health seekers. No wonder, for besides its imposing exterior and luxurious rooms, it enjoyed all the modern conveniences of its time, such as electric lights and indoor bathrooms and plumbing. Business started to slide somewhat, though, and in 1908, the Crescent underwent a yearly transformation at summer’s end, becoming the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women during the school year. High tuition charged to these wealthy young ladies was not enough to pay for running, heating, and keeping the Crescent in tip-top shape, and she continued her decline. The college closed for good during the Depression but was occasionally leased as a summer resort.
Enter "Dr." Baker. In 1937, the Crescent was bought by a dubious character named Norman Baker, who’d been run out of Iowa for practicing medicine without a license. He had no medical training but claimed to have a surefire cure for cancer: his own home remedies augmented by Eureka Springs spring water. At best, his "cures" did no harm, and the pure water and mountain air could have been healthful for his cancer patients. At worst, the tales whispered about this man paint him as an insane killer. There are rumors about surgical experiments on his patients that killed them, after which he would either incinerate their bodies or "bury" them within the walls of the Crescent. It’s said that human skeletons have been found inside the walls during remodeling over the years. Others whose death was impending were transferred to an asylum, with an admitting diagnosis of "insanity" rather than cancer to hide the fact that he wasn’t curing anyone. Whether there’s any truth to these tales isn’t known, but these two facts are true: 1.) Norman Baker was charged and convicted of mail fraud and false medical claims in 1940 and served 4 years in Leavenworth Prison. 2.) Norman Baker had terrible taste in interior decorating and fashion. During his residence in the Crescent, he tore out wooden hand rails and balconies; painted the woodwork bright red, orange, yellow and black; and decorated his penthouse and himself in shades of purple and lavender.
Crescent Reborn: The Crescent was closed until 1946, when efforts were made by investors to reestablish the venerable old building as a hotel. I wasn’t able to find much documentation of the goings-on at the Crescent for the next 50 years, but somehow it remained standing, a credit to its sturdy construction. In 1997, Marty and Elise Roenigk, a most interesting couple from Ohio in "semi-retirement" purchased both the Crescent and downtown Basin Park Hotel. Marty is chairman and CEO of highly successful CompuDyne security systems and collects and deals in mechanical musical instruments. The Roenigks apparently have the resources, capital, and vision to return both hotels to their full original glory. New Moon Spa on the ground floor of the Crescent provides a wide range of treatments, including two types of water massage, Hydrotone Therapy Tub ($60) and Vichy Shower ($55), and even a heated bubbling volcanic ash mud treatment ($30). The 68 guest rooms have been renovated with new wiring, plumbing, beds, and carpeting, done using traditional Victorian features and color schemes. The skyline of the hotel, which had been damaged by fire in the 1960s, has been restored to its original appearance, including a crescent moon weather vane and lightning rod.
And that’s not all… Before digressing along historical lines, I left myself standing by the entrance marveling and trying to pick up ghostly vibes. Far from being a ghost hunter or avid believer, I’m open to all possibilities and just try to stay attuned to them. Indoors, I walked up to the lobby desk and asked about nightly rates (from $159 to $279 for a Jacuzzi suite) and casually inquired about ghostly presences. The young desk clerk answered she hadn’t noticed anything even though she’d spent the night here several times. As I looked around, my gaze was caught by the lovely furnishings, elegant velvety chairs, rich burnished glossy wood antiques, and intricately cast black iron gas heaters against wall. The color scheme in the large lobby consisted of rose, maroon, and an indefinable almost-teal blue. Playful, friendly live cats added the perfect accent. Too bad it wasn’t time for us to eat. The Crystal Dining Room looked so inviting. I perused the menus for lunch and dinner. Lunch examples: artichoke and cheese quesadilla, $4.95; Ozark trout cakes, $7.95. Dinner was very gourmet-sounding. My pick would have been quail stuffed with caramelized leeks and wild mushrooms, $19. But I was getting too hungry too fast, so I tore myself away from there and continued on through the lobby out back.
Saint Elizabeth Catholic Church: Imagine my surprise after stepping outside, walking down the steps across the lawn, to find I was practically standing on top of a church. Saint Elizabeth’s, just down slope east of the Crescent, has made Ripley’s Believe It or Not fame because the entrance is in the bell tower. The red-tiled roof, round dome with cross, many archways, and beautiful stained-glass windows make this a very soothing and pleasant church to visit. Entering through the bell tower, you walk down an outdoor ramp with statuettes of the Stations of the Cross to your right. In the gardens around the church are many more statues looking very natural among ferns, flowers, bushes, and trees.
Ghostly presences had not yet been felt, but ascending the hill from Saint Elizabeth’s, I came to a gazebo below the Crescent’s back balconies. Next to the gazebo was an unusual sight: a brightly colored bathrobe sash tied in a knot and loop from a tree limb at eye-level. On the stone bench next to the gazebo, someone had left a full bag of Bugler tobacco. My attention kept being drawn up to the Crescent, to the windows in the annex next to the balconies. I began to feel almost like I was being watched. There were very few others around on this cool, misty afternoon. I stood there wondering why the sash, why the tobacco, in an otherwise immaculately kept garden. No idea… ghost or trickster, I’ll never know.
Who are these ghosts? Eureka Springs Ghost Tours, with an office in suite no. 212 of the Crescent, will eagerly provide you with the tools to make your own conclusions about the hauntings and paranormal events that apparently have taken place with great regularity at the Crescent. Their Crescent Hotel Tour ($15, adults; $7, children) will even take you down to the basement room that served as a morgue in Doctor Baker’s Cancer Cure Hospital and tell you about the veritable army of ghosts that make appearances here. One is a stonecutter who fell to his death while working on building the hotel where room no. 218 is now. He makes the most appearances, and room 218 is the most requested room in the hotel. A middle-aged man with a mustache and beard, dressed in formal clothing, is often seen sitting quietly in the lobby and bar areas, suddenly disappearing. Sometimes a nurse is seen wheeling a gurney down the hallways. Guests have given countless reports of strong feelings of being watched, unexplainable footsteps when no one was there, doors opening and closing, flashing and fluttering lights, and objects being moved, even broken. Ghost guides explain that ghosts return to places they liked best, or to places where they need to resolve something that happened while they were alive. We could certainly have stayed longer to continue exploring this fascinating hotel and surroundings, and it was with some regret that we got back in our car to continue on the Historic Loop.
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