If you’ve done a ghost tour, you know the drill. You slip through ordinary places at night while your guide tells creepy stories with a historical backdrop. Some hand you a device to measure something. Ectoplasm? Vibrations? It’s stock-in-trade for destinations with a strong sense of history, like Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Tonight’s trek is through the hallways and public spaces of the Crescent Hotel, where I’m staying. It was pitched as a haunted hotel, so I knew what I was in for. I am not a ghost hunter, by any means. Up until this night, my brushes with the paranormal were strictly personal. Until we tunneled into an old kitchen prep area in the basement.
It was well after the dining room had closed. I saw no floorboards above with cracks. Other folks on our tour came and went from this rough little room as our guide talked about the bodies that Dr. Baker kept down here, victims of his “cancer cures” in the 1930s.
I smelled a distinctive smoke, a cigar. And as I walked through one corner of the room, I felt a chill. The hairs on my arms stood on end.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Eureka Springs has delightfully bizarre architecture.
- You enjoy learning the creepy backstory of a place.
- You appreciate weird.
An Unusual Outpost
Although it’s firmly in the lushly forested Ozarks, Eureka Springs is seriously weird. Robert Ripley documented it for decades. At least a dozen times, his “Believe it or Not” cartoons highlighted something not quite right here, like the fact that no two streets meet at a right angle, or that you enter St. Elizabeth Catholic Church through its bell tower. Designated a National Historic Site in 1970, the entire city is a well-preserved Victorian village, not something you’d expect to find in the middle of these mountains.
On a trip with Eureka Van Tours, I learned just how weird things are here. In the heart of Eureka Springs business district, downtown vanished underground after a spell. Main Street — also called Mud Street — just kept filling in with mud washed down an adjacent creek, so buildings were built on top of buildings, and yes, there’s a tour for that. The Eureka Springs Downtown Underground Tour lets you walk through the weirdness below, which I sampled with a peek beneath the Grand Central Hotel and a lunch in the below-the-street Mud Street Cafe. Stare at the bricks at the top of the staircase down into this diner, and you may catch the message: it’s a not-so-subtle signal for a bordello.
Eureka Springs had its Wild West days, which set the stage for weird. The James Gang and the Dalton Gang shot up the place. After years of terrorizing stagecoaches, banks, and trains throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, Bill Doolin, founder of the Wild Bunch, was arrested in the Eureka Springs Bathhouse by a Federal Marshall and hauled away.
The Healing Springs
What made Eureka Springs so unique? In part, topography; in part, its magical waters. Sixty-three springs bubble and gush from crevices in the hillsides, some notable, some tiny, all under a lush canopy of forest. The Osage traveled for great distances to immerse in the “Great Healing Spring” later known as Basin Spring. In 1856, Dr. Alvah Jackson opened Dr. Jackson’s Cave Hospital to treat wounded soldiers during the Civil War, believing that the waters cured his son’s eye troubles. One of Jackson’s friends found a cure for his skin condition in Basin Spring, and Eureka! A town was born.
Established July 4, 1879, Eureka Springs quickly became the fourth largest city in Arkansas and a resort town overnight, with shanties and tent cities adjoining the bathhouses. Water from Harding Spring still flows into the Palace Bathhouse, just as it did in 1901; it’s the last of the original spas in existence. Dozens of hotels sprung up, among them the Basin Park Hotel. Built in 1905, it’s notable for being set into a steep mountainside, enabling guests on all eight stories to step out of their balconies onto the ground floor. Honest.
Among the Weird
During the tour, our Victorian-costumed guide led us not just to Ripley’s favorite haunts but to more far-flung outposts of weird. Among them, a distinct landmark you can’t ignore, visible above all points of the city: Christ of the Ozarks. This two million pound, five story tall concrete statue makes you think of Christ the Redeemer over Rio. Gerald L. K. Smith, who commissioned it in 1966, is buried at its feet. He jumped-started tourism in this town, but was known for a lifetime of “hellfire and brimstone” sermons filled with antisemitism and hatred. At the statue, we came across the Museum of Earth History, which explained how dinosaurs and Adam and Eve shared the land. The museum has since closed, but the Great Passion Play, said to be the largest such biblical pageant in the world, continues, joined by a Bible Museum with a 1611 King James among its 7,000 holdings.
Architecture is weird here, with wedge-shaped buildings and buildings that cascade downhill. Being a rock collector, I caught the vibe of Quigley’s Castle right away. This 1940s home is a big piece of art, surrounded by bottle trees and covered in rocks cemented to every surface, not just the house but the outdoor furnishings as well. A counterpoint to its chaos, Thorncrown Chapel rises from the forest floor as if it grew amid the birch and beech, in perfect balance with its surroundings. Designed by E. Fay Jones, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, this architectural marvel brings the outdoors in through its nearly transparent walls of glass. It’s a major destination for weddings – and Sunday Services – but is worth the time simply to walk inside and mediate in the quiet.
My weird communication from the spirits came near the end of the ghost tour through the Crescent Hotel. From the outside, the hotel gave me the creeps. When I moved into a room, it felt creepy and I had freak-out moments during my stay. The whole place had me unsettled. Now I’m not big on picking up vibes, but this building had its evil moments.
While the Crescent Hotel started out as a hotel, it became a sanitarium owned by “Doctor” Norman Baker. Baker’s claim was a cure for cancer, and on the airwaves he owned, he broadcast hope. Moving to Eureka Springs in 1938 after he was arrested in Iowa for practicing medicine without a license, he began his scam anew. Cancer patients came for the “cures,” homemade elixirs injected into their bodies. He made a huge profit, and his patients died. The untimely, unnecessary, monstrous deaths continued in this building until the federal authorities carted Baker away in 1939– for mail fraud. He was never indicted for his “cancer cure” deaths.
After learning of Doctor Baker’s cures, I didn’t feel too great about visiting a local doctor and pharmacist when I got sick during my visit. Luckily for me, both recommended the use of a neti pot – something I’d never heard of before – to help clear my infection. That weird but useful Eureka Springs find sits by my sink to this day.
- Known for its plentiful supply of bed & breakfasts, Eureka Springs is an hour east of Bentonville, hometown of Wal-Mart, via US 62. Ironically, there are no Wal-Marts or other big box stores here.
- For a stay in the center of it all, the Basin Park Hotel can’t be beat for location if you’re exploring the city on foot. At the top of the “most windy road in America,” the Crescent Hotel pitches itself as “America’s Most Haunted Hotel.” At over a century old, both historic hotels have their singular quirks, so scope them out first before settling on a room.
- Eureka Van Tours is the main tour operator that gets you out to the more far-flung sites like Christ of the Ozarks and the Thornecrown Chapel, and can connect you with on-foot tours, including the very different ghost tours presented at the Crescent Hotel and the Basin Park Hotel. Eureka Springs Downtown offers both a Underground Tour and the “Hell Raisers, Hoodlums, and Heated History” Tour. Historic District Tram Tours provides a great overview of the historic district.
- If you’re not up to walking the steep hills of Eureka Springs, use the trolley bus, which connects all points of interest. Parking is extremely limited along the city streets and somewhat difficult because of the steep terrain, but there are central parking areas near downtown.