Road Trip Through History: Eureka Springs, Arkansas

If I were smarter, I’d have written this blog post last week and invited you to attend Books in Bloom, a literary festival in Eureka Springs at which I was a guest speaker on Sunday. Put on by the local library foundation, Books in Bloom is held the third Sunday in May and is a great event for authors and readers alike. Put it on your calendar for next year. I won’t be one of the speakers,* but I have no doubt that there will be someone on the program that you will be eager to hear.

I was on the flight home when it occurred to me that I should introduce you to Eureka Springs, which is one of my favorite places in the world. Here goes:

Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has been a tourist destination from the day it was founded in 1879.

The limestone hills on which Eureka Springs is built are riddled with caves, sinkholes, and natural mineral springs. Long before Europeans arrived, the Native American peoples of the area believed in the healing powers of the springs, especially the large spring that became the center of town, known as Basin Spring.

Eureka Springs’ development as a spa town began when Dr. Alvah Jackson discovered the medicinal properties of Basin Spring on a hunting trip in 1858. For years Jackson used water from the spring in his medical practice, selling bottles of it as “Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water”. In the spring of 1879, Jackson brought Judge L.B. Saunders to the spring. Saunders had a painful skin disease that several doctors had been unable to cure. The waters improved the judge’s condition so dramatically that he moved his family to a camp by the spring in May, 1879.

Others soon followed. By summer, hundreds of people had come to the camp town around Basin Spring, drawn by reports of miraculous cures. Named on the 4th of July and incorporated in August, the newly formed town grew quickly. Within a year, Eureka Springs had 4,000 permanent residents (twice the current population) and as many as 15,000 transient visitors.

Retired Civil War general and former Arkansas governor Powell Clayton saw the potential for an elegant resort in the rough boomtown. A civil engineer by training, he founded the Eureka Springs Improvement Company, the Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway, and the Crescent Hotel, which was considered America’s most luxurious resort hotel at the time. By the 1890s, Eureka Springs had a permanent population of 10,000. More than 35 luxury hotels, as well as boarding houses, and cottages, were built to house the thousands of visitors who came to take the waters each year.Between 1888 and 1904, several trains each day brought visitors from across the country to take the waters of the sixty-three mineral springs from which the town takes its name. Hundreds reported cures, thanks to the benefits of fresh mountain air, clean spring water, and a regimen that included walking several miles each day up and down the hills of the town.

Around 1910, Americans lost their belief in spa cures and Eureka Springs entered a long period of economic decline. Eureka Springs became a tourist attraction again on a small scale in the 1950s when American families embraced the road trip. Motorists who came to see natural attractions like Blue Springs and the newly opened Pea Ridge battlefield enjoyed Eureka Springs’ eccentric Victorian style.

Today, tourists come to enjoy the charm of Victorian houses built into the side of a mountain, the strong arts community, and what innkeeper Faryl Kaye describes as the town’s “wackiness”.

The elegant spa town of the 1890’s is now a quirky arts colony, defined in large part by its unusual mix of architecture and topography.

*Authors enjoy themselves so much that the festival organizers do not allow speakers to return two years in a row.

From the Archives: Mr. Eiffel Built More Than A Tower

The Eiffel Tower opened to the public 130 year ago this month, a fact that is being celebrated in a low grade way in the news.  And why not?  We need all the good news we can get.

In that spirit, I offer you a piece which originally appeared in History in the Margins in August 2016.

Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, the engineer who designed the Eiffel Tower, reportedly said “I ought to be jealous of the tower.  It is more famous than I am.”

It’s probably true.  Eiffel was a world-famous engineer before he made the tower that bears his name, but not for the kind of things that make a man a household name.  He built his reputation as a bridge designer, though his company also designed and fabricated metal frameworks for buildings like train stations and exhibitions halls.(1)  By the 1880s, Eiffel was the man you called when you had a technical challenge that needed a metals expert.  He designed the railroad station in Budapest, the Bon March department stores in Paris, covered markets, gasworks, iron framing for Notre Dame Cathedral, and prefabricated mobile campaign bridges for the French army.  Not to mention bridges and train stations throughout Europe, Asia and South America.  His work as a whole was known for its lightness, grace and strength–qualities that would come to define the Eiffel Tower.

His most famous project prior to the tower was designing the internal armature for the Statue of Liberty.  Sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi wasn’t sure how to translate his beautiful plaster model of Lady Liberty into a finished statue.  Not only was the proposed statue enormous,(2) but it had to be constructed in such a way that it could be disassembled for transport to New York and reassembled on arrival.  Eiffel was the man for the job.  He proposed the construction of a weigh-bearing iron frame to which thin sheets of copper could be attached, making a lighter, stronger statue.(4)  statue-of-liberty

Eiffel brought that same sense of innovative technique and creative problem solving to the creation of the Eiffel Tower.

The tower was intended to be a temporary installation, built as part of  the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, which celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. More than one hundred artists submitted plans to build a monument on the Champs-de-Mars at the entrance to the exhibition.  Eiffel won the commission with his design for a soaring wrought iron tower.

The plan called for more than 18,000 wrought iron pieces and 2.5 millions rivets to be assembled in an open-latticework tower on a four-acre base of reinforced concrete.  Four piers tapered upward and converged at the top, punctuated by two platforms that provided the tower with structural stability and gave exhibition-goers a spot from which to view the city  below them.  Despite its lacy appearance, the only elements of the tower that do not contribute to its structural integrity are the grill work arches that link the bases together, which Eiffel added to reassure visitors that the structure was safe. eiffel-tower

It took two years, two months and five days to build.  On March 31, 1889, with the last rivet in place, Eiffel climbed the 1,710 steps to the top and unfurled an enormous French flag.(5) When complete, Eiffel’s tower rose 986 feet into the sky–making it the tallest structure of its time, a distinction it would hold until the completion of the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building in 1930. The tower was the most popular attraction at the exhibition.  People waited in line for hours for the opportunity to go up.

The tower earned Eiffel the nickname “magician of iron.   It also shaped his future career.  As a result of his experience in building the tower, Eiffel became interested in questions of the impact of wind resistance on buildings. He installed thermometers, barometers and anemometers on the third platform of the tower, which allowed him to monitor weather patterns. He mounted a radio antenna on the building, which he  later used to develop his own radio network. He built a small wind tunnel on the second platform, which he used to experiment with air resistance, including the creation of an equation for propeller design that helped French engineers make improvements to the new flying machines.  When people complained about the noise,  he built the first aerodynamics lab outside the city, with a bigger wind tunnel,  where he worked though the end of the first World War.

Busy guy.


(1)A new-fangled technique made popular in 1851 by the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”, aka the Crystal Palace.

(2)111 feet six inches tall. Not including the pedestal, which brings the total height to 305 feet, and that pesky six inches. I was led to check this by one writer’s claim that when it was built the Statute of Liberty was the tallest statue ever made. My immediate instinct was to check the size of the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, which was famous for being well, colossal. The Colossus of Rhodes reportedly stood 110 feet, not counting its 50 foot pedestal.(3) The two statues were related by more than just size. The Colossus of Rhodes was also built as a symbol of liberty at the end of a long painful war between Rhodes and Egypt in 292 BCE. Bartholdi’s statue echoes the presumed pose of the Colossus. Since the Statue of Liberty was also known at the time as the “Modern Colossus”, I can’t help but feel that last eighteen inches was deliberate. But I digress.

(3) Though I’m not sure how we know this, since the statue was destroyed in an earthquake in 226 BCE.

(4) The Colossus of Rhodes was built with bronze plates over an iron frame. Just saying.

(5) 15 feet by 25 feet, since we’re measuring things today.

Yennenga the Svelte–the Mother of the Mossi

I’ll warn you up front, the story of Yennenga the Svelte is going to feel more like a fairy tale than a historical biography. We know her story only from the oral traditions of the Mossi people, which may have some non-historical additions and embellishments. But then again, they may tell the story exactly the way it happened. Here goes.

Once, upon a time, er—in the twelfth century Madega, the king of the Dagomba Kingdom, in which is now Ghana had a daughter named Yennenga who was a talented warrior and had the potential to be a great ruler. Her people described her as the lioness with the stubborn chin and flowing mane.

In time she began to think about marriage and starting a family. Her father valued her military skills so much that he found something something wrong with all of her suitors and turned them away. (You see what I mean about the fairy tale flavor?)

Yennenga tried to make her point with an analogy. She planted a field with okra and then allowed the pods to wither unpicked. When her father asked why she was letting the crop spoil, she asked him why he was letting her wither on the vine.

The analogy did not sway her father, who apparently wanted a warlord more than a grandchild.

Finally, Yennenga disguised herself as a man and rode away in the night on her stallion. She traveled for several weeks, until she had escaped her father’s domain. On day, she came upon a hut owned by a solitary elephant hunter named Riale.* Assuming she was a man, he invited her to stay with him.

Sometime after she accepted that invitation, her disguise failed. Or maybe she revealed herself as who she was. The two royal runaways became a couple and in time they had a son, whom they named Ouedraogo, or Stallion, in memory of the horse Yennenga rode on to escape her father’s house.

When Ouedraogo turned seventeen, Yennenga took him to meet her father. Her father welcomed them into his court. In fact, when Yennenga returned to Riale, Ouedraogo remained with his grandfather for a time.

When it was time for Ouedraogo to leave, his grandfather offered to make the young man his heir. Ouedraogo refused, saying he needed to carve out his own kingdom. Perhaps Madega had learned wisdom with time. Perhaps he was willing to let a young man to go his own way even though he wanted to keep his daughter by his side.** Instead of arguing with Ouedraogo, the king gave him a small army and sent out him to make his way in the world.

Ouedraogo stopped to pay his respects to his parents and then rode north, where he founded the first Mossi kingdom.

And while they may not have lived happily ever after, Yennenga’s descendants ruled the Mossi kingdoms until the French conquered them 1895.

*FYI: Riale was also a royal heir on the run. While accounts of why he had retreated to the forest differ, they agree that his father was the king of the Mandé in what is now Mali.

**Just a reminder: he didn’t want to let her get married because she was such a successful warrior. This may be history told with a fairy tale rhythm, but it’s a fairy tale about a girl with a javelin and a spear, not a glass slipper.