Before starting my own business, I lived my entire adult life working hard and living below the poverty level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Below the poverty level in the United States of America is to have one of the highest standards of living on the planet. All the same, when my wife and I finished spending some three thousand dollars on our wedding, we didn’t have much left for the honey moon in Branson, Missouri (which, never the less, was a very pleasant trip.) Consequently, I wanted to do something nice and surprising for my wife the next time I had the opportunity. So, after some time went by, and after managing to save up a little more money, I planned a trip to Eureka Springs, Arkansas for her birthday.
The point of the trip was not really Eureka Springs. It was the Crescent Hotel, the “Grand Old Lady of the Ozarks” sitting at 75 Prospect Ave. We tend to live most of our day to day lives in barely-scraping-by mode so, when we can, we really enjoy making our vacation time a little more high end. The hotel suited our tastes in this endeavor perfectly.
I found the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa online and made reservations. I also made reservations at the New Moon Day Spa & Salon located in the hotel’s garden level. I planned the evening such that after our arrival we would be able to check in, spend time in the spa, have dinner at the hotel’s elegant Crystal Dining Room Restaurant, go from there to join one of the Crescent Hotel Ghost tours, and finally some light indulgence at Dr. Baker’s Bistro & Sky Bar in the top floor of the hotel before retiring for the evening in opulent accommodation.
I planned all of this out without telling my wife. I had to tell her that I’d arranged a place to stay the night in Eureka Springs just so she could prepare appropriately for the trip. But, I made it sound like there was not such a to-do in the details so that as the evening unraveled it would be a culmination of pleasant lilliputian surprise.
It went splendidly. Upon arrival, the look of the hotel was gothic, elegant, and magnificent. We were greeted by a bell hop who took our luggage up to our room. This may seem a simple thing to some but for those of us who rarely manage a Super 8 budget it was a nice touch. I felt a little at odds with proper protocol. Being of a less sophisticated crowd I had no idea how much to tip or how to go about it gracefully, but I’ve found that people rather appreciate it if you unabashedly seek direction. So, I just asked him what the protocol was. Just for the record, the gentleman was jovial and gregarious before the subject came up.
Come to think of it, the entire staff was friendly. As the bell hop was dealing with our belongings, we were checking in. The woman behind the desk also seemed to exercise that affable way of the Ozarks. My wife was very much enjoying the congenial manner of everyone we came in contact with.
After checking in and getting settled into our room, we went briefly up to Dr. Baker’s Bistro & Sky Bar just to kill some time before our appointment at the spa. The motif of the bar was unique. It seemed to lightly address the snake oil doctoring style of the infamous “Doctor” Norman Baker within a 1930’s mystic style. We were not there for the food. Unbeknownst to my wife, we had plans to dine later in the Crystal Dining Room Restaurant. We exercised other indulgences. Neither of us are normally connoisseurs of cigars, but we were there to have fun. So, we asked the bar tender to recommend something, and, with fancy beverages in hand, we took out to the balcony and had a bit of a smoke.
The balcony was fantastic. It is the highest point in the county and it overlooks the extreme undulation of Eureka Springs, with all of its’ fine old appeal.
Next we strode to the garden level for our appointments at the New Moon Day Spa & Salon. The spa boasts being the largest destination spa resort in Northwest Arkansas. I saved a little money here by not getting done for myself all that I was having done for my wife, but if the point of my trip was to woo her then my participation was obligatory. Again, I can’t complain. And, by the time we left, my wife was relaxed and enamored, a delightful way to go on into our evening.
After a brief stop upstairs in our room to change into more formal attire, we went on to Crystal Dining Room Restaurant. By then it was dark outside making the dining room seem all the more elegant. In addition to that we had gone on this trip at a bit of a slow time of the year for them so the dining room only had a few other guests.
My wife and I were intent on trying some wine. Again, neither of us were connoisseurs. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the Crystal Dining Room Restaurant has been selected as “one of the nation’s most wine-friendly restaurants” by both Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. Being so slow, the waiter seemed delighted to tell us a little bit about wine tasting and even brought out a few samples to illustrate what they mean by this and what they mean by that. Ultimately, we made our selection and went on to enjoy it along with our various fine and succulent meals.
We left our occasion at the Crystal Dining Room Restaurant to join one of the Crescent Hotel Ghost tours. The tour was being guided by clairvoyant Carroll Heath. The stories that he told as we walked all around the hotel were entertaining. Some, for the humorous reactions of distressed guests as they were certain they had just had a phantasmal encounter; others, for their historical relevance. Regardless your beliefs in things spectral, the ghost tour is chock full of history. The history lesson centers on the hotel, but it cannot help but reveal its relevance to the world around it.
One of the periods of interest was the years that the hotel spent as a Victorian resort location in the late eighteen hundreds. Arkansas governor Powell Clayton wanted to take advantage of the countries sense of boon as well as the countries belief in the healing springs of the Ozarks. To this end he helped as an investor in the resort structure and formed the Eureka Springs Improvement Company to help gather other wealthy and renowned financiers, including the owners of the Frisco Railroad.
Just the construction of the resort brought people and wealth to the Ozarks. The number of jobs created by the endeavor was not to be scoffed at. For starters, a great many stone masons for quarrying the white river, hauling the stone back, and creating towers on location. The goal was to build the nation’s most luxurious location, and they succeeded. The location went on to include “electrical lights, modern plumbing, steam heating, an elevator, extensive landscaping, and luxurious decorations and amenities.” It was the “Queen of The Ozarks.”
As the wealthy traveled in from all over the country, the Frisco Railroad laid track in from Seligman, Missouri and the resort brought the wealthy up from the station via carriage. “Once there, the guest could not only enjoy the healing waters of the spa, but also a stable of 100 sleek-coated horses, tea dances in the afternoon, and elaborate parties every evening with a full in-house orchestra.” (Kathy Weiser) The result was ease of access and luxury in plethora. It brought the gilded age to the heart of the Ozarks.
By 1907 the country had lost its belief in the healing aspects of the Ozark springs. The resort was still elaborate and the water was still nice, but without the mystic component tourism dwindled. It dwindled, but, with our nation’s healthy capitalist economy, it did not dry up.
To make up the difference the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women opened and took house there during the winters. The Crescent continued to act as resort in the summers. This went on until 1924. But, all the while, the building slowly fell more to deferred maintenance. The tuition’s kept getting higher to make up the difference. In 1924 it reached a breaking point and the school closed.
At the same time as the roaring twenties brought vacationing more into vogue the automobile made the Ozarks less out of the way. Businesses began leasing the resort as a summer getaway. The Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women even managed to reopen from 1930 to 1934. But, it did not last long. The depression set in and the school saw its last days.
All of these periods so far include deaths at the Crescent that help feed the ghost tours but what comes next is what gives it the moniker of “The Nations most Haunted Hotel.”
Norman G. Baker often referred to himself as Doctor Baker despite never attaining any formal education. He was born in Muscatine, Iowa in 1882. In his early years he was a star vaudeville mentalist and he made quite a bit of money by inventing the Tangley Calliaphone. He went on to have a career in radio espousing the deficiencies of modern medicine. He did well enough in radio that he was even given a ceremonial to-do by President Herbert Hoover to launch one of his businesses.
While he was doing well and gaining renown on the one end he was becoming infamous to the state of Iowa. He combined his vaudeville showmanship with his belief that he could do better than modern medicine to become one of the county’s most notorious charlatans. He went from town to town offering people cures that made them feel better long enough to gain publicity. By the time his patient died he was long gone and the publicity had passed. He even made public acts of brain surgery, out in the open, patient sitting on a log in front of the crowd. Of course the patient would be dead of infection within months.
Baker believed in what he was doing. He had a hospital in Muscatine but Iowa shut it down for claiming a cure for cancer and the American Medical Association condemned all of his medicines and elixirs. After Iowa shut down his radio shows and ran him out of the state he continued to pursue his love of Iowa and bizarro alternative medicine by running for Iowa Governor. “His campaign was conducted while he was a fugitive from justice.” When that did not pan out he made his home as the new owner of the “Castle in the Sky Sanatorium”, our own Crescent Hotel.
Baker hired actors to look like happy recovering patients and sit outside playing cards as wealthy families would come drop off their ill. Upon a new patients arrival he would have them write three letters asking for more money from the families and claiming that things were going well. He would send those letters in the months to come, sometimes after the patient had passed away. He certainly never let any patient leave. So as not to add to the panic of his patients he would lock them all in their rooms at the same time every night and that would be the time that the staff hauled off the dead bodies from adjacent rooms. The removal and incineration of the bodies became a nightly routine. He would tell the patients that their acquaintances had been cured and gone home.
Like most villains, he continued to believe in the righteousness of his cause despite the blaring results. With all of the money he made he was able to hire the best of the best cancer doctors in the country to work in his hospital. They were willing to put up with the scam aspect of the arrangement because it was the middle of the depression and nowhere else would they be able to make such a living. Nor would they be able to do so much to treat and ease the pain of their patients anywhere else. But, at the end of the day, there was no cure for cancer, even less so than today, and they were shipping people in to die.
Toward the end of the ghost tour we arrived at its most macabre. “Doctor” Baker had used his wealth to build a system of tunnels, even from upstairs rooms, under the sanatorium and under the grounds so that in the case of a raid by the feds he would be able to make a quick getaway.
He did not have to travel far to procure this idea. I turns out that the surrounding “Little Switzerland of the Ozarks”, Eureka Springs, has had a seemingly eccentric system of tunnels running under its ground sense the late eighteen hundreds. The wealth coming into the town, back in Powell Clayton’s day, when this was the fourth biggest town in Arkansas, wanted their property to be on low ground so that it would be close to the “healing” springs. Unfortunately, that is where rains collect and Leatherwood Creek runs off. Early Main Street had been redubbed “Mud” street. And, Spring Street, the towns other main thoroughfare for carriage traffic, was just as bad.
To fix the problem the town elevated the streets. This made all of what used to be the second floor of the buildings now the front door. It also made what used to be the front door into the underground basement. To stay good with the local fire code they kept tunnels connecting the underground doors. Also, the elevated street had to be kept a minor distance from old front windows so that it would not slide through. The result is an unusual system of underground tunnels all through the town. Baker would have certainly grown acquainted with these in his time living in the Ozarks.
We went down into some of those tunnels at the Crescent and saw where they had found a collection of formaldehyde and body part filled jars and the slab where he preformed autopsies. To the end, he was still doing bizarre experiments, trying to find his cures.
By the by, the tunnels did not work. The feds did eventually raid. They had him on mail fraud for calling himself “Doctor Baker” in his letters to families. He was sentenced to four years in Leavenworth. The investigation found that he had successfully defrauded about four million dollars in the middle of the depression.
“Sophisticated visitors sometimes regard the “hillbilly” as a simple child of nature, whose inmost thoughts and motivations may be read at a glance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.” (Vance Randolph) One thing that is certainly there to be garnered from the history of the Crescent is that we are of the same ilk as the rest of humanity. Let any preconceived underestimation be dispelled. The rest of the “sophisticated” world is just as capable beliefs that will later be chalked up to superstition. And the fine people of the Ozarks are just as capable of creating refinement and luxury.
As much as I’ve shared, I assure you I left plenty out, and the ghost tour is worth taking. Although my wife would suggest that you change out of your high heels first.
After the tour was over my wife and I went back up to Dr. Baker’s Bistro & Sky Bar. We relaxed, tried a few more fancy drinks, and chatted a bit with the bartender. It was late at that point and we were the only people up there.
Finally, we retired to our room, where I have no idea how many people had previously died. There, I enjoyed the company of my wife, who had been relaxed, romanced, spooked a little, and ever so mildly inebriated to retire with her hero. It ended up being a very nice evening for us both.
The next day we woke late and at a leisurely pace. We then sat out on our balcony for a while and finished off the cigars from the evening before. From there we went on to enjoy all there is to do in the surrounding town of Eureka Springs, for which a litany abounds.
After the depression, the surreal aspects of the town’s history and tunnels combined with the obscurity and beauty of the Ozarks made the town a favorite relocation spot for artists and artisans. Consequently, when the economy started coming back after World War II the town became an intriguing tourist location.
Eureka Springs again illustrates my earlier point. They have perpetuated the hillbilly “image of the unpretentious, comical rube.” Many people just assume the tunnels were created for moon shining. Also, Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” called Eureka Springs one of the 10 most unusual cities in America for a number of the city’s contrivances. They have also managed the ingenuity and engineering necessary to recreate their main drag when that was what commerce dictated. The Palace Bath House has the first neon sign west of the Mississippi River, built by the inventor of neon. The “hillbilly has… served at times of national soul-searching and throughout the twentieth century as a continually negotiated mythic space through which modern Americans have attempted to define themselves and their national identity and to reconcile the past and the present.” (Anthony Harkins) The town has played whatever role the times have called for it to play.
It still is an intriguing tourist location today. Throwing the town on top of the Crescent is icing on the cake.