The area has long been known by indigenous peoples, and by the 1500’s, was referred to by Spanish Conquistadors as “Valley of the Vapors.” Around the 18th century, tribes settled in the area had a peace agreement that they would share the healing waters of the hot springs, and put down their weapons to equally enjoy the area. By 1818, European settlers had begun building in the area, to take advantage of the spring’s healing waters, and the Native Americans were relocated to a reservation south of the site. By 1820 Arkansas was a territory of the United States, and the hot springs were deemed a “National Reservation,” granting the area federal protection, making Hot Springs National Park the oldest in the National Parks system. The name was changed from “Hot Springs Reservation” to Hot Springs National Park in 1921.
Originally the bathhouses were simple wooden and canvas structures designed to merely provide a bit of shelter or privacy around the natural pools, or small reservoirs that had been made by carving into the rocky landscape. As an industry grew up around the hot springs in the early 20th century, the crude structures burned, collapsed, or failed due to damage from the humidity. After the Hot Springs Creek, which once ran through the center of town, was roofed over, and enclosed under a sidewalk, flooding was mitigated and it became feasible to build increasingly fancy and elaborate bathhouse structures. Many of these are still standing along Bathhouse Row today.
When the Fordyce bathhouse closed in 1962 due to a decline in attendance, the building remained vacant until 1989 when it reopened as a visitor center for the National Park. The Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark was designated two years prior, in 1987.