HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- "Take a bath" is what you do once a week, whether you need it or not.

"Taking the baths" is what you do in Hot Springs.Artifacts found nearby indicate that people have been making the pilgrimage to this area of the Arkansas Ozarks for 10,000 years or more to bathe in the steaming waters that spout miraculously from 47 springs at the foot of a forested hill.

Members of warring American Indian tribes declared the area a combat-free zone, burying the tomahawk long enough to soak their weary bones in the shallow pools of the Valley of the Vapors. This, they believed, was the breath of the Great Spirit.

In later years, gangsters from opposing mobs let their feuds simmer while they did likewise in the bathhouses. Al Capone and his entourage regularly rented the entire fourth floor of the Arlington Hotel, where a brass plaque now marks his favorite suite, Room 442.

Geologists explain that a raindrop takes 4,000 years to seep 8,000 feet into the Earth's core, where it is heated to 143 degrees and quickly rises out through cracks and fissures to fuel the springs.

The springs are not heated by volcanic activity and thus are free of the sulfuric smell of rotten eggs common to thermal waters elsewhere.

The waters are so sterile that scientists used them to store precious rocks hauled back from the moon. The water is piped, untreated, to public spigots where locals like Ross Beason fill up for free.

"It's good, clean, refreshing water," said Beason, who brought four empty water jugs with him from nearby Malvern. "I've been drinking it since I came home from the war in '44. I'm 81, and I give it credit for some of that."

The United States recognized the value of this geologic wonder in 1832 when President Andrew Jackson named the four square miles around it a reservation, the first land protected as a natural resource. After the national park system was created in 1916, a smaller portion of the land was designated Hot Springs National Park.

Taking their cue from the Greeks and Romans, entrepreneurs had leased reservation land from the government and built a string of eight lavish bathhouses with walls of marble, arched windows of stained glass and floors of itty-bitty mosaic tiles laid one at a time.

The park service capped all but three of the springs to prevent contamination, collecting the water in a reservoir system with pipes leading to the bathhouses.

The rich came to relax and socialize.

"People flaunted St. Louis fashions in front of the bathhouse and at the fountains," according to a sign on the brick Grand Promenade. The sick came as a last resort. The 1912 brochure for the Buckstaff Baths boasts that the waters cure "all diseases of the skin, blood, digestive and secretory organs, as well as nervous affections . . . and ailments peculiar to women."

Roger Giddings, supervisor of the national park for 18 years, will not vouch for the curative powers. "We make no claims," he said. "However, if I had recorded all the testimonials I've been given, I could write a 100-page book. Gout, liver problems, arthritis, it just goes on and on."

The first bathhouse, a log cabin straddling the water, was built in the Hot Springs area in 1830. By 1873, there were six bathhouses, 24 hotels and 1,200 residents in this bustling frontier town.

The government had claimed the land but did nothing to keep the squatters off. The first superintendent was named in 1877, and he brought in the infantry to reclaim the property. A legal battle went to the Supreme Court, and the government won the right to the prime 6,000 acres around the springs.

In the years after the turn of the century, rich Americans copied European fashion and flocked to the bathhouses for a little R&R. They'd arrive on trains and spend two weeks taking the baths, followed by massages and two-hour naps.

The patrons, 80 percent of them male, paid 55 cents for a bath, 65 cents for a massage. The government ran a free bathhouse for the poor.

Electricity also was a new fascination, and treatments included electric plates lowered into the bath water to cure nerve problems. "They didn't kill anyone," said Ann Robb, a volunteer guide at the Fordyce Bathhouse, which is now a museum.

Some of the recreated rooms in the museum resemble medieval torture chambers. There were hot bulbs-and-ice treatments, massages with pulsating hoses and rubs with mercury and arsenic. Attendants dubbed the "rear admirals" operated the "colonic irrigation" tables.

Afterward, customers would gather around the grand piano, beneath a stained glass ceiling, in the music room to chat and cool off.

As the brochure for the Buckstaff Baths promised: "When the miracle waters touch the sick or weary invalid or worn-out business man or the depleted frame of the satiated devotee of physical pleasure, there is at once a quick response to the magic influence of these far-famed waters."

The Golden Age of Bathing dawned around 1911, when the first of the eight great bathhouses was built on Bathhouse Row. It peaked in 1946, when 1.1 million came to Hot Springs to take the baths.

Today, spa resorts are a popular vacation destination. In 1980, there were fewer than three dozen spa resorts in the United States. Now, there are more than 1,600. A weeklong stay at The Golden Door in California, The Greenhouse in Texas or Canyon Ranch in Arizona costs around $5,000.

But in Hot Springs, only one of the eight bathhouses -- the Buckstaff -- is still open. The National Park Service spent $5.5 million renovating the Fordyce, the grandest of the bathhouses, as a museum. The six others still stand, their exteriors maintained by the park service but their interiors gutted.

The park service says 3.5 million visitors tour Bathhouse Row each year, but only about 150,000 take the baths at the Buckstaff or four other locations, including spas at the Arlington and its sister hotel, the Majestic.

The park service is trying to find businesses to lease the vacant bathhouses and is shopping for investors.

"We're looking for compatible uses to the park -- restaurants, museums, a B&B," said Giddings, the park superintendent. "We wouldn't allow an adult bookstore or topless bar."

One problem is the government owns the buildings, and banks are hesitant to lend money for a business they couldn't take over if the deal fell through, Giddings said.

"We'll continue to hold the bathhouses in good condition, so they will be ready to be used next year, or in 20 years," Giddings said. "It's the icon of Arkansas, a very unique story. There's no other collection of bathhouses like this in the country and very likely the world."

Isolated in the middle of the Ouachita Mountains, an eight-hour drive southwest of St. Louis, Hot Springs has existed in something of a time warp. With just 32,000 residents, it's still a Mayberry sort of town. Boyhood pictures of its most famous resident, Bill Clinton, in a cowboy outfit even resemble a pudgy Opie.

Ask the Arlington barmaid for directions to Clinton's boyhood home and she says, "It's down the street, just past the Piggly Wiggly, on the left."

Hot Springs also is home to McClard's. Two visits confirmed it serves the world's best barbecue. Ribs covered with fries is eight-bucks' worth of mouth-watering, artery-clogging rapture. Coy's is the city's top steakhouse, and the Long Island duck cooked to a crisp at the Bohemia was a mouthful.

The historic district runs along magnolia-lined Central Avenue with Bathhouse Row on one side and a hodgepodge of shops on the other. Fine antiques and gift shops are next door to the House of Reptiles and the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum.

Attractions in the city range from the sophisticated to the delightfully silly. You can have brunch in the luxurious Venetian Room of the Arlington, then stroll a few blocks to visit Jim Clowers and his son, John, operators of Animal Actors, formerly known as the I.Q. Zoo.

"The I.Q. Zoo went bankrupt, so we came up with his idea," explained Jim Clowers. He leads you into a darkened room, ringed by miniature stages. At the proper cue, lights go on, music starts and the trained animals do their bit.

If that's not enough excitement, the Arkansas Alligator Farm is a short distance away. You can watch angry-looking gators chow down on chicken carcasses. A sign advises that alligators hiss when they're mad, grunt when they're mating and bellow when it's going to rain.

Inside a building, near the petting zoo, rest the shriveled remains of Merman, who was half man and half fish, according to the National Enquirer article on the wall.

Hot Springs is home to the Oaklawn racetrack, which is owned by St. Louis millionaire Charles Cella. His grandfather, Louis Cella, built the track in 1904. Charlie Cella has a house at the eighth pole on the track and throws legendary parties on race days.

But that's just a hint of the glory years when casinos and slot machines flourished, illegally, and Hot Springs preceded Las Vegas as the playground for gamblers and gangsters. The guest lists at the Arlington and Majestic read like a most-wanted poster: Capone, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello.

But those days are gone, and so are the crowds who took the baths.

Hot Springs now thrives around water of another sort, two lakes built by the Army Corps of Engineers at the south end of town. The lakes offer fishing and other water sports.

The grand dame of the city is the Arlington, which at 75 years old shows few wrinkles thanks to a series of face lifts. This is the third version of the hotel. The first was built in 1875 and replaced in 1893. That hotel burned, and the present one, with its twin towers, opened on New Year's Eve 1924.

The hotel is built on the side of Hot Springs Mountain, the source of the thermal waters. Walk out the seventh floor, by the two-tiered heated swimming pool, and you are in the national park. Eighteen miles of trails circle the mountain, with overlooks of the surrounding forest. The only hint that you are in an urban area is the hum of traffic.

An outdoor whirlpool at the hotel is heated by the mineral waters. In fact, the hotel offers several rooms with water piped directly from the springs. A certificate from the National Park Service says the water is supplied "under authority of the government."

Hot Springs also recently completed a $35 million civic and convention center, complete with a hotel, just a few blocks from the downtown historic district. A documentary film festival, jazz and blues festivals and downtown Christmas lighting display also attract visitors.

On the Web: