Sunset bison

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

XXVI. The City of Magical Waters


October 24 dawned cool and cloudy. On either side of their encampment trees blazed as if on fire, their colors luminous in the soft even light of early morning. The smoke of small fire rose straight into the heavens where it slowly dispersed on a soft breeze wafting high above the valley, but breakfast was hurried and sharpened by a sense of urgency: after three weeks on the road, their destination was upon them.

Below them meandered the arc of the White River, its waters steel-gray and low. In single file they crept down the road—more a cowpath switching back and forth along the bed of the creek—until the lead horse came to the river. Before committing the first wagon the men studied the current and tested the bottom, and contemplating the current’s lazy pace questioned its depth and in general did the things men do when faced with decisions largely outside their grasp or reckoning, cognizant all the while that their choices were no more than zero and had been since entering the narrow confines of Roaring River Hollow. 

A snap of the reins, a sharp bark, and the horses plunged into the river.

Almost laconically, Sadie described what happened next: “We forded the river the first thing and our horses balked in the sand on the other side.” Sand was something unexpected, something new, soft and springy and unnatural after the craggy plunge into the Ozark Plateau. With the second and third teams coming up behind and the water sweeping through the spokes of the wheel, it was no time for balking, and anyway they’d had enough balking from the horses and mules along the route. It was time to go, and Fred resorted to something seldom used: his persuader. 

The long tongue of the whip flickered through the air like the strike of a serpent, cracking the air with a sonic boom.

“The horses were kind of shocked at anything like that and they pulled it out in a hurry,” she wrote. “We had no more trouble.”

But it was hard going nevertheless, and would be for the length of the river. Even as Sadie admired the timber, “the nicest you ever saw,” and the mountains, as she called them, and the prettiest pines and cedars all growing straight and tall in the deep hollows, the sycamores, hickories and oaks showering them with leaves of every hue and shape, the river route was arduous and taxing on man, beast and equipment. Within six miles of their fording they crossed the river 19 more times, each a challenge in itself, prompting Sadie to quip, “They don’t believe in building bridges down here.”

Before the coming of the railroad travel had always been difficult, topography dictating the course of travel with the majority of the geography measured in elevation gain or loss. Nowhere was that more evident than at Eureka Springs. A promotional pamphlet published in 1892 declared that “the location of the city is the last one in the world which would ordinarily have been chosen.” So steep were the hillsides that an apocryphal story tells of a well-digger who sank a shaft 43 feet into East Mountain before the bottom fell out, sending him tumbling into Main Street. He eventually had to dig upwards from his property to find water.

But after Dr. Alvah Jackson in 1856 used waters seeping from the side of a rock bluff to cure his son of an eye ailment (and went on to market his own concoction, “Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water”), a shrewd combination of hucksterism and land speculation put the nascent town squarely in the public’s eye. Named the “City of Magical Waters” and advertised far and wide, people came in droves. Shanties and tent cities spread across the steep hillsides like fungi while magnificent Victorian houses and massive limestone commercial structures took root. Streets were laid out almost willy-nilly owing to the terrain, many following animal and Native American trails through the dense woods. 

By 1879 the city’s population topped 10,000, making it the fourth largest in Arkansas. Bath houses and health resorts catered to the common and the wealthy, some little more than roughhewn cabins and others architectural masterpieces. They huddled in clusters around the various springs—63 were identified—the most famous of which was Basin Spring, also known as Indians’ Healing Spring. The water was rich in minerals and cold as glacial seep and all but guaranteed to cure ailments as diverse as kidney troubles, intestinal tract diseases, dropsy, asthma, diabetes, rheumatism, insomnia, eczema, scrofula and liver complaints. Samples from Little Eureka Springs won prizes at the 1904 World’s Fair in St, Louis, and soon the Ozarka Water Company was shipping water out by railcar. The climate was temperate except for the occasional ice storm that utterly paralyzed transportation, a fact conveniently withdrawn from promotional materials. 

But times change, and boom cycles last only so long before being dragged down under the weight of unkept promises. By 1912 the population had dropped to half its former size, and springs were drying up from changes wrought by civilization’s influx. But it was still an impressive city, with the railroad depot marking the northern terminus and the commercial district a maze of intricate masonry, the most famous being the angular Flatiron Building. 

Shortly before noon Sadie, Fred, little Lucile and the others were nearing Eureka Springs when a train erupted around a bend. They barely had time to get the wagons away from the tracks before it blasted through with an angry whistle and a choking plume of smoke. “The tracks make so many curves around the hills you never see it until it is on you,” Sadie wrote. The near escape put the party on edge and might have been a catalyst for how they viewed the city when they entered a few minutes later. 

They followed the main thoroughfare downhill from the depot through the downtown district with its extravagant facades and bustling businesses. Many of the structures were tall and narrow, replying on height over depth; one building described itself as having eight stories each with its own ground-level entrance. Once past the downtown area the valley opened slightly and houses crowded down to the edge of the road, with numerous secondary lanes spidering off in an endless and bewildering labyrinth. The city was a hive of activity, and nowhere more than the wagon yard.

Built on a wide scrape of raw earth, the yard consisted of a series of clapboard buildings housing warehouses, liveries and workers. Along the periphery were makeshift camps where transients congregated in what amounted to primitive camping quarters. Among the other wayfarers they found a place to park the wagons. Eyes tracked their every move. It was squalid and unkempt and populated with people they had no desire to fraternize with, utterly lacking in privacy. Sadie hated it, and hated the town, too.

“I have not fell in love with what I have seen of this place yet,” she wrote. “We pulled into a wagon yard and are camped. I don't know for how long. I hope not long. I have not seen any of the town only the street we came in on. It is built all over the hills.”

By nightfall she was sick with a headache and thinking of the healing springs they’d read about. But in the grubby wagon yard the springs and their magic seemed a million miles away.

***

I’d studied the city’s map upside down and sideways, trying to get a fix on the lay of the land.  Instead of a comfortable grid of evenly-spaced streets the layout resembled a spilled plate of spaghetti or something a child might scribble on an Etch-a-Sketch. Our bed-and-breakfast was near the south end of town and up—a term I used to distinguish various parts of town, up being where we were to stay, the Victorian enclave and the rarified (and, some said, spook-haunted) Crescent Hotel with its alpine views of the valley and the towering white monolith of the Christ of the Ozarks, and down being the downtown area and the lower conjunctions where tourist traps jostled with cheap hotels and eateries. 

By the time we followed Sadie into town my directions were hopelessly skewed. I missed my turn and found myself locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the narrow, congested downtown district, and, finding it impossible to turn around, shifted to plan B, clearly (ha!) marked on a printed map that Lori puzzled over. Her eyes darted restlessly from the street signs to the map and back, the furrows on her forehead deepening with each glance. “This map makes no sense,” she muttered.

“This town makes no sense,” I said. 

Like Sadie, I disliked it at once, hating the traffic, the narrow streets, the plethora of shops hawking bad art and worse Taiwanese T-shirts, windsocks and shot glasses. I didn’t navigate as much as steer blindly, taking likely turns when the mood struck me and keeping the nose of the car on an uphill path. Within a mile of leaving the main road we’d driven north, south, east, west, northeast, southwest and every cardinal combination in between, until somehow miraculously (magically?) coming upon our B&B. I braked sharply without hesitation and whipped into a narrow parking spot.

My nerves were frazzled. The place was wonderfully plush, with a private cobblestone patio on the edge of a deep wooded ravine filled with birdsong, a sunken jacuzzi and small living room. It was so nice, in fact, and the road outside so alien and, to me, hostile, I had a difficult time summoning the courage to re-enter the fray. But we were hungry and needed sustenance, so after unpacking the car we retraced our route down the hill for a little more exploration.

For better or worse, we had reached the end of Sadie’s trail.

(To be continued)

1 comment:

shoreacres said...

I just looked at the map of Eureka Springs - yikes! And in the up and down and it must have been a pleasure. But the end of the trail? How can this be? Surely Sadie deserves better than this!