The historic gambling era of Hot Springs
There are many good books that delve into the intriguing history of Hot Springs, including The Vapors. In these pages, you'll learn about the illegal gambling era of the city via the backstories of both local characters and notorious ones like Owney Madden. As the book states, “Owney wasn’t merely a member of the criminal underworld, he was a proper boss.” Madden came to town in the 1930s and the narrative of how his story weaves into local history is fascinating. The book mentions many places that will be familiar to visitors today, and even more so, that they can see today. Visit Hot Springs even created a tour that ties to places from the book. You can learn more about this self-guided tour here.
There are many places to visit around town that showcase this fascinating part of history.
The Vapors, which is located at 315 Park Avenue, was not only the title but also a central character in the book. The upscale nightclub opened in 1960 and was founded by local Dane Harris and Madden. It was the scene of many memorable moments during the illegal gambling era of the city. The building is now known as the Vapors Live and is a live music venue.
The Southern Club at 250 Central Avenue was also a locale featured in the book and though it is now the home of the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, this part of the building’s history is still remembered via a small museum on site about the Southern Club.
Also on Central Avenue are numerous locations that you can visit to learn more about this era of local history. For starters, the Gangster Museum of American History, located at 510 Central Ave, stands out as the first museum of its kind in the nation. The museum highlights the 1920s-40s era of Hot Springs and is a place to learn about both the intricacies of the gambling era and the many notorious gangsters that visited the city.
More locations to visit on Central include the Ohio Club, which is at 336 Central Avenue, and said to be the oldest bar in the state. It has a role in the era as was a popular hangout for gangsters visiting the town, as is evidenced today by the scene one is greeted with in front of the club: an Al Capone statue sitting casually on a sidewalk bench, cigar in hand.
A beverage you can enjoy here and across the street at Superior Bathhouse Brewery is Madden’s No 1, a beer brewed from the same recipe that was used by Owney Madden during Prohibition.
Bathhouse Row and Hot Springs National Park were also a daily part of the background of the era. In the Vapors, the daily routine of a retired Madden is mentioned. The pages say, “Like many of Hot Spring’ senior citizens, Owney maintained the same routine almost every single day. He tended to his flower garden, a hobby he had picked up in Sing Sing while working in the prison greenhouse. He and Agnes [his wife of many years and daughter of the local postmaster] raised chickens and pigeons, the former a passion from her youth, the latter a more urban passion from his. Each morning, Owney would visit the barbershop in the Arlington Hotel, take a hot bath in one of the national park bathhouses, then spend the rest of his day at his usual seat in the Southern Club coffee shop.”
Madden had such a connection to the city that he is even buried in town, next to his wife Agnes at the Greenwood Cemetery. The house they both lived in is also still standing in town at 506 West Grand Avenue.
If there is further interest in Hot Springs history, a prime spot to visit includes the History of Hot Springs Gambling Museum at 3339 Central Ave. Suite C. The location has a small time frame to visit ( Friday and Saturdays) but inside its doors is a truly impressive scene. The walls are lined with original slot machines and an array of vintage gaming tables fills the rooms surrounded by a wealth of memorabilia from spots like the Southern Club and the Vapors. However this is just the start. There is a deep and wide ranging stash of local history here, and one can learn about everything from the horse racing history of Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort to the ostrich races that used to take place at Thomas A. Cockburn’s Ostrich Farm. You can read more about this ostrich farm here, here, and here.
This is just a tiny glimpse into the vast amount of compelling history one can find while touring around Hot Springs.