Tucked in the northwest corner of Arkansas, deep in the Ozarks, Eureka Springs has long been a gem of the Midwest. Its lengthy and somewhat complex history is a testament to finding a mission and sticking to it.
Eureka Springs’ mission was discovered probably by accident when it was found that the mineral water springs that abounded in the area seemed to have healing properties. By the late 19th century, people came from across the country seeking a cure by drinking Dr. Alvah Jackson’s “eyewater.”
Located less than 10 miles from the southern border of Missouri, this ancestral home of the Osage Nation – as well as bands of the Delaware and Shawnee people – was incorporated in February 1880. Then, in 1882, the railroad came to the remote area, and almost overnight Eureka Springs transformed into a resort area.
The city began its growth as a hodgepodge of private and commercial structures that gradually overtook the tents, shanties and lean-tos built hastily and as close to the springs as possible. Today, the city of about 2,500 residents is a popular destination for visitors due to the abundance of arts venues, natural wonders and day spas. While the spring water is no longer bottled and sold, the springs provide a beautiful backdrop for picnickers and photographers.
Major fires destroyed many of the early buildings, which were replaced with more substantial structures made of brick and stone. Limestone, sandstone, granite and marble, quarried locally, became the preferred materials for buildings and retaining walls along the steep hillsides.
The little city has been nicknamed “America’s Favorite Victorian Village” because of its enduring architecture of the late 1800s that features colorful houses accented with turrets, gables and expansive porches. Tucked in the narrow valley at the headwaters of Leatherwood Creek, a tributary of the White River, Eureka Springs features steep, winding streets that provide days of exploration. It boasts the largest historic district of any city in Arkansas.
The arts scene in Eureka Springs is rarely matched. The city has been awarded “Top 25 Art Towns in America” by American Style Magazine for the past few years. In addition to art galleries, studios and events, there are a number of nonprofit arts organizations including the Eureka Springs School of the Arts, Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, Main Stage Creative Community Center, Shakespeare in the Ozarks, Enthios Dance Center and the 60-year-old Opera in the Ozarks.
Eureka Springs’ public transit system is a tourist’s dream but serves residents with equal efficiency. After a 55-year hiatus, trolleys returned to service in 1978 with four color-coded routes and 115 stops. Narrated 85-minute tram tours give visitors a view of not just the city, but its rich history.
Another intriguing way to get to know Eureka Springs is the Whimsical Wander Scavenger Hunt that begins and ends on Spring Street in the heart of downtown. For $20 per person, this two-hour, one-mile trek uncovers interesting places and colorful stories over a 10-stop tour. The route is wheelchair and stroller accessible and dog-friendly.
As anyone would expect in a city built on tourism, there are abundant restaurants, from white tablecloth establishments to pet- and child-friendly coffee houses, pizzerias and bistros. Of course, there is a craft beer brewery, and the historic district is home to numerous Victorian hotels and bed and breakfasts. Eureka Springs has become a destination for day trips or entire weekends of retail therapy.
Head to the outskirts of town and find an abundance of eco-tourism sites that include more than 60 natural springs and three lakes. Don’t miss the soaring 48-foot tall Thorncrown Chapel, built in 1980, featuring more than 400 windows and 6,000 square feet of glass. It frequently appears on top lists published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In addition to its commitment to historic preservation, Eureka Springs is driven to preserve the natural environment surrounding it.
The city was one of four in Arkansas that signed the 2007 United States Climate Protection Agreement. In addition to more than 1,800 acres of city parkland, nearby Lake Leatherwood is an 85-acre spring-fed lake created by one of the largest hand-cut limestone dams in the United States. Visitors and residents can spend hours hiking, biking, paddle boating, swimming, birding, backpacking and geocaching.
The Great Passion Play and Christ of the Ozarks are among the attractions that bring people to Eureka Springs. The Great Passion Play not only depicts scenes from the life of Jesus in its nightly performances but there are also daytime tours of re-creations of places in the Holy Land. All of this has the Christ of the Ozarks statue as its backdrop: The statue is a seven-story structure constructed in 1966. Eureka Springs has had moments of brilliance and moments of darkness. The Great Depression took a heavy toll on the city’s ambiance, with buildings being abandoned or torn down to sell wood and other materials. But in the years following, groups and municipalities began to focus attention on historic preservation, and Eureka Springs found its way back to its roots, welcoming visitors who appreciated what it had to offer.