FDR and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visit the Spa City
On a scorching June 10, 1936, the largest crowd up to that time in Hot Springs history massed at the train depot and along our streets. Thousands waited patiently, buying souvenirs and cold drinks from concession stands, hoisting their kids onto their shoulders, crowding windows and rooftops. Many had come from miles away by wagon. One “mountaineer” bragged that he had ridden a mule 30 miles to see the first sitting president to visit Hot Springs. And not just any president — the one who was leading the country out of the Great Depression.
President Franklin and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt were coming to Hot Springs to open Arkansas’ Centennial celebration. The city prepared by washing windows, raking yards, sweeping sidewalks, draping U.S. flags from countless buildings and houses, and declaring a half-day holiday.
The president’s train pulled into the Missouri Pacific depot at 7 a.m. Eleanor was soon driven to the Arlington Hotel, where she breakfasted with 500 members of the Democratic Women of Arkansas in the Crystal Ballroom. She was given a marionette dressed in a Girl Reserve uniform that had been made by a local child, Mamie Ruth Abernathy.
President Roosevelt appeared on the rear train platform at 9:35 a.m. to a “tremendous ovation.” He was helped into an open touring car, and the procession began. Preceded by the HSHS band, FDR’s car led a motorcade to the newly built brick Army and Navy Hospital. After viewing the campus from his car, FDR traveled over Hot Springs Mountain and down Fountain Street to the Arlington Hotel, where Eleanor joined the president. Going south on Central, the cars stopped at Arlington Park to see students from Ramble and Jones schools perform part of the pageant “Arkansas Through the Years.”
Then the president went inside the Fordyce Bath House, where he met five Arkansas children who were recovering from polio with the help of the thermal waters. The caravan then drove to Prospect Avenue, over West Mountain Drive (which had been widened by the CCC), to Grand Avenue, and then to Malvern Avenue to travel to Couchwood, AP&L founder Harvey Couch’s home. The Roosevelts waved to the thousands applauding and cheering along the entire parade route, including 8-year-old Orval Allbritton at Grand and Fifth Street.
Along Malvern, the president stopped briefly at Our Lady of Charity Convent, where 100 orphans waved U.S. flags. The president’s car also pulled into the Lakeside School campus so he could see the new school building being built by the WPA. Then FDR and Eleanor were off to a luncheon at Couchwood, a church service at Rockport, and finally the depot at Malvern to board a train to Little Rock. The road between Hot Springs and Malvern had been paved (in just five weeks!) for the presidential jaunt. Dozens of homes and barns along the route had been painted or
whitewashed with state-supplied materials. Fences and gates had been repaired, and old junker cars had been hauled away.
Hot Springs and Garland County enjoyed giving a special welcome to the president who promised, “Happy Days are Here Again!”