EUREKA SPRINGS, Ar. – In 1879, thousands of people came to Eureka Springs looking for treasure. It wasn’t gold or silver though, it was water. Many people believed the springs in town had healing powers.

To this day, folks living in Eureka Springs tell OzarksFirst that the area still has some magic. 66-year-old Ken Riley has been a resident for 17 years.

“I really just can’t say enough about how happy I am here,” Riley said. “It’s the people more than anything else at this point. When I moved here it was the beautiful scenery around here.”

To Dr. Alvah Jackson in the 1800s, it was because of the stories native tribes were telling about the area’s healing springs. Jeff Danos, director of the Eureka Springs Historical Museum, explained.

“Our earliest legends actually go to the indigenous people that were here,” Danos said. “The Osage tribe in particular had stories of their own. Most of the natives that spent time here at one point or another considered this to be kind of a sacred ground.”

At the time, Dr. Jackson spent a lot of time hunting in the region. Danos says in 1858, Dr. Jackson and his son went bear hunting.

“Didn’t find any bear that day, but they ended up chasing a wild cat into a cave. They sent their dogs in after the wild cat, and waited for the dust to settle.”

As they waited, the Jackson’s discovered the first spring. It would later be called the Basin Spring because it was shaped like a bowl. His son used the water to heal from an eye infection. Dr. Jackson used this experience as an entrepreneurial opportunity. He bottled the water from the spring, sold it and called it “Dr. Jackson’s eye water.”

Despite his business venture, Dr. Jackson kept the water a secret until the 1870s.

“That’s really when the story of Eureka kind of kicks into high gear.”

Dr. Jackson told his friend from Berryville, Judge J.B. Saunders, about the springs. Saunders later used a nearby spring to treat a skin condition, and he felt better after two months.

“We could credit Saunders as being the first town booster. He really believed in the springs and put the word out there.”

Thousands of people visited. That’s when, Saunders, his son and Dr. Jackson had a discussion about what the town should be named. Saunders suggested “Jackson Springs” to honor Dr. Jackson, who said it should be called “Saunders Springs” to credit Saunders for bringing people to the region. Saunders’ son ‘Buck’ pitched the name, ‘Eureka,’ meaning ‘I found it’ in Greek. Everyone agreed with Buck.

From 1879 to 1880, people would travel to Eureka Springs looking for relief from whatever condition they had.

“In the early days it was all about the Basin Spring. The town happened overnight. There was an overnight explosion of people that were here. All the early photos you see of the town at that time show they came in and chopped down just about every tree they could find, so they could quickly build their little shack.”

Danos tells OzarksFirst most folks who visited back then spent a long time in town. Most people stayed for several months, and in some cases for the whole season. 

“One of the big reasons behind that is because the trip to get here was very, very difficult. A lot of people come through today and they talk about Highway 62 and how Highway 62 is a difficult drive for some people. But back then you could only imagine how difficult it would’ve been. Before the railroad was here, the closest point would’ve been Seligman, Missouri. You were looking at about 18 miles in a stagecoach on some of the roughest roads you’ve ever ridden in your life. It was common for people to have to get out and push for part of that journey.”

As people spent more time in Eureka Springs, they discovered more springs around town. Danos says one of the highest counts he can recall is there being around 64 springs within a mile of city limits. Each spring was believed to have its own healing power.

“You would hear about Oil Spring bringing back people’s hair if they were bald. Harding Spring was probably one of the springs that had maybe one of the most remarkable stories we’ve heard about. It was another one having to do with the eyes. There was a young woman who supposedly was blind for seven years. [Jennie Cowan] came to Eureka and tried the Basin Spring. It didn’t do her any good. She tried some of the other springs, and it didn’t help her at all. When [Cowan] started using the Harding Spring, her vision started to come back.”

Cowan’s story was in newspapers around the country. Danos says presumably, a train full of blind people would come to town weeks after to look for the Harding Spring.

“We had a group of people here that would literally meet you when you got off the train. They would ask you, ‘What are you dealing with? What are you suffering from?’ Then they would consult you and say, ‘Well, you want to go to this Spring. You want to visit this bathhouse and eat at this restaurant.’ I guess you could say tourism has really been our number one industry from the very beginning. Little different type of tourism than it is today, but it’s not too different when you consider that people come here to feel alive again.”

You could say that about Ken Riley, who’s on his second pacemaker.

“If I can live here with a smile on my face till I draw my final breath versus crying from the time I drive out of that driveway, I’m okay with maybe dying a year or two earlier,” Riley said. “I don’t want to leave here.”

How could someone love a town that much? Riley says it surprised him too, as he used to live in Chicago.

“My significant other’s uncle was the congressman from Garfield. We would just come down here for family reunions. I fell in love with the little town, but being from Chicago I thought there’s no way I would move to Arkansas.”

When Riley’s significant other became very sick one day, he told him about his plans to move to Arkansas.

“I looked at him over my glass and said, ‘No, we are not moving to Arkansas.’ I came down to get him settled, and I started looking around and thought, ‘What is wrong with me?’ In a very short time, I thought if I could move down here and be sort of retired this would be a real good place for me. Quite honestly, from being on one of the busiest streets in Chicago to being at the end of a dirt road where I have to fill my own potholes, is one of the best decisions of my life.”

Riley says if there was anything that sold him on Eureka Springs, it was their Christmas parade.

“The last thing to come rolling down the hill on Spring Street at the Christmas parade was a giant dreidel. The feeling of everyone is welcome here. Everybody thought I was Mr. Chicago and I would never leave. I didn’t think I would either. Even though I had fallen in love with the town, it was just that one time thinking about giving up a 25-year relationship and looking at it from the perspective of living here. Then it was like, ‘I would be stupid to cancel this.’ God willing in a couple weeks, Harold and I will hit 42 years.”