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OPINION | HISTORY UNDERFOOT: Hiram Whittington left his mark on Hot Springs in 19th century

by Sonny Rhodes, Special to the Democrat-Gazette | March 6, 2023 at 2:36 a.m.
On a knoll near the junction of Whittington, Central and Park avenues in Hot Springs, one can look west and see the two churches, St. Mary of the Springs Catholic Church and First Presyterian Church, built on land donated by Hiram Whittington. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Sonny Rhodes)

Editor’s note: This is part 1 in a two-part series. 

Hiram Whittington was an adventurous soul. Born in Boston in 1805, he came to Arkansas during its Territorial days, first to Little Rock and then to Hot Springs, making an impact that Spa City residents and visitors can appreciate to this day.

Among other things, an avenue, a historic district and park are named in his honor. We'll visit those places directly, but first a little more about this historic figure.

Insights into Whittington's life can be found in "Observations of Arkansas: The 1824-1863 Letters of Hiram Abiff Whittington," compiled by Bobbie Jones McLane, Charles William Cunning and Wendy Bradley Richter, and published in 1997 by the Garland County Historical Society.

On one of two recent trips to Hot Springs, I bought a copy of the book, hereinafter referred to as "Observations," and I was enthralled by his vivid accounts of life in his adopted home state.

Whittington began learning the printing trade in Boston when he was 15. He eventually found his way to New York, where he went to work for a publisher named Alden Spooner. This publisher had trained William Woodruff, who had gone on to establish the Arkansas Gazette. Through this connection, the adventurous Whittington saw an opportunity for life on the wild frontier.

"Woodruff needed a printer, and Whittington longed for adventure in pioneer territory," according to "Observations." The book adds that the young printer headed for the state "with almost tempestuous alacrity. On Christmas Day, 1826, he arrived in Little Rock. ... He was greeted warmly by Woodruff, who invited him to live in the Woodruff residence."

Whittington's letters indicate that the adventure he desired also had a dangerous element.

In an April 21, 1827, letter he writes: "Most of the inhabitants carry dirks or pistols in their pockets, but the greater part of them are too cowardly to use them. Mr. Woodruff, my employer, being an honest and sober man, the majority of the people are his bitter enemies, and he has frequently been threatened. About a month ago, three worthies got into such a fury, owing to a piece published in the Gazette criticizing the Secretary [Secretary of the Territory Robert Crittenden], that they threatened to annihilate all of the printers ... ."

Three months later, July 26, 1827, Whittington writes of even more danger: "Mr. Crittenden ... has threatened to cut Mr. Woodruff's throat for publishing a communication concerning his official conduct, and, what is much worse, has threatened to cut off the nose of every printer in the place and pull down the printing office. ... Mr. Woodruff and one of the young men in the office are sick with the fever, brought on, I believe, by fear."

"Observations" and other sources I have consulted suggest (or maybe I should say strongly recommend) that Whittington's accounts be taken with a grain or three of salt, the letters composed at least partly to entertain his brother Granville and other folks Back East. One notation in "Observations" states: "Although Woodruff's Gazette earned for him many enemies, Whittington exaggerates when he labels the majority of the people 'his bitter enemies.'"

Here's another notation: "Threats aimed specifically at the printers were not reported in the Gazette."

Whatever the case, Crittenden never carried out his threats. Instead, Crittenden filed a $25,000 libel suit against the publisher, but later dropped it. Things could have been worse. Crittenden was not one you wanted to get too crossways with — he mortally wounded political rival Henry Conway in a duel later that year.

Whittington stayed with Woodruff about six years. In a Nov. 20, 1832, letter to his brother, he wrote: "I have quit the printing business, as I was advised to do, it not agreeing with my health."


In what turned out to be a series of fortunate developments, Whittington decided to move to Hot Springs and open the town's first general store in partnership with a Little Rock merchant, John McLain. He lived in and operated the store out of a two-room cabin.

In a March 3, 1833, letter to his brother, he touts the properties of the waters in his new surroundings and writes with prescience about the area's future: "In cases of stubborn and long standing rheumatism the Hot Springs, if properly used, seldom fail to effect a cure. We also have sulphur water which will cure heart complaints, liver complaints, consumptions, etc. I have no doubt but in the course of time these Springs will be as much resorted to as any in the United States."

The same year, 1833, Whittington was appointed to serve as postmaster and as Hot Spring County clerk. (Garland County, of which Hot Springs is the county seat, was not created until 1873.) According to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1838, re-elected in 1840 and elected again in 1850.

Meanwhile, he took advantage of the area's natural resources by opening a resort for ailing folks who wanted to use the springs, the Chalybeate Springs boarding house, about 3 miles north of present-day downtown Hot Springs. (I had to look up "chalybeate," which is defined as "of or denoting natural mineral springs containing iron salts.")

He also opened a novaculite factory to manufacture whetstones and began buying real estate.

Given his ever-expanding business and political endeavors, it might be understandable that he would give up running the general store after 10 years.


A common theme in Hiram's letters to Granville is his yearning for a mate, but he disguises his feelings with sarcasm. In an April 11, 1833, letter, he writes: "Don't you wish you were a free man? Only think of the luxury of living by one-self in a little pig-stye ... . This is the greatest place for an indolent man in the world. There is a beautiful stream running within five yards of my door, and all I have to do is get up in the morning and step to this purling brook and wash my eyes open, and the drudgery of my day's work is done. I only comb my hair once in two weeks."

Whittington's bachelorhood ended when he was 31. In 1836, he went back to Boston, married Mary Burnham, then returned with her to Chalybeate Springs. The couple would have six children, three of whom lived to maturity.

The Whittington family last lived in a home that was dubbed "Magnolia House," situated on a knoll in the northern end of town near what is now the junction of Central, Park and Whittington avenues.

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"Observations" describes it as a "decidedly sumptuous log cabin" that was later incorporated into a larger home with "massive two-story pillars." Years later, the home would be torn down to make way for an annex for the Majestic Hotel. The hotel burned in 2014 and was later demolished.

Mary Whittington died April 7, 1851. Hiram lived out his days as a widower, dying May 5, 1890. They are buried in Hollywood Cemetery in central Hot Springs.


Late in his life, Whittington donated property to two churches, St. Mary of the Springs Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church. The churches are a short distance to the southwest of where the Magnolia House stood. On a small triangle of land in front of St. Mary's parish hall and office, fittingly beneath the boughs of a large magnolia, stands a granite marker that honors Whittington. It was placed there in 1992 by the Garland County Historical Society and Whittington's descendants with support from the city of Hot Springs and the Historic District that bears his name.

To the west, starting in the 300 block of Whittington Avenue, is the Whittington Park Historic District. Situated between West Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain, the district includes historic houses and a park named in the pioneer's honor. The park is roughly a block wide and about a half-mile long. It has many trees, including magnolias for some year-round greenery, bordered by a nice walking path.

Whittington Creek runs through the park from west to east, beside which are places to sit, listen to the purling brook and try to imagine what this place looked like back in Hiram's day.

On March 13 we'll explore more about that avenue and Hiram Whittington's legacy.

Sonny Rhodes is a mostly retired journalism professor who likes to walk and visit historic places.

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