THE RISE AND FALL OF MINERAL SPRINGS
JOHN S. LLEWELLYN, M.D.
In preparing this essay material was gathered from many sources: The Louisville Public Library, Filson Club Library, Public Library of Floyd County and New Albany, Indiana, Public Library of Salem, Indiana, and the Library of the University of Louisville School of Medicine. I have relied heavily on Richard Haupt’s thesis, History of French Lick Springs Hotel (Indiana University 1953) and The Story of West Baden Springs Hotel by John W. O’Malley, S.J. in the Indiana Magazine of History 54: 365, 1958. Valued assists have come from my guests tonight, Doctors Dowden & Bogardus, and from Miss Elsa Strassweg of New Albany and Earl and Lois Heise of Orleans, Indiana.
According to official geological surveys there are 8826 mineral springs in the United States today. Wisconsin leads with 2244 and Texas, unaccustomed to other than prime positions prior to 1960, ranks second. In the great state of Texas, my interest in mineral springs first developed. It was amazing and somewhat puzzling to see in these small resort towns the several large, luxurious well-filled hotels, row after row of bathhouses, and an unusual number of physicians and clinics all out of proportion to civic pursuits other than health. The stories of these resorts and the people in attendance were equally amazing and even more fascinating. Cleveland Amory, a social historian, successfully capitalized on these stories in his 1948 publication, The Last Resorts. My interest in mineral springs was rekindled this last fall when, in answer to my question about the coming of my turn* here, then Secretary, Charlie Smith answered, “February 10, 1970.” For those of you who wish to determine the date of your next turn without questioning our busy secretary, **count four years and nine months from your last Innominate effort.
Mineral spring health resorts were mentioned in Greek Mythology wherein many springs were supposed to have miraculous healing powers and from myth to rational use, the cult of Asclepius in the Fifth century B.C. became a national group to sponsor over 200 health resorts in the Greek empire, Epidaurus in the Peloponnesus, Cos, Corinth and Pergamum. The Romans adopted the Grecian gods of springs and spread the use of baths throughout Europe. Mayan Indians on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and in Guatemala used thermal springs therapeutically as early as 500 B.C. Miraculous cures with water are recorded in the Bible. Baden, a famous spa in Switzerland discovered in 61 B.C. has a record of over 2000 years continuous service.
In 1553, Thomas Giunta, of a publishing firm in Venice, published De Balneis (On Baths), which was a large volume of approximately 1000 pages containing practically all balneological literature from Hippocrates to the writers of the time. The first book published in this country on the uses of mineral water was in 1725, a reprint of a British work. Benjamin Rush read a long paper in 1773 on “Experiments and Observations on the Mineral Waters of Philadelphia, Abington, and Bristol, Pennsylvania. The first distinctly American work on mineral spring health resorts was by Doctor John Bell* in 1831, not from Hopkinsville nor Louisville.
Later in the 1800’s Daniel Drake visited most of the Kentucky mineral springs of which there were about one hundred and twenty five. One of the more popular of these advertised the health giving qualities of the water and the additional advantage “to mix and mingle with the best society in the State.” Drake accorded Graham Springs at Harrodsburg first place and noted the waters to be effective in cases of dyspepsia and in urinary affections. This establishment popular in 1835 was owned and operated by Colonel Christopher Columbus Graham. Board, lodging and medical attention was $10 per week, but the rate was reduced for those who remained longer! Drake spent a week at Olympian Springs in Bath County, but was not impressed as he wrote, “I saw no invalids in a rapid state of recovery nor heard any speak with applause.”
In 1890, Simon Baruch, whose name has been mentioned in discussions at this Society previously, the father of more famous Bernard, wrote extensively about and sponsored hydrotherapy as an important part of physical therapy. He was Professor of Hydrotherapy, College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University, and wrote, An Epitome of Hydrotherapy for Physicians, Architects, and Nurses. He worked with Prof. Wilhelm W. Winternitz (1834-1912), the man who was elevating hydrotherapy to a scientific basis as Director of the Hydrotherapeutic Institute at the University in Vienna. A similar institute for Balneological Research was established at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in honor of Doctor Baruch.
William Thornburg in a report published by the Indiana Academy of Science in 1940, noted the rise and fall of the Indiana health resorts and attributed their decline to (1) overly optimistic claims made for the waters, (2) the coming of the automobile, (3) the improvement in the quality of physicians and (4) improvement in the purity of public water supply.* The rise and fall of the Indiana spas is paralleled by those in the Eastern U.S., many like the French Lick Sheraton carry on for one reason or another but none are relying on the mineral springs therapeutic benefits as the main attraction at all. A recent visit to French Lick** and West Baden revealed that mineral water baths are available at French Lick but the bathhouse was closed when I attempted a visit. The Pluto Well Pavilion was deserted and I saw no visitor go there. The spring flows vigorously, the odor thereabouts remains offensive, but a dipper and a neat unopened package of paper cups were there just in case. Pluto Water is still available throughout the country and can be ordered locally. It is listed in the Pharmaceutical Catalogue for 1970, and may be had in three different bottle sizes. The springs at West Baden are used not at all and the posh springhouses of yesteryear are boarded up and used for storage.
Also in Indiana there were other mineral spring health resorts with interesting history. The Jeffersonville Springs on 11th Street north of the spring, a resort of 13 acres popular in the early 1800’s is mentioned by Doctor H. McMurtrie in his Sketches of Louisville and Its Environs 1819: “About a mile from town are several valuable springs, mineralized by sulfur and iron, where a large and commodious building has lately been erected, by the proprietor, for the reception of those who seek relief from physical indisposition, their own thoughts, or the disagreeable atmosphere of cities during the summer season; in a word, he is preparing it for a fashionable watering place to which there is nothing objectionable but its proximity to Louisville... It is however, one of the most powerful natural chalybeate waters I have ever seen or tasted, and will, no doubt, prove very serviceable in many complaints, particularly in that debility attended with profusely cold sweats which are constantly experienced by the convalescent victims of a bilious fever so common to the inhabitants of this neighborhood.”
The land of this resort was owned by a Swiss named, John Fishli, who discovered the springs and their wonderful properties. He developed the area, called it Paradise Gardens, and served his patrons wine made from grapes of the vines he imported from his native land. In 1820, the manager, a Mr. Gutshell, who was an entertainer and promoter, installed recreational facilities and devices such as faro and poker. People came from all over the South by boat and stagecoach and after 1849, by railroad. Guests included Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and Henry Marshall.
From the 1833 edition of the Indiana Gazeteer there was this written about French Lick and the mineral springs there: “The water contains a large portion of some other substance than salt, but has not been sufficiently analyzed to determine precisely its ingredients. It is of a bluish color and emits a very strong odor, and is exceedingly loathsome.”
In 1838, David Dale Owen, M.D., State Geologist for Indiana wrote of French Lick: “those who reside in the immediate neighborhood of this spring, and under the influence of this gas during the months of July and August are invariably attacked with fever and ague, while those living on higher ground and out of the influence of this atmosphere of sulphuretted hydrogen, remain quite healthy.”
On the positive side, however, in 1869, Joseph G. Rogers, a graduate in Medicine from Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, made the first extensive analysis on the mineral waters at French Lick. He named the largest spring “Pluto’s well” and gave the resort a great boost when he reported the effectiveness of the water in curing and relieving disease in an article published in the Western Journal of Medicine, November issue.
Robert Hessler, M.D., Instructor in Pathology, Medical College of Indiana and Pathologist to Indianapolis City Hospital, in a 68 page treatise on The Medicinal Properties and Uses of Indiana Mineral Waters, 1902, wrote, “we may safely say that none of them adds anything to the body which may not as well be administered at home, and perhaps in a more palatable or agreeable form.”
Many things have been said and written about the mineral waters of health resorts whether taken internally, sprayed on hot or cold, used as a bath with or without mud, or employed as a cleansing irrigational, or retention enema. One advertising brochure of such a health resort, 19 pages in length, states that the material presented is but a concise review of many health benefits available and devotes less than one-fourth of one page to contra-indications of mineral water usage. In the same publication I was most impressed with this rather profound pronouncement: “It is sufficient to say that the action of the waters has been found most beneficial in those cases where benefit could be reasonably expected.”
Doctor Crook in his 1890 book “The Mineral Waters of the U.S. and Their Therapeutic Uses” has this to say: “There exists among medical practitioners in the U.S. a wide-spread skepticism regarding the medicinal value of mineral waters. This incredulity is no doubt based, to a considerable extent, upon a somewhat justifiable prejudice; but may it not be due is a much greater degree, to a want of correct information? We are all acquainted with the mineral spring advertising circular. It comes to us clothed in respectable, even elegant dress, but it too frequently portrays the virtues of the alleged healing fluid, which it represents in a language of absurd hyperbole. When the intelligent practitioner reads that certain water is possibly curative in an imposing list of diseases, as set forth in diverse pages of testimonials from renovated statesmen, restored clergymen, and rejuvenated old ladies, and then learn from the analysis that it contains 2 or 3 grains of lime salts to the gallon, with the remaining ingredients requiring perhaps a third or fourth decimal figure to express, he can hardly be blamed for tossing the circular into his waste-basket, with an abjuration upon quacks generally and mineral spring quacks in particular; yet the conservative physician will find a safe and dignified position between that of the pretentious advertisement which claims everything and that of the medical skeptic who will believe nothing.”
In Gould and Pyle’s Cyclopedia of Medicine and Surgery, a popular medical reference book early this century, it was stated “An undue value is placed by the laity and interested proprietors upon the medicinal value of mineral waters. The benefit in most instances from them is due to the change in climate and scene, freedom from business and home cares and worry, regulation of life and diet, drinking water in quantity and in many instances the substitution of water for alcoholic beverages. Those springs are farthest removed from the patients residence are, as a rule, of the most value to him, as similar invalids whose homes are often not benefited by its waters.”
And on other pages of the same Cyclopedia: “The principal affections in which the mineral waters are esteemed are the following: cirrhosis of the liver, dyspepsia, gout, rheumatism, uricoacidemia, lithiasis, hepatic diabetes, constipation, strumous diathesis disorders, obesity, plethora of the pelvic organs, hypochondriasis, skin diseases, phthisis, constitutional syphilis, metallic poisoning, etc.”
John A. Lane, a peddler of patient medicines and occasionally listed as a physician, was responsible for the founding and early growth of the West Baden Springs. He had knowledge of the profit in watering places and the potential value of mineral springs as a result of his leasing and operating the French Lick properties from 1846-54. He purchased the West Baden Springs in 1850 and successfully operated the resort until 1888. He sold his interest to Colonel Lee Wiley Sinclair of Salem-Colonel because he served 60 days as a private in the G.A.R. Sinclair enlarged and improved the resort area and in 1894 West Baden Springs could accommodate 600-700 guests. The occupancy rate was high, business flourished and in 1895, he constructed a two story covered bicycle and pony track that was oval in shape and 1/3 of a mile in length. In the center was a baseball diamond, later used by major league baseball teams in spring training exercises. The frame hotel shown in the background of a file photo-copy* burned to the ground during the night of June 14, 1901, but Sinclair, depressed and despondent about his loss, vowed to be in a new hotel before the end of a year - he was indeed:
The hotel he built was so outstanding and so unusual it was called the eighth wonder of the world. The building, still standing and still in use today, is a circular structure of brick and stucco designed with four walls concentrically arranged around an inner court 200 feet in diameter and 13.5 feet high. The space between the two outermost and two innermost walls was divided into rooms with a circular hallway between the second and third concentric wall. The inner rooms overlooked the atrium or Pompeian Court which is covered by a dome 210 feet in diameter – the largest unsupported dome in existence.*
With the construction of this impressive edifice West Baden became famous nationally and internationally and was the fashionable place for the great and near great. Over the Springs designated by odd numbers were constructed ornate spring houses that were surrounded by formal gardens. The water was called sprudel and characterized by a dwarf-imp – and like the imp the water was said to be “always active.” General John J. Pershing visited West Baden and so did Al Capone, he in his long Lincoln automobile with fenders of steel, bullet proof glass, and combination locks on each door. James J.Corbett trained for the Corbett-Sharkey fight here and it was publicized widely that he followed faithfully the usual spring’s customs in the use of mineral water. Thomas J. Sharkey and John L. Sullivan were frequent visitors and the West Baden compound was the spring training quarters for major league clubs such as the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Chancey W. Dowden, M.D., pioneer Internist in this area and first Governor of the American College of Physicians for Kentucky went to West Baden in 1905 at the age of 25, following his graduation from the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He was Chief of the Hospital and House Physician until 1915 when he returned to Louisville to join the offices of Doctors Louis Frank and Barnett Owen. A son, Doctor Charles William Dowden, my quest tonight, was born at West Baden in 1909.
Colonel Sinclair died in 1916 and his heirs sold the West Baden Springs Hotel and the surrounding 600 acres to Charles Edward Ballard, a local boy who had made good financially in the gambling casino at French Lick and in the Hagenback-Wallace and other circuses that he owned. He popularized gambling at the hotel and had the circus, whose winter quarters were there, give performances in the Pompeian Court. Here also were lavish banquets served to as many as 2000 guests in an evening.
The U.S. Army rented the properties in 1918 and established, after many expensive alterations, an 800 bed hospital:* U.S. Military General Hospital #35 designed to receive, treat and rehabilitate servicemen injured in France. The hospital was opened September 28, 1918, functioned for slightly more than seven months and was returned to its owners.
Following the depression of 1929, West Baden’s popularity waned rapidly, it was closed in 1932 after several unprofitable seasons, and in 1934, Ballard gave all of West Baden properties to the Society of Jesus for a Jesuit Seminary, West Baden College. TIME Magazine is reporting the gift hinted that the Catholics had hoodwinked Ballard into the gift and Will Rogers in his syndicated column July 22, 1934, added “and he (meaning Ballard the donor) wasn’t even a Catholic.”
The Jesuits abandoned the College in 1965 and it was offered for sale on the public market. By some means unknown to me, it became the property of Mr. and Mrs. Macauley Whiting who gave it to Northwood College, a school of business management that is in operation today.
The rise and fall of French Lick has not paralleled West Baden; it was started earlier and unlike West Baden is still functioning as a resort hotel today. International Telephone and Telegraph, Inc., current owners of the Sheraton Hotel chain has recently allocated 8 million dollars for hotel renovations.
The mineral springs at French Lick were discovered by the Buffalo prior to 1792. They stopped at French Lick in their migrations along the Buffalo Trace that led from Vincennes, Indiana on the Wabash to the Falls of the Ohio. John Heckenwelder noted as many as 500 buffalo at the Lick at one time during the summer months. General George Rogers Clark with 1000 Kentucky Militia-men stopped at French Lick in the summer of 1786. In the recordings of this journey, Clark was the first to call this area French Lick and it is possible that he named it after a spot of land with the same name owned by him on the Cumberland River in Tennessee.
In 1812, the U.S. Rangers patrolling frontier areas in Indiana built a blockhouse at French Lick. In 1828, Doctor William A. Bowles (born in Maryland in 1799), came to Paoli, Indiana to practice medicine. Bowles who was responsible for the early growth and development of French Lick as a health resort was 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed over 200 pounds, had a pleasant smile and a pleasing voice. It was said that he had a personality marked with self-confidence and intelligence. Bowles’ father, Thomas C. (a druggist) had purchased the spring valley lands for his son in 1833 and by 1844 William had built a narrow-building hotel 80-100 feet long and three stories high. Bowles was a success in his mineral spring hotel ventures, he was apparently a capable physician with a large practice, he had profitable experiences in real estate and was even popular as a politician and publisher, but he fared less well on the marital scene and on military expeditions. He was thrice married and twice divorced and during the war with Mexico, in which he served as a Colonel with Indiana troops, he led what was referred to as a shameful and untimely retreat. A court of inquiry avoided a court martial but stated that “Bowles did manifest want of capacity and of judgment as a commander.”
In 1851, he was back in the practice of medicine and began selling French Lick mineral water by the barrel. Business and practice were vigorous and rewarding and his brother Lewis who attended lectures at the University of Louisville School of Medicine joined him in his practice at French Lick. In 1855, he began advertising widely and the benefits of the waters “good for the lame, infirm and those suffering from chronic ailments.” Bowles was a promoter and in 1858, he promoted himself a great amount of trouble. He was charged, found guilty and fined for bringing seven Negroes into Indiana as slaves.
During 1860-64, Bowles built a bathhouse for treatment of invalids and started bottling French Lick mineral water for use away from the springs. Together with Doctor Sam Ryan who had studied medicine in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, he manufactured and sold a French Lick Pill* supposedly “good for what ails you.” Pregnancy was not mentioned. In 1864, Bowles, a Southern sympathizer, was accused of enlisting men for the Confederate Army, hiding escaped Confederate prisoners, and plotting against the government. He was tried and sentenced to death, but in May 1865, Andrew Jackson postponed the execution and in April 1866, he was freed because the Supreme Court ruled that the military court had no right to make or hear his trial. He slipped into obscurity and died in 1873 (March 28).
The properties passed through many hands after Bowles’ death - even a group of Louisville businessmen gained control in 1888. Business was good and, to a degree, the result of an article in The Western Journal of Medicine by Dr. Joseph Rogers who recommended the resort to the medical men of the nation.
Thomas Taggart, Indianapolis hotel owner, politician, 3 times mayor and once Senator from Indiana purchased the French Lick properties and promoted the health resort vigorously far and wide. French Lick was the subject of a special meeting of the Indiana State Medical Society in 1903. Doctor George Kahlo reported on the examination of 150 patients at French Lick where the waters had aided gastric function, improved appetite, chronic gastritis, gout, lithemia, alcoholism, hepatic congestion, early states of diabetes, cirrhosis, cystitis, urethral inflammation and rheumatism. Doctor Kahlo stated in the Transactions of Indiana State Medical Society (54:236-243, 1903) that medical men had no agents that could take the place of mineral water.
In 1914, a deluxe building for bottling the mineral springs water (Pluto Water) was completed. Because of the contained gasses, the waters were discolored and a sediment formed when bottled. To avoid this, the mineral spring water was pumped to the fifth floor of the building where it was boiled by steam coils until the gasses were thrown off. At that time Epsom and Glauber salts shipped into French Lick by the railroad carload were added. By 1919, over 450 carloads of Pluto Water were shipped out annually over the entire United States and annual sales exceeded 1¼ million dollars.
French Lick lost its driving force in March 1929, when Thomas Taggart died. The stock market crash in October of the same year created additional problems and there were many gray days ahead. The hotel was patronized primarily by those who came to gamble at the Casino across the street from the Springs but that closed on Derby Eve, 1949. Like old soldiers who never die but become Chairmen of the Board of large corporations, like old physicians who never retire but become more enchanted with the past than the future, some mineral spring resort hotels carry on, catering to the convention crowds during the week and to family and club parties on the weekends. The mineral waters are there, neglected and even avoided, all medical relics.
*There are 35 active members of the Innominate Society for the Study of Medical History and each takes his turn preparing the program and acting as host. Preparing the program entails giving an essay on some aspect of medical history and acting as host entails paying the bill for the refreshments served before dinner.
**This was in reference to the Society Secretary, Hoyt Gardner, M.D., whose busy career had been publicized in the Louisville Times pictorially on Saturday, 7 February 1970. At this juncture the essayist presented Doctor Gardner an extra copy of his write-up in the newspaper.
*A member of our group, John Bell, M.D., a psychiatrist, was reared in Hopkinsville and practices in Louisville.
*Here the essayist presented a graph from the INDIANA ACADEMY OF SCIENCE 50:158, 1940.
*Such a brochure was shown along with other resort advertisements.
*PICTURES, PHOTOCOPIES AND OLD NEWSPAPER CLIIPINGS WERE PASSED AMONG THE MEMBERS AND THEIR GUESTS.
*To impress members with the immensity of this court, the essayist presented drawings and formulae proving geometrically that the Pendennis Club Building would fit easily into the Court with space to spare at the sides and top. The drawing and formulae were prepared by a neighbor and friend of the essayist, Carl Ulrich.
*The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, Volume V, Military Hospitals in the United States, Government Printing Office, 1923
*Facetious reference to the anovulatory contraceptive medication so popular currently.
GUESTS AT THE MEETING:
DOCTOR CARL A. BOGARDUS, AUSTIN, INDIANA
DOCTOR CHARLES WILLIAM DOWDEN, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY
DOCTOR THOMAS CAMPBELL, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY