Florida’s Miraculous Spring Waters

By Ted Hunt

Medical practices during most of the 1800s relied on traditional treatments such as bloodletting, blistering, high doses of mineral poisons and vomiting. One or more of these techniques would hopefully restore the body’s natural balance, and the patient would be cured from a variety of illnesses. Bloodletting is slicing open a vein, then applying a cup to draw blood containing harmful bacteria out of the body. Blistering is placing hot plaster onto the skin to raise blisters, then drain the pus which contains harmful bacteria. Mineral poisons were consumed to encourage diarrhea and vomiting to purge the system of bacteria. Unfortunately, these regimens resulted in high rates of death. Go figure.

By the mid to late 1800s the health industry realized these standard treatments were not working and began looking for alternative cures. Doctors began exploring an ancient form of therapeutic medicine — natural sulfuric mineral springs. The practice recommended bathing in and drinking spring water. The Victorian era (1837-1901) referred to the practice as “taking the waters.” It was thought that the water had healing properties that could cure everything from rheumatism to skin problems and more deadly diseases such as tuberculosis. TB, often called consumption, was common at the time. To accommodate the demand, New York’s Saratoga Springs and the region of western Virginia with sulfur-mineral springs began building resorts to offer relief to invalids. Health spa resorts with hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues emerged. Sick people flocked to soak and drink the sulfur spring waters.

Florida was already a winter destination for residents of the North seeking a refuge from the bitter cold. Suddenly, it had gained a reputation as a healthy getaway for its plentiful natural mineral springs with high concentrations of sulfur. Perhaps the embedded myth of Ponce de Leon seeking the elusive Fountain of Youth in Florida in the 1500s helped fuel the interest. During the mid to late 1800s, Florida entrepreneurs, looking to take advantage of the “taking of the waters,” built resorts with hotels and bathhouses around many sulfur springs. They heavily promoted the unique healing qualities of their resort’s waters in newspapers, magazines and travel brochures across the North and Midwest. They even bottled and shipped the spring water to the masses. “Taking the waters” created fortunes for many.

By the late 1800s more than two dozen Florida health resorts played host to thousands of invalids from the North seeking the therapeutic waters. Most resorts were in northern Florida. The sick came by ship and train, to the major ports in Florida. From there, riverboats, ferries, trollies and stagecoaches would transport them to the various health resorts built around the sulfur miracle springs. Entire towns were developed to support the industry. Among the most successful resorts were these.

 

White Sulfur Springs Health Resort on the Suwannee River

The resort’s first hotel and bath house were built next to the Suwannee River sulfur spring in the mid-1800s. They called it the Fountain of Health. It was marketed as a cure-all health spa. Guests arrived by ferry on the Suwannee River or stagecoach from Tallassee and Jacksonville, seeking treatment for a host of ailments. By 1900 the town of White Springs had 14 hotels and several boarding houses to meet the hordes of tourists seeking cures. In 1908 the original bath house was rebuilt using coquina shells mixed with cement. Treatment rooms and dressing rooms were added and even a concession stand. Soon, four balcony levels were built surrounding the spring. Popularity of the resort declined in the 1930s, and the final blow came when the spring dried up in 1990. Visitors to the area today can view the ruins of the old coquina bathhouse, which still stands as a reminder of White Springs’ days as Florida’s first tourist attraction, whose famous visitors included Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford.  

 

Green Cove Springs Health Resort on the St. Johns River

Green Cove Springs, 30 miles south of Jacksonville, was a fashionable spa area in the late 1870-1890s. It was dubbed the Saratoga (New York) of the South. Advertisements in the North encouraged the sick to come down and enjoy the warm climate, hydrotherapy and the sulfur mineral springs or what the locals called “the Boil.”

The ads worked, as steamers from Savannah, Charleston and Jacksonville traveled the St. Johns River to the resorts down river. Band concerts were held daily during winter months to greet the guests. Bottled spring water was passed out as they departed the ships. Trollies and carriages were available to take passengers to their hotels or guest houses. Over the years thousands came to enjoy the miraculous healing power of the mineral waters. President Grover Cleveland came annually.

The grandest hotel was the Clarendon House. Built in 1871, it was the largest, most posh and successful of the town’s hotels. It had broad verandas overlooking the spring, accommodated 200 guests, and had a bowling alley and a billiards saloon. Each winter, the Clarendon entertained hundreds of Northern tourists trading freezing rain and snow for the balmy Florida climate and its healing springs. The town of Green Cove Springs flourished and depended heavily on the annual infusion of cash and jobs.

In April of 1900, the Clarendon burned to the ground with the exception of the detached guest house, now home to a bed and breakfast. With the coming of the railroads and the development of resorts farther south, Green Cove Springs lost most of its out-of-state patronage. Green Cove Springs had seen its heyday.

 

Gone but not forgotten

The interest in mineral springs has continued well into today. However, with the advent of modern medicine and the rise of pharmaceuticals, the popularity of natural cures has waned. Many alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, are becoming more popular as people seek alternatives to pharmaceuticals. Although Florida spring resorts catering to the sick has declined over the decades, a few still continue to provide therapeutic services to those in need. Also, there are several companies bottling Florida spring water, which is available everywhere. While none of the health claims of “taking the waters” were ever proven, visitors still flock to enjoy the waters. As they say, “a soak a day hopefully keeps the doc away.”

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