Water as A Healing Source, In search of miracle cures
From ancient times, water has been imbued
with almost magical curative powers.
Taking the waters in Florida
After the Civil War, visitors flocked to the state, drawn by a promise of the healing powers of the springs and the sea.
By Rick Kilby
Beer baron Charles D. Kaier had certainly prospered in America after he immigrated from Germany. He fought for his new country during the Civil War and, by 1893, owned a thriving brewery in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. But despite his success, Kaier lacked what philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “first wealth” — his health. And so, like Emerson, Kaier would travel to Florida in an effort to recover from a lung-related illness. He arrived in St. Augustine on February 2, 1893, some 66 years after an ailing Emerson strolled the white sand beaches near the ancient city, occupying himself by “hitting a green orange with a stick.”
Kaier and Emerson were far from unique. John Lee Williams, an influential early settler who moved to Florida in 1820 for his health, declared in 1837 that “invalids from every part of the United States” wintered in St. Augustine; the old city was especially “celebrated for restoring tone to the system” of tuberculosis patients, he wrote. After the Civil War, invalids or those limited by illness in northern states learned about Florida’s balmy weather and salubrious waters through a variety of travel accounts that appeared in guidebooks, newspaper travelogues, and popular illustrated magazines such as Harper’s and Scribner’s. Celebrated writers such as Sidney Lanier and Harriet Beecher Stowe published favorable accounts of their experiences in the state, spreading the gospel of Florida’s healthfulness to an even larger audience. Readers soaked up descriptions of an exotic peninsula surrounded by saltwater and dotted with a thousand freshwater springs, many imbued with minerals.
Florida was thus well suited to become a haven for those who embraced the popular belief in the curative power of water. Several politicians even suggested that the entire state could become a national sanitarium, according to Florida historian Gary Mormino.
Many visitors during the Golden Age of Bathing after the Civil War were consumptives — sufferers of tuberculosis — who sought relief from harsh northern winters. Medical advice at the time maintained that fresh air and outdoor activity could offer a reprieve from the disease nicknamed the “white death.” John Lee Williams had already observed that sea bathing restored more Florida visitors to health “than any other prescription” and also described the state’s mineral springs as “highly medical,” foreshadowing the growth in medical tourism that would follow.
Taking the waters in Florida
The tradition of soaking in and drinking water from mineral springs has ancient origins — the Greeks erected temples around springs, and the Romans constructed enormous bath complexes throughout their expansive empire. “Balneotherapy,” from the Latin word balneum meaning “bath,” is still practiced at health spas all over the world. During the Victorian era, the practice of “taking the waters” — the more commonly used term — came into vogue in this country at places including Saratoga Springs, New York, and Warm Springs, Virginia. As tourism developed in Florida in the late 19th century, perhaps as many as two dozen resorts were built at mineral springs, including a few that were among the grandest accommodations the state had to offer.
Florida’s spa era began after the upheaval of the Civil War, when the state’s warm climate lured wealthy Northern visitors, both healthy and infirm, to winter in what was hailed as the “Italy of America.” Many entered the state through Jacksonville, which was well positioned to serve as a hub for travel farther south into Florida. Riverboats operated from the city’s docks, embarking on trips up the St. Johns, which became a critical artery for shuttling visitors to health spas at springs along the river. Green Cove Springs, about 30 miles south of Jacksonville, was especially popular. Dubbed the “Saratoga of the South,” it turns up in virtually all travel accounts about Florida written after the war. Harriet Beecher Stowe described a “peculiar feeling of refreshment and exhilaration” when taking the waters at Green Cove, while Sidney Lanier, writing a travel guide for a railroad, focused on the quality of the accommodations. The grandest hotel there, the Clarendon House, boasted broad verandas overlooking the spring, a bowling alley, and a “billiards saloon” and could accommodate 200 guests at $4 per night in the late 1870s. Today, the town that grew up around the spring remains the seat of Clay County, but little remains from Florida’s era of Gilded Age bathing except one of the Clarendon’s detached guest residences, now home to a bed and breakfast.
Steamboats also carried passengers to other St. Johns River resorts built near springs, including Magnolia Springs, just a short walk from Green Cove, and the Brock House at Enterprise, near the jade-hued waters of Green Springs in Volusia County. Zachary Taylor’s cousin Cornelius built an early hotel near its viridescent waters in the 1840s — one of the first erected near a mineral spring.
Other spring resorts were reliant on railroads rather than steamboats to transport guests to their locations. Railroad travel to Florida expanded in the 1880s and made large portions of the state’s interior more accessible to tourists. Charles Kaier, on his quest for healing in Florida, traveled by train twice to the vast complex at Suwannee Springs on the Suwannee River. Although his wife complained of boredom and loneliness in a letter describing their journey, the spring water seemed to bring Kaier relief. Developed in 1883 by hoteliers George and Levi Scoville, the Suwannee Springs resort was fairly self-contained, but nearby White Springs was practically a boom town, offering a variety of recreational options from theater to roller skating in order to prevent pleasure-seeking tourists from suffering ennui.
White Spring’s four-story spring house, constructed by Confederate widow Minnie Mosher Jackson and her physician brother, was perhaps the most significant structure developed for bathing at any Florida spring. Topped with a decorative tower, the building included a concession area, clinic, dressing rooms, and an elevator. Like Green Cove Springs, the town of White Springs developed around the spa — guests could enjoy the theater, go bowling, or even try roller skating.
Tuberculosis was just one of the ailments for which tourist-invalids sought relief, and at least two destinations offered visitors a choice of springs to help heal specific afflictions. At Panacea Springs in Wakulla County, owner T.H. Hall produced a brochure for the 1902 season proclaiming that the site’s 25 springs could bring relief for kidney ailments, liver disorders, and digestive issues, all while creating a “rapid improvement in general health.” Safety Harbor’s Espiritu Santo Springs on Old Tampa Bay also offered a spring for kidney problems as well as springs for skin diseases, liver disorders, and stomach troubles. A 1910 pamphlet claimed that this group of mineral springs, “with their most efficacious healing properties,” could hardly be equaled for “quantity and quality by any other mineral waters in the United States.” The pamphlet included 26 pages of testimonials from individuals who claimed to have been cured of everything from paralysis to “nervous prostration.”
One of the Espiritu Santo Springs was dedicated to quenching the growing thirst for bottled mineral water from Florida. As the health-giving reputation of the state’s spring waters grew, so did demand, and soon bottles were shipped nationwide, as they still are today. An advertisement for the spa in Safety Harbor credits the water’s power to a “beneficent Creator” who placed in “chosen spots over this earth certain springs with healing waters to cure the ails of man and beast.” A legend linked the springs’ history to a U.S. soldier who learned about the water from a Seminole imprisoned during the Second Seminole War. Similar stories flourished about other springs, where promoters claimed that Native Americans had relied on the water’s healing properties long before its “discovery” by people of European descent.
Florida’s spa era began after the upheaval of the Civil War, when the state’s warm climate lured wealthy Northern visitors, both healthy and infirm, to winter in what was hailed as the “Italy of America.”
Sea bathing to sanitariums
Nineteenth-century visitors to Florida sought healing in sea water as well as in spring water. In his 1873 travel guide for consumptives, Going South for Winter, Dr. Robert F. Speir wrote that, “of all health-preserving exercises, sea water bathing is best.” Sea or surf bathing for health purposes was an outgrowth of the age-old practice of taking the waters at mineral springs, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, seaside resorts became popular across Europe.
In Pensacola, sea bathing was as regular a habit as “supper in the evening,” John Lee Williams asserted in 1837, eight years before Florida was granted statehood. In East Florida, sea bathing was not as common but was “equally beneficial to health,” Williams noted. General Francis E. Spinner, former Treasurer of the United States, retired to a tent on Pablo Beach near Jacksonville in 1895, claiming the water and healthful breezes kept his system in “perfect order.”
But the level of elegance at seaside resorts improved significantly after Standard Oil cofounder Henry Flagler began constructing palatial hotels along the peninsula’s Atlantic Coast.
Like Emerson and Kaier, Flagler first came to Florida for health reasons, following a doctor’s advice about the best care for his consumptive wife, Mary. Ultimately Mary succumbed to her ailments, but Flagler remarried and returned to the state, honeymooning in St. Augustine. As a guest of the San Marco Hotel, he observed that the upscale resort catered to high-end guests equivalent to the “class of society one meets at the great watering places of Europe,” and he soon set about creating his own empire of properties, starting with St. Augustine’s magnificent Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888 and its companion, the Hotel Alcazar.
Flagler’s resorts, which extended from Jacksonville Beach to Key West, catered to the whims of a well-heeled clientele rather than to invalids, but they actively promoted the popularity of healthful sea bathing to visitors. “The waters of this coast are celebrated for their tonic and health-giving properties,” declared a brochure for the Hotel Continental in Atlantic Beach, Flagler’s northernmost hotel. In addition to sea bathing, Flagler’s resorts in Palm Beach and Miami also offered saltwater bathing pools for those “too timid to tempt Old Neptune’s grasp” by bathing in the surf. These facilities offered swimming instruction, and eventually recreational swimming replaced the practice of sea bathing, in which timid bathers ventured into the surf while tightly holding a safety line.
Flagler’s Hotel Alcazar in St. Augustine, built in 1889, boasted the most elaborate bathing facilities by far, including what was advertised as the world’s largest indoor pool — 120 feet long by 50 feet wide, surrounded by an observation gallery and dance floors. A brochure for the hotel’s Alcazar Baths described what were state-of-the-art hydrotherapy treatments in the Gilded Age. Water could be applied as a healing agent in any form, “solid, fluid, or vapor, externally or internally,” through treatments that included everything from traditional Russian and Turkish baths to vapor cabinets and “hydrotherapeutic apparatus” that directed jets of water at a patient’s body. Today, the hotel is the home of the Lightner Museum, and its famous swimming pool hosts diners at the Café Alcazar.
For a brief time in the early 20th century, hydrotherapy was the most commonplace form of taking the waters, and sanitariums offering water cures were established around the state. A branch of Michigan’s famed Battle Creek Sanitarium opened in a former Miami Springs hotel built by famed aviator Glenn Curtiss. The facility was owned by the eccentric Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who believed that Florida’s population could be the healthiest and the “longest lived people in the world.” While the state may not be the Fountain of Youth, a steady stream of visitors still flows to Florida’s springs, beaches, and spas every year in search of restoration and rejuvenation. Today the tourism industry is an essential component in the state’s economy, but few tourists realize that they are following in the footsteps of medical tourists who sought a different kind of magic in Florida.
Florida’s healing waters today
Achaeological vestiges of Florida’s Golden Age of Bathing can be found at Suwannee, White, Hampton, and Panacea springs in North Florida, where remnants of pool structures remain more than a century after taking the waters fell out of fashion. For a taste of what health-seekers experienced during that era, Florida still offers several options. The still-popular spring-fed pool at Green Cove Springs is part of a remodeled city park that opened in 2017 for recreational swimming from May through September. Warm Mineral Springs in North Port, near Venice, Florida, attracts an international clientele who come to bathe in the mineral-laced waters, seven days a week. The privately owned Safety Harbor Spa and Resort in Pinellas County utilizes the waters of Espiritu Santo Springs in its swimming pools and whirlpools and has a complete menu of contemporary spa experiences.
Architectural survivors from this era include several of Flagler’s properties, some of which have been lovingly restored, such as the grand Hotel Ponce de Leon, now home to Flagler College in St. Augustine. To get a glimpse into the world of hydrotherapy, one can visit the Lightner Museum in the former Hotel Alcazar across the street, where much of the original equipment used in the Alcazar Baths is on display. And you can even get a drink at the bottom of the Alcazar pool, where a café now operates in the deep end.
Author/designer Rick Kilby’s first book, Finding the Fountain of Youth: Ponce de León and Florida’s Magical Waters, earned a medal at the Florida Book Awards in 2014. His latest book, Florida’s Healing Waters, was published by the University Press of Florida in the Fall of 2020.
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