Tell someone nowadays that you’re planning a vacation to Florida, and you’ll likely get asked which beaches and theme parks are on your agenda. Those a little more in-the-know might ask if you plan to visit any of the state’s crystal clear springs—although their heads will no doubt be filled with images of swimming, scuba diving, and kayaking. But imagine yourself in the Florida of a hundred years or so ago, a time when tourists were only just beginning to vacation in the Sunshine State. Clearly modern day attractions such as Disney World or the opportunity to scuba dive were nonexistent, and the notion of baking on a hot beach all day loses its appeal when you realize there were no air-conditioned hotel rooms to retreat to.
So what was Florida’s tourist draw back in the day? Springs, actually—not for modern-day activities such as scuba diving or kayaking, but for their medicinal qualities. For several decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, accepted wisdom held that both soaking in and consuming waters of certain mineral content—typically those high in sulphur—could ease or cure a variety of ailments, including rheumatism, kidney and bladder problems, indigestion, and skin-diseases, among others. Many springs were walled off from their surrounding rivers by fancy bathhouses to facilitate therapeutic soaking. Hotels, often luxurious, sprang up nearby, and rail lines were expanded to enable tourists to reach their healing waters.
However, as modern medicine began to disprove the benefits of the medicinal soak, Florida’s mineral springs ceased to be a major tourist draw. Hotels burned or decayed and were not rebuilt, rail spurs were pulled, and springhouses began to crumble. Today, little remains as evidence of the once popular mineral springs resorts of Florida, although they can still be visited if you know where to look.
- White Springs (Upper Mineral Springs, White Sulphur Springs) White Springs Springhouse, interior view (photo by Jane Keeler)White Springs, located in the town of the same name, is considered by many to be Florida’s first tourist attraction. In the 1830’s, local plantation owners built a hotel at the spring site and began marketing the sulphur-rich waters as a cure for a variety of afflictions. While the Civil War stifled the town’s burgeoning tourist industry, it slowly began to recover after the war’s end. In 1903, the spring was enclosed in a three-story bathhouse constructed from coquina and concrete; the bathhouse contained changing rooms, doctors’ offices, concessions facilities, and even an elevator.
Fourteen luxury hotels, numerous boardinghouses, and all the amenities of a modern community of the time sprang up around the springs. Today, only one of the fourteen hotels remains (and it is closed and up for sale at the time of this writing), and the town’s population is under a thousand. The spring itself stopped flowing in the mid-1990’s, although in recent years heavy downpours have triggered short periods of spring-flow. The springhouse, located adjacent to the entrance to the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, can be explored to this day, although it is now only one story, and a shadow of its former glory.
- Suwannee Springs (Suwannee Sulphur Springs) White water at the springhouse ruins of Suwannee Springs (photo by Jane Keeler)Located roughly fifteen minutes north of the town of Live Oak, modern-day Suwannee Springs is the location of a small park maintained by the Suwannee River Water Management District. The park hosts the remains of a springhouse, two decaying cabins, and modest picnicking facilities. However, back in its heyday, things were quite different. Beginning in the 1880’s, tourists began to flock to Suwannee Springs, touted for their ability to cure kidney and bladder issues. Over the years, three different hotels (each successively destroyed by fire), a large stone springhouse, and numerous cabins were erected at the site. A train station located a mile from the springs was connected to the facility by a horse-drawn trolley line. Visitors came not merely to swim in the restorative waters, but to drink them as well!
- Worthington SpringsBoardwalk at the Chastain-Seay Park, Worthington Springs (photo by Jane Keeler)The modern-day town of Worthington Springs is home to approximately four-hundred people. Its southern border, along the Santa Fe River, is home to the Chastain-Seay Park, maintained by the town. The park has an extensive boardwalk through the woods and along the river, as well as picnicking facilities and a boat ramp. What you won’t find, however, is much evidence of the spring that gave the town its name. Next to the parking lot, a chain-link fence surrounds what appears to be a retention pond, from which water slowly drips, making its way towards the Santa Fe. This is all that remains of the springs which gave life—and a name—to the community.
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, the spring’s waters flowed strong, and tourists came to bask in them. Facilities at the spring included a hotel, recreation hall, dancing pavilion, and bathhouse, and in 1906 the springhead was walled off with concrete, enabling the waters to be funneled into a ninety-by-fifty-foot concrete swimming pool. The spring’s output began to decline in the mid-twentieth century, and it is now little more than a trickle. The site of the former swimming pool is now a parking lot, and only the foundations of one small structure can be seen.
- Hampton Springs Ruins of the Hampton Springs Hotel, Hampton Springs, Florida (photo by Jane Keeler)A resort hotel once stood surrounding a mineral rich spring just on the outskirts of the town of Perry. At the turn of the century, the resort prospered, receiving so many guests that the hotel had to expand. Not only could visitors swim or soak, but drinking the sulphur-rich water was also encouraged. Once “taking the waters” began to go out of favor, the hotel’s owners diversified, establishing a golf course and rebranding itself as an exclusive hunting and fishing club. However, the Great Depression followed by the Second World War sounded the death knell for the resort. Visitors to the resort declined, and during World War Two, the facility was used to house troops who were testing experimental aircraft nearby. The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1954. Today the ruins are part of a small park maintained by Taylor County.
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