French Lick had lure of springs before golf, gambling

The infirm frequented French Lick for its miraculous Pluto water. The rich and famous came to golf and gamble.

Since the 1830s, the rolling hills and springs around the small town of French Lick have drawn tourists to remote southern Indiana. They still do, thanks to a mammoth restoration of its two historic resorts completed in 2006-2007 by the late philanthropist Bill Cook.

“The mineral springs were the original magnet,” notes author Chris Bundy in his history of the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels. Located within a mile of each other, the structures loom large over State Road 56 in Orange County.

Even before Indiana was a state, the area was famous — known as Salt Licks due to abundant mineral licks that attracted bison and, later, pioneers in need of salt for preserving meat. As the story goes, explorer George Rogers Clark renamed the area French Lick because the French were first to settle there.

The spring water was valued for its sulphates, known to have laxative effects and believed to be good for an array of ailments, from asthma to malaria.

The first hotel on the French Lick site was built in 1844-45 by Dr. William A. Bowles, who figured out how to bottle the water for sale. He marketed it as Pluto Water after the Greek god of the underworld.

John Lane managed the inn while Bowles served in the Mexican-American War. Upon Bowles’ return, Lane set up a competing hotel a mile east. He called it the Mile Lick Inn and labeled his water Sprudel Water. The inn later was renamed West Baden after the German city Wiesbaden.

Both sites underwent numerous physical and ownership changes over the years. Two moments stand out that made the region a nationally known destination.

A 1901 fire destroyed West Baden, prompting owner Lee Sinclair to commit to building a grander facility that would be not only fireproof but an engineering marvel. After several architects turned him down, he found one who agreed to build an octahedron-shaped building with an unsupported dome. When the hotel opened in 1902, journalists hailed it as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In 1905, a politician and hotelier, Thomas Taggart, launched a huge expansion of French Lick Springs, including a golf course and convention hall that served as unofficial Democratic Party headquarters. It’s where Franklin Roosevelt came in 1931 wooing support for his 1932 presidential campaign.

The hotels enjoyed their heyday in the 1920s when as many as 14 trains a day dropped guests at the hotel door, and gambling and prostitution flourished — though not on hotel property itself. At one point 15 illegal casinos operated in the valley.

The biggest business for Taggart wasn’t gambling but distribution of Pluto Water, sold over the counter at drugstores everywhere. By 1919, sales exceeded $1.2 million. (The water is no longer available because it contains lithium, classified as a controlled substance in 1971.)

The stock market crash of 1929 brought hard times to the valley. French Lick managed to stay afloat thanks to an elite guest list that returned yearly. West Baden was acquired by the Jesuits in 1934 for use as a seminary and in 1966 by Northwood Institute as a hospitality arts college. In 1983, the building was vacated and soon started to collapse.

In the late 1990s, Indiana Landmarks spearheaded a $500 million restoration of both properties. In 2003, the Indiana legislature and Orange County voters approved a casino to be located between the hotels to boost tourism. Today the Cook Group owns both hotels and the casino, and the valley is enjoying a renaissance — this time with legal gambling.

If you go

Take State Road 37 south to Paoli, then take State Road 56 west for about 10 miles.