Taking the Waters

Touted as the cure for an array of physical ailments during the 1870s, the magnetic appeal of Michigan’s mineral springs sparkled ingenuously beyond good health.
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Whitcomb Hotel
Photography courtesy Vintage Views

In the halcyon haze of Michigan’s early days, the natural beauty of her soft sandy shores, blue lakes and dark green forests seemed to promise the unfolding of untold golden opportunities. John Fisher writing to his family back in England noted it was all “like a gentleman’s park.” The French explorer, Antoine de la Moth Cadillac, wrote that Michigan was “so temperate, so fertile, and so beautiful that it may justly be called the earthly Paradise of North America.”

The benefits of magnets were promoted then by many people of note, including Chase Salmon Osborn, Michigan Fish and Game Warden and eventually governor of the State of Michigan.

One of the state’s unparalleled resources, so it was thought in the 1870s, was its healthful water. According to Stiles Kennedy, M.D. — who published “The Magnetic and Mineral Springs of Michigan” in 1872 — the first magnetic spring was discovered in St. Louis, Mich., when “some fellow discovered that his knife blade stuck to the iron tubing.”  The water was deemed to be magnetized and subsequently a health center was established where people could bathe in the mineralized and magnetized water.

The benefits of magnets were promoted then by many people of note, including Chase Salmon Osborn, Michigan Fish and Game Warden and eventually governor of the State of Michigan. A self-made millionaire who lived to be 103, Osborn believed that aligning the ions of one’s being with the magnetic poles of the earth promoted longevity.

Not to be outdone in terms of magnetic and mineral springs, other enterprising Michigan frontier towns began unearthing mineral springs and and found, too, that an iron knife stuck to the iron tubing. No fewer than 60 wells of water were drilled, including in Grand Rapids, Mt. Clemens, Alpena, Flint, Port Huron, Albion, Spring Lake, Grand Ledge, Bay City, Midland and Lansing, and consequently, hotels — most near the newly installed train depots built to accommodate the lumber companies — quickly sprang up.

These were really artesian wells, not the traditional mineral springs often found near volcanoes, Kennedy explains in his historic publication. Michigan is a giant aquifer covered by sand, and it was fairly easy to find artesian wells — where artesian springs bubbled to the surface naturally from an underground stream — in Michigan. Traverse City had two; most towns had a few.

The water, until cities became more developed, was safe for drinking and often delicious.

Almost as soon as the last treaty was signed, people were sent to Michigan to “take the cure” and drink the healthful waters and breathe the healthful air.

Michigan was one of the last states added to the Union. The final treaty with the Native Americans wasn’t signed until 1855 and the state wasn’t developed commercially until the lumber boom of the 1870s.

Bath house illustration
Artwork by G.H. Ford/Courtesy David McMacken

Michigan was pristine and undeniably gorgeous.

“Such an abundance of wild strawberries, raspberries and blackberries that they fairly perfume the whole coast,” observes Andrew Blackbird, the last chief of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians at Harbor Springs, writing in 1887. “The wild pigeons and every variety of feathered songsters fill all the groves.”

Almost as soon as the last treaty was signed, people were sent to Michigan to “take the cure,” to drink the healthful waters and breathe the healthful air. Scientific studies were conducted and papers were presented.

“Mineral waters of Michigan tend to induce polarity in the outer end of a soft iron tube passed through a cork into a bottle of water,” according to Professor Winchell of the University of Michigan. (His findings notwithstanding, the health benefits of the magnetized water were abandoned soon after, its medicinal qualities relegated to the mineral content).

Michigan developed so quickly that towns appeared seemingly overnight. Kennedy, who had been a surgeon in the Civil War, writes, “Bay City was another vast surprise. Think of it. [There is] an Opera House worth $100,000 in the wilderness; eight school houses (one worth $6,000); and the biggest saw mill in the world.”

Each hotel and bathing facility established at a mineral spring came complete with a written, scientific analysis of the water and testimonials of people whose health had improved. Dr. Kennedy cites testimonials from, among others, “a southern lady of luxurious habits; a clergyman of the Episcopal Church of Connecticut; a young woman of good contour; a prominent Ohio lawyer of fine social attainments; and a celebrated Western gambler.” These were the kinds of people with whom one would be sharing the bath experience.

Woman at Spring House
Photography courtesy Alma College Archives

Kennedy’s conscientious report also includes a whole chapter alerting people to the dangers of “quacks” (a definition under which he, as a member of the American Medical Association, did not fall, by consideration of the general population).

“The rail roads,” he warns people, “wanting to increase their trade, hire runners to travel on the different lines and induce invalids to visit the particular springs. They are a plausible, smooth-tongued set of fellows, with very few scruples of conscience so they get the unsuspecting into their confidence.” People claiming royal lineage, clairvoyance, or offering degrees from Edinburg, Scotland (with an address on Clark Street in Chicago) were to be avoided.

The climate of Michigan was touted, by Kennedy and others, as being much better than any other state. North Carolina, Kennedy avers, was known for malaria; Minnesota, he says, was famous for causing depression. Michigan was perfect because of the tempering quality of the surrounding Great Lakes and the purity of the air.

The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain dubbed it, that time between 1870 and 1917 overlapping with the latter half of the Victorian era, the time after the American Civil War and before the First World War, was a restless time. “It is a time when one’s spirit is subdued and sad, one knows not why; when the past seems a storm-swept desolation, life a vanity and burden … a time when one is filled with vague longings; when one dreams of flights to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea.”

Michigan wasn’t exactly an island, but as a peninsula surrounded by the Great Lakes, it was a close second.

The people who came to mineral bath resorts in Michigan were not the aristocrats of Europe who might visit spas in Germany or England. They were ordinary Americans, the beginning of the middle class, Victorian in outlook and Calvinist in habit, to whom the idea of going somewhere to improve their health was more acceptable than the idea of going somewhere for pleasure. If seeing beautiful sights and socializing happened, however, while they were engaged in the more worthy pursuit of good health, then that couldn’t be avoided.

Bath house exterior
Photography courtesy David McMacken

Eventually, ordinary people who’d frequented the mineral baths as a subterfuge for taking vacations transitioned to taking real vacations; many built cottages and enjoyed the convenience of artesian wells right in their own backyards.

“R & R at the springs became passé — there were other, more exciting opportunities for pampering,” says David McMacken, historian and author of “The Saratoga of the West: The Story of the Magnetic Mineral Springs and Park Hotel of Saint Louis, Michigan” (1986, stlouismi.com/1/stlouis/historical_book.asp). “But the baths also faded because new medical discoveries around 1900 and beyond, such as the X-ray, had changed and improved the practice of medicine. Mineral water was no longer a cure-all.”

Still, nostalgic remnants of these sparkling days can be found in the Great Lakes State.

The Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library — built on the site of a mineral bath hotel that burned to the ground in 1936 — still houses the fountain donated by the Fletcher family, prominent Alpena lumber barons.

Whitcomb baths
Photography courtesy Vintage Views

In the “Middle of the Mitten,” the magnetic mineral waters of St. Louis — world-famous for treating rheumatism, arthritis and other ailments in the 18th century — recently helped propel the city’s Downtown District to the National Register of Historic Sites.

And, in Mount Clemens — drawing from the city’s heyday as a health spa during the mineral bath era, when 23 major hotels and bath houses along with many rooming houses prospered — Olympia Salon & Spa has rejuvenated bathing in trace minerals to improve circulation, reduce joint aches and purify skin.

“The historical bath houses have been all but forgotten, but the history lives on,” the spa notes online (olympiasalon-spa.com). “Using today’s science and technology, we have found that bathing in trace minerals truly does help the body’s healing process.”

“Bath City” just may be washing anew.


Writer Kathleen Stocking lives on the Leelanau Peninsula.

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