"Taking the Waters" at the Lampasas Sulphur Springs

In the Texas Almanac for 1868, Gideon Lincecum (the man with the controversial description of ants) praised the medicinal waters of Texas stating that there was a mineral spring in nearly every county. "Taking the waters", or bathing in mineral waters is not a new concept and can be found in a multitude of cultures including the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, and Victorian England to name a few. So, I was not surprised by the act of "taking the waters" but was completely unaware that Texas was a hotspot for this activity for a time.


Turns out, the main mineral in Texas springs is either sulfur, hydrogen sulfide, or iron. Any of these options is likely to produce a strong odor and taste, but that did not deter the local Native Americans and settlers who, instead of being off-put, believed these springs had medicinal benefits, some of which were commercially exploited. Nineteenth-century compilations of American spas rarely mention Texas, instead lauding the resort landscapes in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. However, Health-Seekers in the Southwest, 1817-1900 (by Billy Jones) notes that there was a spa building boom in Texas in the 1890s and those with "modest means" who could not make it to Arizona, New Mexico, or Colorado, headed to Texas. I interpret this to mean that Texas was the K-Mart of resorts, affordable but still not Target. By the end of the 1890s, there were nearly 100 natural spas in Texas, most in the eastern half of the state; though their use began to decline in the early 20th century.

Marker for one of the Springs, named in honor of Moses Hughes

The mineral springs in Lampasas were some of the earliest to be commercially exploited and among the most developed spa resorts in the state. There are were several springs along Sulphur Creek, but three main ones--Gold Spring, Gooch Spring, and Hancock Springs--were used by the local Native Americans as watering holes and for pilgrimages. And just like any other mineral spring, the ones in Lampsas had a mythical founding. As the story goes, in 1732, Father St, Juan and his retinue were traveling around Texas inspecting missions and a terrible drought descended upon the land. People began to die and Father St. Juan, frustrated in his attempts to find water, threw his crucifix to the ground and cursed the land, and suddenly, at the place where each man in the expedition had died, a spring arose. However, demons also arose from these springs and tempted Father St. Juan which is why the springs are sulfurous "symbolic of fire and brimstone but also invested with the power to heal" (Valenza 1990, 64). (I'm pretty sure the local Native American communities knew about these springs prior to the arrival of the Spanish and had their own stories about the springs).

Map of Sulphur Creek

The mineral springs became commercially exploited in the 1850s when Moses Hughes brought his ailing wife (Hannah) to Gooch Springs. I have no idea how Hughes found out about these springs, but... his wife lived, and news of her recovery drew others seeking healing. Hughes soon built a mill, log home, and later a cotton gin on the banks of Sulphur Creek. Fun fact about the Hughes house: they kept a mule tied to an oak in the yard to bray and alert them to Native American attacks. Anywho, back to those seeking the same healing as Hannah. They lived in temporary tents and wagons along Sulphur Creek, and these people became some of the first white settlers in Lampasas. The town really grew up around the springs and by 1878 there was a single simple bathhouse near Hancock Springs and in 1882, the railroad reached Lampasas, and syndicates of the railroad companies built a large resort (Park Hotel) where it remained a popular tourist spot until 1894 when it was destroyed in a fire.


Why did "taking the waters" decline almost as suddenly as it was commercialized? There were several factors but most center around the fact that the nature of medicine started to change. The first half of the 20th century saw the advent of antibiotics (most importantly penicillin) and x-ray machines, an emphasis on clean water and improved sanitation, advancements in anesthetics, caesarian section, and cell biology, etc. I could go on, but the main point here is that a majority of the population no longer believed in the healing power of these waters and instead turned to new developments in medical science. What is interesting is that small, less developed natural spas in Texas (like Wizards Well and Kingston Hot Springs) continued to exist well into the 20th century. But those that were more developed, like the springs on Sulphur Creek, were no longer economically viable. Soldiers stationed at Fort Hood during World War II did, however, continue to use the Hancock Spring as a recreational facility, so there is that.


Natural mineral springs in Texas were only around for a short time, at least on a commercial level, disappearing almost as quickly as they were capitalized on. Their existence now, as they were before the 1850s, only known to the local population or, as we found out about them, from historic markers. "J.B. Jackson suggested that the persistence of spas associated with mineral springs in the South derived from the region's more sensory approach to nature. If that is true, perhaps Texans do not realize the significance of what they have lost" (Valenza 1990, 68).


For further reading see:

J. Valenza. 1990. "'Taking the Waters' at Texas Spas". Journal of Cultural Geography 11.1: 57-70. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08873639009478437?casa_token=8I02kKIvgBAAAAAA%3AlExXYPcL8HFjBJZjuAltO9MIaocUbj1E6iMDUfAV-BqSWaAmoPA4vtfX9grGSSDfUUkETlxjrg&)


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