Online Exhibits: Healing Waters: Introduction
Where Do Springs Come From?
In Northwest Arkansas, the geologic layer known as the Springfield Plateau contains large areas of porous soil and rock. Rain passes through easily, down to a level called the "zone of saturation." The zone is a place where water completely fills every opening in and around rock and soil, much like water fills the empty spaces in a bowl full of marbles. The upper surface of this zone is the water table. Below are aquifers, bodies of saturated rock through which water passes easily.
Springs can form on hillsides where either the water table, an aquifer, or a water-filled underground passageway intersects with the slope of the land. Gravity causes the water to flow out and down the hillside. Springs can also form when pressure from the earth forces groundwater up to the surface, like when water is pushed out of a soft plastic bottle as it is squeezed.
Many springs produce fresh water, perfect for drinking. Some springs have a high mineral content, a result of the water dissolving the rock it passes through. For instance, limestone dissolves into calcium carbonate while dolomite dissolves into calcium magnesium carbonate. Minerals can color and flavor the water or, like sulphur, make it smell bad. Some minerals create carbon dioxide bubbles, making the water fizzy.
The Rise of Health Resorts and Mineral Springs
The belief in the healing properties of mineral water has been around since ancient times. Although there were spas in colonial America, they gained in popularity before and after the Civil War, when nationwide prosperity filled many with the desire to travel. A growing interest in the healing arts and faith cures, coupled with increasingly affordable railway fares, caused people, especially the well-to-do, to flock to natural, healthful settings like mountains and mineral springs.
As with patent-medicine advertising, mineral-water promoters made fantastic, sweeping claims. Springs were said to alleviate a host of illnesses including rheumatism, catarrh (inflammation of mucus membranes), tuberculosis, hay fever, diabetes, dyspepsia (indigestion), asthma, jaundice, malaria, paralysis, neuralgia (intense nerve pain), gout, cancer, dropsy (excess fluid in tissues or body cavities), and "female troubles."
Lithia Spring, Sulphur Springs (Benton County), early 1900s. Courtesy Bob Besom
Health resorts latched onto new scientific and technological advancements as a way to promote their offerings. As the wonder of electricity became available commercially during the late 19th century, electrotherapy and electromagnetism treatments came into vogue. Some springs were deemed "electric" for their supposed ability to magnetize metal. When chemist Marie Curie discovered the element of radium in 1898 and coined the word "radioactivity," radioactive water became fashionable and was found in spring after spring. While many physicians and the public shared a belief in the healing powers of mineral waters, there were naysayers. Some felt that cures were often the result of the rest and recreation received during treatment. The earliest, most popular health resort in America was at Saratoga Springs, New York, beginning in the early 1800s. In Arkansas, the first bathhouse at Hot Springs was built in 1830. It wasn't until the 1880s that health resorts began operating in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks.
Healing Waters in the Arkansas Ozarks
In 1879 tales of miracle cures at what would become Eureka Springs spread like wildfire. Eureka's immediate fame and fast-paced prosperity caught the eye of several area communities blessed with mineral springs. Health resorts began springing up in the early 1880s, touting their healing waters in hopes of attracting travelers—and their pocketbooks. Medicinal springs were big business. Over in western Benton County, speculators in Cherokee City moved to nearby Eldorado after Cherokee City's prospects went bust after 1882. And when much of Eldorado washed away during a flood a year or two later, many of the same entrepreneurs moved to the newly booming town of Siloam Springs.
The success of these communities depended on transportation. For instance, when Siloam Springs began touting its waters and building hotels in the early 1880s, it was banking on the likelihood of a railroad coming through. The town's population quickly swelled, only to drop when no railroad came. After the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Gulf Railroad finally steamed into town in 1893, the population rose once again.
To help convince the public of a spring's health benefits, a water sample was analyzed and the results advertised, with the claim that certain springs would cure specific ailments. Town boosters promoted the springs through newspaper stories, advertisements, and souvenir photographs. Testimonials from satisfied patients were sent to newspapers throughout the country in an effort to lure health seekers.
There was some rivalry between spring towns. For example, an 1880 letter in the Fayetteville Democrat noted that the countryside around Siloam Springs was more attractive than other area springs. There was also backlash over all the hype. In an 1882 edition of the [Harrison] Times, one wit quipped, "The water in the Court House well is either developing remarkable medicinal qualities, or else there is a dead cat in it."
End of an Era
The rise of Northwest Arkansas health resorts coincided with the end of the nation's interest in "taking the waters." Many factors contributed to bring this about. By the 1890s the scientific method of systematic observation and experimentation was gaining ground, leading people to question the folk wisdom of "healing waters." The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 protected consumers from dangerous ingredients and false advertising. It included regulations regarding how mineral water could be promoted.
The 1910s saw major advances in the science and standards of medical care, leading to the professionalism of medicine. Reliance on natural cures faded by the end of World War I, when the cause and treatment of diseases were better understood and new medicines were being developed. With the increasing affordability of the automobile came a desire to travel to new places, without having to rely on the railroads' set destinations or timetables. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, financial difficulties faced by would-be travelers helped end the era of healing waters.
Still, the allure of the waters continued. In the 1940s, visitors to patients at John Brown University Hospital in Siloam Springs would sometimes bring a jug of spring water, believing it better for the patient than city tap water. In 1957 Sulphur Springs leadership was considering a $100,000 project to build a modern hotel and bathhouse to fill the needs of health seekers and tourists. Nothing came of it. In later years the town received requests to send bottles of lithia mineral water far and wide, to folks hoping to cure their ailments.
Today, water quality throughout the Ozarks is threatened. Water sources are being contaminated with pollutants from farms, industries, and residences. The Giardia parasite, which causes intestinal problems, is also a concern. Signs warning against drinking the water are posted at several public springs.
Area mineral springs are also threatened by fading memories of their whereabouts or lack of resources to protect and restore them to their glory. However, in the tourist town of Eureka Springs, many springs are well-maintained and easily accessible to visitors.