A June 2004 trip
to French Lick by wanderluster
Quote: At the turn of the century well-heeled business owners, presidents, movie stars, and sports figures flocked to posh resorts in French Lick, famous for its curative mineral springs. Resorts may have faded and the springs dried up, but this sleepy region offers a wealth of history and activities amid scenic rolling hills.
At the turn of the century, these were the choices for America's famous and affluent who were deciding between two competing properties, French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel. Located a mile apart from one another by trolley, equally accessible by train, both boasted mineral springs renown for curing digestive disorders drawing the likes of presidents, movie stars and kings. Even after the quackery subsided, guests flocked to this region for gambling at the abundant casinos, equivalent then to current Vegas.
Today there are no casinos, and only one hotel still operates as a resort. The other is for sale. With plans to reinstate gambling and build a casino between the two properties in 2006, the opportunity to flourish as a hotel owner is rich. Right now the French Lick region is a quiet, sleepy place, dwarfed by the resort's golf courses, restaurants, convention hall, spa, bowling alley and stables. But tomorrow...it just might revisit the popularity of yesteryear.
History buffs take note:
A historian on site at the French Lick Hotel will take you around the complex for a nominal fee. Guided tours of West Baden Hotel are offered daily on the hour between 10am-3pm Monday through Saturday, and noon-4pm on Sundays with reduced times during winter months.
West Baden offers special tours: (800/450-4534)
Hotel tour & Sunset Cruise at Patoka Lake includes transport, catered dinner and 1.5 hour boat cruise. Fridays mid-month throughout the summer.
Hotel tour & Tea Enjoy an elabotate tea in a refurbished suite on the 6th floor overlooking the beautiful atrium. Third Wednesday April-December.
Legacy of Dreams In-depth historical seminar and tour, once monthly.
Then access is fairly easy from Evansville (1.75 hours west), Louisville (1 hr east), and Indianapolis (1.5 hours north). If departing Evansville, drive north on 164, turn east on Interstate 64 and turn north approximately an hour later at Ferdinand, Hwy 162, to avoid trains at Birdseye. Continue into Jasper (stop for lunch if you enjoy German food) and head east on 164 until you pass the lower section of Patoka Lake and reach Hwy 145. Drive north on 145 for 20 minutes passing the turn off for Patoka Marina on your left.
To reach Holiday World from French Lick, drive back toward Interstate 64 through Ferdinand. Cross I64 and continue south on Hwy 162 approximately 10 minutes to Santa Claus, Indiana. Look for signs directing you to the theme park. If you have time, walk through Lincoln's simple boyhood home just ten minutes west on Hwy 162.
Hotel | "French Lick Springs Resort & Spa"
My previous stays were during winter months, so I hadn't seen Pluto or his springs until a recent stay. Curious about the history of this place I spoke with a historian on site.
Guests first arrived to this simple hotel in 1845 on foot or horseback to "take the waters", which magically cured 50 diseases including cancer, advertised by then owner Dr. Bowles. He increased marketing of his hotel by bottling Pluto water, competing with the lavish new hotel in West Baden a mile down the road. His bottling business grew and generated more revenue than his hotel, producing exceptional sales of $500,000 in 1915.
But by then, Tom Taggart, a popular politician from Indianapolis owned the property and bottling business. He transformed the hotel into a posh resort, crafting ornate plaster work, limestone carvings, Pluto statues, new wings, verandas, spring houses, golf courses and a grand entrance, lobby and convention hall where he hosted the annual National Democratic Governor's Convention for many years. Franklin Roosevelt was nominated for the presidency here in 1931.
West Baden may have had professional baseball teams, but French Lick had politicians. And the wealthy. I saw photographs of honored guests Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Studebakers, Rockefellers, President Truman, and President Reagan who stayed in the top 471 rooms. Even Al Capone and Diamond Jim Brady were regulars during gambling's heyday.
By 1955, the miracle waters were more of an amusement and the life-sized Pluto statues–now displayed on the lower level–were put in storage. New owners, Sheraton, covered the lobby mosaics with black-and-white vinyl and hid the high ceilings in the name of modernization. In 1991, the Luther James family bought the declining property at auction and restored the elegance and architectural details originally crafted by master builders.
Walking through the lobby, I had a new appreciation for the original mosaic tiles which once again grace the floor, and the ornate cornices and crown molding that adorn ceilings of the grand lobby and guest rooms, currently decorated in hunter green and burgundy.
Knowing the hotel is undergoing continued refurbishing made me forgive the conflicting patterns and colors leading to the pools. We bypassed the domed indoor pool and spent perfect summer days splashing in the spacious outdoor pool. Our last afternoon we watched a wedding take place in the gardens next to Pluto Springs.
Perhaps the lingering odors of Pluto, the Roman god of wealth and riches, will bestow blessings on the young couple. And keep them ailment free.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 11, 2004
French Lick Springs Hotel
French Lick Resort 8670 West State Road 56
French Lick, Indiana 47432
Attraction | "West Baden Springs National Historic Landmark Tour"
Lee Sinclair, a banker from Salem, Indiana was a visionary in his time. As a guest at the West Baden Springs Hotel, he saw potential there and purchased it in 1888. Within ten years he transformed the 500 room hotel into a sophisticated retreat, complete with an opera house and casino. He invited baseball teams to hold spring training at his complex, practicing on a baseball field he built inside a unique double-decker covered bicycle track. From 1897 to the hotel's closing, Cubs, Reds, Pirates, Cardinals, and Phillies entertained cheering fans watching from the track on bicycles or pony carts.
And then a fire disintegrated the hotel within 90 minutes. Not one of the 400 guests were injured even though the fire occurred at 1:30am. The year was 1901, and Mr. Sinclair vowed to rebuild within the year. He toured grand spas in Europe and found his inspiration at Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia, a sulphur springs resort where prominent guests such as Beethoven, Chopin and Peter the Great watched the 37-foot Sprudel geyser shoot into the air. Sinclair came back to Indiana with plans to build "Carlsbad of America," a circular hotel with the world's largest dome.
Locals laughed at him. But a year later his six-story masterpiece was finished, topped by the world's largest rotunda. The guide pointed out paintings of a phoenix on the lobby ceiling when we entered the grand hotel.
Affluent guests were drawn to the mineral springs, lured by advertisements of "Sprudel Water" which promised cures for 50 ailments, from alcoholism to sterility. People stayed three months on average and returned yearly. Word spread abroad (helped by exporting Sprudel water) and international guests began visiting.
Guests filled up the 708 rooms curving around the glass atrium and spent days strolling between four springs in the sunken gardens, swimming, golfing, horseback riding, or bowling. Evenings were spent at the bicycle track or opera house for musical shows or dramas such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
And then the stock market crashed. And with it, the hotel's future. In 1932, it closed it's stained leaded-glass doors for good. Years later, opulence was removed when a Jesuit seminary moved in followed by Northwoods Cooking College.
Over the last ten years, Mr. Cook and the Historic Landmarks Foundation have lovingly restored the hotel, and the result is as breathtaking as the sunken gardens. Beyond the grand entrance, Roman statues sit above original mosaics on the atrium floor below lavish stencil-decorated columns and ceilings; and gold-leafed columns line the emerald dining room decked with tapestries and elegant draperies.
Know an interested visionary? For 31 million it's theirs.
West Baden Springs Hotel
8538 West Baden Avenue
West Baden Springs, Indiana 47469
Attraction | "French Lick Train Ride"
In 1902, people flocked to this region to drink these spring waters plentiful in both West Baden and French Lick, where 19 hotels offered room and board rates for $3-5 a day. Back then round trip fare from Chicago to French Lick was $12.45, and three trains ran daily from Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville.
Today, there are two operating hotels. And no train.
Except the one operated by the Indiana Railway Museum that departs French Lick's Monon Railroad Station built in 1907. On Saturdays and Sundays, April to October, passengers can get a taste of what train travel was like at the turn of the century.
My family and I boarded one of the 1920 coach cars and sat in plump black leather seats facing each other. "All board!" the conductor called out, to my daughter's delight, as a long low horn sounded.. He walked down the aisle and tipped his hat. "My, first class is empty today," he said with a wink as he punched our tickets.
Cool breezes blew in through open wooden windows as we chugged toward Cuzco, 20 miles away. On the edge of town, we passed the school and boyhood home of Larry Bird, of basketball coach fame. And the smoke stack remnant of the 1917 plant which produced the first commercially available tomato juice, which was invented at French Lick Resort.
The scenery changed from small town to forest, and thick trees brushed against the windows. A uniformed attendant wheeled a cart past us selling sodas and popcorn. We passed Marshall Lake, limestone cuts, an 1850 log cabin, and small Parson Falls that once powered a grist mill. But the highlight was the tunnel.
The conductor, narrating the train ride, warned us it would be dark and offered flashlights to anyone with small children. Dark? It was pitch black. My daughter clung to my neck like a leech, repeatedly asking, "Mommy can you see me?" as if I somehow had special powers she didn't possess. For three long minutes–double the length of most roller coaster rides–we rode 100 feet underground through the concrete tunnel.
At the turnaround point, we had ten minutes to stretch our legs. Leaving Cuzco, population 25, we headed back to French Lick, our two hour journey halfway complete. Any lingering fear long forgotten, my toddler turned to me. "Mommy, can we go in that tunnel again?!"
Maybe next summer she'll be ready for a Wild West Hold-up. Six holiday weekends a year costumed hoodlums fire guns while riding up on horses, jump aboard the train and rob passengers...providing another glimpse of railroad travel from a lifetime ago.
West Baden & Southern Railway Co.
1 Monon Street
French Lick, Indiana 47432
Attraction | "Holiday World & Splashin Safari"
Although this 11 acre water park represents just a small portion of the 100 acre theme park, it was a hit during our visit on a recent hot June day. Adults and teens congregated at the newest adrenalin-inducing water slide rides, but also returned to family favorites Otorongo and Watubee in lines rarely lasting longer than ten minutes. And wee ones splashed around the 2004 Jungle Jets, playing and running among 163 jets, geysers and spraying palms with no wait at all.
My three-year-old loved ‘jumping' the waves in the wave pool and floating down the lazy Congo River on a family innertube. She slid down miniature water slides, romped in shallow waters and climbed animal-shaped slides at Crocodile Isle.
When we were thirsty or needed suntan lotion, we just helped ourselves. That's right, free suntan lotion and sodas at stations scattered throughout the park are the most popular perks. There are also plentiful deck chairs and $3 lockers. And bless the mom who thought of this–restroom choices include a handy family bathroom–so fathers can take their daughters!
The emphasis on family is apparent. Smoking is prohibited except at designated decks. At Monsoon Lagoon, parents with young children can play at an interactive multi-story complex with water slides and jets, or stay dry at Holidog's FunTown, playing in America's biggest treehouse, riding a family roller coaster or jeep.
According to Amusement Today, a theme park journal, Holiday World has won coveted awards annually. It beats Disney as the cleanest and friendliest park in the country, has the #1 wooden rollercoaster in the nation (Raven), and the #2 water park. And no other park can boast that they were the first theme park.
In 1946, Louis Koch opened Santa Claus Land in Santa Claus, Indiana to provide good, old-fashioned fun for community children. Santa entertained children, as did rides, a train and toy shops. When the park expanded in 1984 to include Halloween and Fourth of July sections, the Koch family changed the park's name to Holiday World, added music shows and dive shows to Santa's storyhour.
The park today still contains toy shops, a doll house, glass blower demonstrations, Santa himself and the original Freedom train for toddlers. The train amused my daughter as we passed by recognizable characters in Nursery Rhyme Land. She loved hugging Holidog characters and
giggled on rides in Rudolph's Kiddie section, but screamed continuously on the Tilt-a-Whirl. It'll be some time before she's ready to ride HallowSwings, Liberty Launch, Legend roller coaster, Raging Rapids, Banshee, and the Raven. But I'll be waiting...
Holiday World & Splashin Safari
452 E. Christmas Blvd.
Santa Claus, Indiana 47529
Driving home from French Lick, we passed through the central portion of Patoka Lake minutes later. Sailboats, fishing boats, and houseboats drifting on glistening blue water caught our eye and prompted us to turn west on highway 164 for a closer look.
While touring West Baden, I'd heard quick mention of a combination tour that included a boat ride excursion on Patoka Lake. Harvey Edwards, one of the managing partners of Patoka Marina, provided more details. On mid-Fridays, small groups tour West Baden, board one of his double-decker party pontoons for an evening cruise, and enjoy a catered chicken meal in a scenic spot overlooking the lake. "And when the moon comes up over the bridge...there's not a prettier place," he claimed.
Enthusiastic about 9,000 acre Patoka lake and proud of what his marina has to offer, Harvey volunteered to take us to his latest addition, floating cabins. We followed him to the bay. Beyond his houseboats and pontoons, we saw ten green-roofed beige-sided homes in the water, not cabins. "They're built with an aluminum hull and squared, just like regular home construction," he said. "And mighty popular too. Fully booked every weekend all summer long. C'mon," he said, "I've known this family for years. They won't mind us taking a peek."
Harvey was already leading us down the dock and introducing us before we could protest. Assorted water toys and rafts sat on the deck near the cabin's boat slip. The congenial group celebrating a birthday party offered us cake–but we declined and went inside. The spacious living area had a full kitchen and soft green furnishings against light paneling. Comfortable bedrooms in the back had views of the water. And the bathroom? Normal. The place felt airy and modern, and I liked the gentle rocking motion–which apparently ceases at night when boats are docked. Too bad they didn't have a vacancy. We were toying with staying in the region an extra night, and were interested in something with a lake view.
Which at Patoka is limited to these cabins we discovered, as Indiana DNR regulations prohibit lodging within 300 yards of the shoreline. The floating cabins fall under houseboat regulations even though they never drift from the dock.
We drove around the lake, slipped into the nature/visitor center to grab brochures detailing hiking and biking trails, and stopped for lunch at the Patoka Grill. After eating gigantic fish tackler sandwiches, fripes and chocolate malts, we spent the afternoon at the beach to my toddler's delight.
She didn't mind that the beach was flooded five-feet from rains (which incidentally never prevents boats from launching). She built sand castles in a narrow band of wet sand near soggy grass, unconcerned that her masterpieces collapsed with each new wave.
French Lick may have magical mineral springs, but Patoka has fresh, clean water to play in.
3084 N Dillard Road Birdseye
French Lick, Indiana 47513