Taking the Waters in Texas

[ Texas ]

Taking the Waters in Texas

Springs, Spas, and Fountains of Youth

By Janet Mace Valenza

The first comprehensive history of Texas' healing springs.



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6 x 9 | 279 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-78734-6

"It is well known that Southern Texas possesses a greater variety of Mineral Waters than any other country on the globe" enthused a promotion for one of Texas' many watering spas of the nineteenth century. Though most are closed and nearly forgotten today, Texas spas and resorts once drew thousands of visitors from across the country, seeking healing of body and spirit in the rejuvenating mineral waters.

This book offers the first comprehensive history of Texas' healing springs. Janet Valenza tracks the rise, popularity, and decline of the "water cure" from the 1830s to the present day. She follows the development of major spas and resorts, such as Mineral Wells and Indian Hot Springs near El Paso, as well as of smaller, family-run springs. She also describes how mineral waters influenced patterns of settlement, transportation routes, commerce, and people's attitudes toward the land. Period photos and quotes from those seeking cures offer vivid glimpses into the daily life at the springs, which Valenza lists and describes county-by-county in the appendix.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Vanishing Places
  • 1. Taking the Waters
  • 2. Historic Watering Tradition
  • 3. Texas' Resorts
  • 4. Places Lived: Recapturing Past Landscapes
  • 5. Daily Spa Life
  • 6. Marketing the Waters
  • 7. The Experience of Bathing
  • 8. Places Lost
  • Postscript: Song of the Sacred Waters
  • Appendix A: County List of Medicinal Wells and Springs
  • Appendix B: Regional Guide to Texas' Medicinal Waters
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are fons et origo, "spring and origin," the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation.

—Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

During the summer of 1992, I traveled to a remote location in West Texas to research hot springs. I was not sure what to expect. I had visited some of the country's most famous landmarks—Hot Springs, Arkansas; French Lick, Indiana; Warm Springs, Virginia—all noted health resorts. I knew that Indian Hot Springs, southeast of El Paso, was no longer open to the public, but the hot waters still attracted the locals, some of whom came across the river to take a dip. I thought the trip in my van would be simple and quick after I turned off I-10, and I planned to be back in El Paso for the night. Though the dirt road proved tediously crooked, after every turn I expected to see the old buildings loom ahead. Soon the twenty-some-mile trip had turned into a two-hour pilgrimage.

When I arrived, I saw right away that the sunset-streaked buildings no longer provided the focus of health-seeking journeys. They were all boarded up, including the main spring that led to the bathhouse. Yet there was a sense of expectancy—that the site still had something to offer. Indeed, the buildings appeared to be in good shape. As evening fell, I started to walk around the property, but clouds of mosquitoes immediately besieged me. I hurried back to the van and found that I had depleted my water supply. I knew I would be forced to leave the next morning to regroup, and now I settled in for a long and uncomfortable night in my van.

Around midnight the sky began to brighten with brilliant displays of lightning, preceding what I thought must be the storm to end all storms. I started to worry that if a deluge came, the dirt road might wash out, since the river ran parallel to it for miles. I perceived myself to be in a precarious position at best, so I decided that I should drive back to El Paso. As I tried to maneuver the hills and curves in the dark, my headlights started to flicker and fade. Of course, I was well aware that the desert was the least desirable place to become stranded on low ground during a cloudburst. Driving probably the worst road in Texas, with the wilderness on one side and the dark Rio Grande on the other, I prayed hard those few hours while I dodged legions of jackrabbits. With my rapidly fading lights, I could barely follow the road. Time dragged by as I took the hills and curves like a mad race driver in a broken car. I was in luck—the car lasted until I reached a truck stop. Then it conveniently died. I found out later that the alternator had gone out—not the easiest part of a vehicle to replace, especially in areas populated only by mosquitoes and jackrabbits.

While this episode could constitute a lesson on proper fieldwork preparation, I now understood why Olin Teague wrote in a 1968 Congressional Record that this was the most isolated spa in the country. I also discerned the essential nature of a pilgrimage—expectation fraught with difficulty. Although I had no chance to partake of these waters, I was baffled as to why this and other spas in the state were no longer going enterprises. Indian Hot Springs had a variety of strong mineral waters, a beautiful mountainous setting, and quaint cabins. It did not seem to differ much in circumstance from Ojo Caliente, a small, popular, and affordable spa still operating in northern New Mexico. Texas spas, on the contrary, have completely disappeared from the landscape. Yet they were influential in the history and settlement of the state. Indian Hot Springs, like most of the others, had seen both the rich and the poor mingle there for one purpose—health. It had been frequented by a Rockefeller and owned by a Hunt. Yet now it remained closed, with no foreseeable future as a public facility. Other mineral water spas in this country still operate; or, if they have closed, they are memorialized and preserved with their stories intact. Not much of the story of this spa remained; in fact, the stories of many spas in this state have disappeared.

This book tells the stories of these lost places—places that meant something to the settler, the homemaker, the town builder. In some cases, they symbolized a hope for relief from pain; in others, the chance for a new begin ning in a place where others would also come to make a home. Each site had its own saga, often preserved only in old newspapers in dusty archives. While each is important in its own right, combined, they relay the sense of a force that shaped the way the state developed. That force essentially involved a belief in a nature cure—the power of the flowing waters.

In one respect these places became "sacred" to healthseekers; "taking the waters" embodied a basic and important but fleeting relationship with the natural environment. People searched for the healing powers of nature and found them in mineral springs. They sought companionship, leisure, and alleviation of bodily pain in an inspiring and comforting environment. Feelings of excitement and trepidation usually accompanied their pilgrimages. Participants left the security of their homes for alien and foreign places. Disabled people often endured considerable pain to travel to these spas. Others ventured forth to these unknown places and immediately felt at ease in their surroundings.

Once the visitors arrived at their chosen resorts, they became acquainted with the area, entered into daily routines, and grew familiar with life at the spa. In a new place, bodily routines often fostered a comfortable sense of at homeness. Texas' mineral water resorts became homelike places that nurtured the bodies and the spirits of vacationers, healthseekers, and prospective settlers alike. These places were born from the collective memories and affections of inhabitants and spa-goers. They reflected the essence of human involvement, a creative spark that can make a place an enduring memory instead of merely a fleeting recollection.

Generally, the prized waters remained the nucleus of the activity at most of these watering places, and health more than pleasure was their raison d'être. As time passed, however, the idea of the spas as sacred places was supplanted by a transition at some places to a recreational and socializing role. With the emphasis more on secular pleasure than on health concerns, leisure activities became less place-specific, and the healing waters consequently attracted fewer visitors. Thus the importance of these sites diminished.

The Lone Star State once claimed hundreds of watering places, including some nationally famous ones. No comprehensive history has explored the meanings behind the establishment of these places. Today we know little of their pasts, for only a few scattered accounts in local or county histories memorialize them. Daily life in these towns revolved around the springs, and as the settlement of Texas progressed, the resorts changed. Some developed, and others declined. Yet these wells and springs facilitated Texas' settlement, influenced the state's transportation routes, and helped define people's attitudes toward the land and their own sense of health and wellbeing.


The late Janet Valenza held a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Texas at Austin and taught geography at Austin-area colleges and universities.

"This book chronicles a fascinating aspect of Texas history.... I will certainly add springs to my list of destinations and will have to carry a copy of the book in my car library."

—Craig E. Colten, Associate Professor of Geography, Texas State University , San Marcos