This is the first of three columns about French Lick and West Baden Springs, adjacent small towns in Orange County, Indiana, that became world famous.
French Lick was named for deposits from mineral springs animals licked along the Buffalo Trace. In 1832, after determining the springs were not a practical source of salt, Indiana sold 1500 acres to William Bowles, a minister expelled from his local church. Claiming to be a physician, Bowles built a hotel and began selling spring water he said cured everything from alcoholism and asthma to insomnia and influenza. In 1869, after Bowles beat charges of practicing medicine without a license, he named his largest spring “Pluto’s Spring” for the Greek god of the underworld. After Bowles’ death, a series of owners expanded the hotel, its supposedly magical “Pluto Water” drawing guests by train from around the United States.
In 1905, Thomas Taggart, formerly Indianapolis mayor, acquired the French Lick Springs Hotel and greatly expanded it and its appeal. The Monon Railroad ran a train from Chicago directly to the hotel, where up to 200 passengers a day, including Hollywood celebrities, entered beneath a gilded marquee. In 1911, Taggart erected an octagonal pavilion over Pluto’s Spring proclaiming Pluto Water to be “Nature’s Greatest Laxative.” Although gambling was illegal, French Lick casinos, including one across the street from Taggart’s hotel, attracted yet more visitors. By the time of Taggart’s death in 1929, his hotel was earning $2 million a year. Franklin Roosevelt attended the Democratic Governors’ Conference in the hotel in 1931, where he sought support for a presidential bid and was photographed wearing leg braces.
The Great Depression and Indiana’s crackdown on gambling led to the hotel’s decline, but a magnificently restored hotel and adjoining (lawful) casino are again attracting visitors from around the world (more in the next two weeks).