Excelsior Springs "Valley of Vitality"
Once upon a time there was a beautiful valley, where magnificent, stately trees covered the rugged hills and grew from the deep fern-covered canyons, where sparkling waters from numerous springs flowed unhampered into the shady depths of Fishing River. This quiet, grass-covered valley was a gorgeous, peaceful setting to rest, relax and enjoy nature's beauty and bounty. Legend has it that an Indian hunter, Wapoo, was the first to discover this valley and learn of the health-giving properties of the waters that flowed here.
Wapoo was weak and wounded after a long hunt. He had a feverish thirst and didn't know if he would be able to go on. Then he heard the music of a streamlet down in the valley below. He made his way to the edge of the water and quenched his thirst. He found that the water tasted strange and noticed the red stain on the rocks. He wondered if it might be poisoned but is seemed soothing instead. So, he bathed his wounds and rested. His body healed quickly and he thanked the Almighty for this great "gift of life" he called the water.
Wapoo spread the word of this peaceful valley and Indians came here at the end of the hunting season, after they had gathered their maize, dried their venison and buffalo and laid up a bountiful supply of food for the winter. They came here to rest and drink the health-giving waters.
It wasn't until the 1850's, that we learn of the first white settlers coming to the valley. A. W. Wyman owned much of the land that is the known as Olde Towne today. It was a big wheat field with the Fishing River flowing though it. On the banks of this river was a spring. The water from this spring was a reddish in color and had an odd taste. Most folks called it "pizen" because they thought it was poison water.
It so happened that Travis Mellon, a black man living in the area had a young daughter that was suffering from a serious skin ailment. He had heard that the Indians believed this water to have special healing properties. He was desperate so he decided to use this water to treat the ailment. After a few weeks of drinking and bathing in the water, it effected a complete cure. This astonished all who knew the circumstances of the case. The word spread far and wide. Other persons afflicted with various ailments tried the water. They found it equally efficacious in treating rheumatism, liver complaints, diseases of the kidneys and bladder, dyspepsia, piles, and sciatica.
Mr. Wyman consulted a friend, the Reverend J.V. B. Flack of Missouri City, about what had happened. Rev. Flack took samples of the water and sent them to St. Louis to be tested. The report came back that the water had medicinal qualities. This spring produced the strongest iron water ever to be discovered. Reverend Flack named the spring, Siloam.
It was 1880 and together Mr. Wyman and Rev. Flack platted the town. They sold the land at a reasonable price, to encourage people to live here. The called the town Viginti for a short time until the name Excelsior Springs was available. A barrel was sunk in the mud at the Siloam Spring to catch the water for people to use. From morning to night people would make their way to the spring and drink from the little tin cups. People came from great distances to use the water as the stories of the cures spread. People with sore eyes came and were healed. People also tried the mud from the spring and found its use to be beneficial too.
It was reported that within the first year, 100 houses had been built and a thousand people were living in tents. The first hotel, the Excelsior, was built in 1881. It stood just east of Main on Broadway and had steps leading from it to the spring. The first business in town was a popcorn stand beside Siloam Spring. The idea was to eat popcorn, which would make you thirsty, so you could drink more of the water.
With so many people already here and more and more coming, worry about having enough water to satisfy the needs caused people to explore for more springs.
In 1881, another spring was found a few bends down the Fishing River. This spring was located south of our present day Elms Hotel. This water was also iron manganese. It was originally called the Empire Spring, then it was renamed Regent Spring.
As the city continued to grow, there arose the need for still more water, so wells were drilled. When these waters were tested for purity, much to everyone's surprise they proved to be different mineral waters. Eventually five distinct types of mineral waters were found here - more than any like area in the world. They include iron manganese, sulpho saline, soda bicarbonate, calcium and lithium. Because of a special geological formation, different types of water were found at various depths. The most shallow well went just 35 feet below the surface but sometimes they had to go very deep as with one of the Sulpho Saline wells which is at a depth of over 1400 feet. The content and combinations of minerals varied from well to well and spring to spring so some historic accounts mention as many as 22 or more varieties. There were a total of 46 wells and springs located within a one mile radius of the Siloam Spring. All but two of these were for good for drinking or bathing. These two had such a high salt content that they were only used for making bath crystals.
Initially simple structures were built around the springs to shelter visitors and make it more pleasant when partaking of the waters. In time, these gave way to pagodas, pavilions, pergolas and some amazing buildings. Photographs, postcards, paintings, and drawings all give ample evidence of their existence and their wide variety of designs and materials. The most amazing of these were the two pavilions in Siloam Gardens. Built in 1917 according to the plans of George Kessler and Henry F. Hoit, architect, the Siloam and Sulpho Saline Pavilions were built. These marble monuments along with incredible landscaping created an environment that were unequaled in any American resort of the day.
Among the springs, The Park Spring was discovered in 1904 and produces Calcium water that is still bottled today. The Park Pavilion has been rebuilt and is across the river from the Hall of Waters in Fishing River Linear Park. The Superior Spring was discovered a little later and produces two waters. It was set among elegant, little cottages in a park along the north bank of the Fishing River. The pavilion stills stands today. You can still stand atop and view the East Fork of the Fishing River or stroll along the walking path in East Valley Park.
Early inhabitants had great foresight in planning Excelsior Springs. At the beginning of the century they recruited George E. Kessler, the world famous landscape architect to design our parks and boulevard system. We are fortunate to have a more extensive park system than most any community our size. It was estimated that we had over 2,000 acres of parks. They provided playgrounds, picnic areas, bridle and walking paths, a series of swinging bridges so pedestrians could cross the Fishing River, and beautiful landscaping.
In 1935, the city decided that more people could take advantage of the health-giving mineral waters if they were piped to a central point, so the Hall of Waters was conceived. Siloam Gardens gave way to the modern age and a magnificent art decor masterpiece was built. This product of the Works Progress Administration was built at a cost of $1 million and was dedicated in 1937. At that time, it housed a men's and women's state-of-the-art bath houses, a public swimming pool containing sulpho-saline water, a smaller therapeutic pool, a bottling plant, offices for the Chamber of Commerce, the Mineral Water System and the WORLD'S LONGEST WATER BAR. Thousands of visitors came each year to partake of the waters, the baths, rest and relax in the Valley of Vitality. To this day you can taste some of the waters that made Excelsior Springs famous at The World's Longest Water Bar, treat yourselves to the baths at the Hall of Waters Spa and tour this unique facility.
The baths. People came for the waters and besides drinking the waters, taking the baths were the most important ways the waters were used. All of the major hotels had bath houses, as well as, individual bath houses that provided services. The baths came in many forms, these included: any of the mineral water or plain water, they were taken in every kind of device of modern ingenuity, the baths were taken hot and cold, they included showers and douches, and they were delivered in sparse or lovely surroundings. Whatever tickled your fancy or fit your budget. There were Turkish, Russian, Swedish, electric, vapor, steam, sitz, mud baths and many more. And, the bath houses offered massage. Here, too, many types were offered. During their peak there were more than eleven bath houses in operation plus those in the major hotels.
Initially people came here in covered wagons or on horse. Stagecoach lines were run to the nearest railroads and boat landings, as well as to the nearest cities. Of course, the roads were dirt and when it rained, the roads were mud. Some of these roads were not much more than trails, just wide enough to let the stagecoaches through.
As more visitors were attracted from larger towns and cities transportation became very important. By 1887 so many travelers were making their way to Excelsior Springs that the first railroad came to town. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad was the first of four. This really encouraged visitors and sometimes as many as 20 carriages and 80 horses met the train to transport them to town. Soon a trolley line was built to go up what we now know as Dunbar Avenue to the Milwaukee Depot. This trolley turned around at the circle up by the depot and returned to downtown.
In 1893, a short railroad line was built to the south of the city, connecting with the Wabash railroad. It was called the "Dummy Line" because of the small engine it used. Col. "Liv" Morse built this railroad. The engine ran forward going south but since there was no place provided for it to turn around, it went backward coming back to town. Eventually a turnaround was built at the north end of the line, where the Nance's Super now stands. The Wabash Railroad brought a branch line to Excelsior Springs in 1927 and operated passenger and freight service until 1933. The Rock Island Railroad also brought passenger service to Excelsior Springs beginning in 1931. Much growth and development of Excelsior Springs can be attributed to the railroads as they spread the fame of the waters in their advertisements throughout the land.
Excelsior Springs also enjoyed service from the Interurban Line. This electric powered train hauled passengers and freight and traveled at speeds of over 100 miles per hour. It was a part of KCCC & St. J RY CO (Kansas City, Clay County, St. Joseph Railway Company.) The Interurban operated from 1912 to 1933 between Kansas City and neighboring towns to the north. It arrived and departed Excelsior Springs eight times a day. To give the reader an idea of the number of people visiting the Valley of Vitality, it was reported that in 1920 the Interurban handled over 374,700 people in and out of Excelsior Springs. In that same year the Wabash Railroad handled 31,300 passengers. People also came by bus and automobile.
Visitors needed accommodations so boarding houses were started. (Boarding houses were similar to hotels. They had sleeping rooms and a person would also be served their meals there.) Meals were served at a large table in a dining room the food was served family style. At times there were from 50 to 100 boarding houses. They had names like The Magnolia Home, the Grant House, and the Victoria. People typically stayed for a week or more at a boarding house and rates were from $3.50 to $8.00 per week in 1910's. Evidence of these can still be seen of the boarding houses at the east end of town.
Hotels were also very important to visitors. The most famous of the hotels was The Elms. It was originally built as a first class hotel in 1888. In 1889, it burnt. It was replaced with another wooden structure in 1908. This burnt in 1909. The third Elms Hotel, built as the "fireproof Elms", was opened in 1912. In 1996 a new owner began the most extensive restoration, rehabilitation and remodeling project the Elms had ever seen. They project its opening for the Spring of 1998 and that it become a four star rated property. They will have restored the facade, lobby, verandas and ballroom, rehabilitated all of the guest rooms, renovated the dining room, banquet rooms, bar and meeting rooms, as well as replacing all systems throughout the facility. They also are working on extensive plans for the grounds to return them to their former glory including a large pagoda. There will also be stable for horseback riding and carriage rides.
There were many other hotels. Among the more memorable one were the Castle Rock Hotel, the Snapps, the Royal, the Relief, the Planters, the Saratoga, the Francis, Chadwick, German House, Maples and many more. In fact, there were as many as 20 hotels operating at any point in time. Accommodations were available for every budget. Rates and types of services varied from cheap rooms to the European plan (which included a continental breakfast) to the American plan which could include all meals. After the turn of the century, the American plan was still as little as $2.50 per day. And as late as 1960, the once famous Francis Hotel, then a part of one of the clinics, had rooms with a bath for only $2.50 per day.
Around 1900 for amusement purposes, there was a combination restaurant, dance hall and bottling works built near the "Dummy Line". Mineral water was bottled here for out of town delivery. The Auditorium was another amusement place. A theatre, dance hall, 10 lane bowling alley, a billiard parlor, pool hall and a skating rink were located there. An Opera House called the Music Hall Bath House was built in 1889. It was very large, ornate building that contained a theatre, with a seating capacity of over 1300, a swimming pool, a mineral water bath houses and water bar. It burnt in 1908. At one time, Excelsior Springs boasted three movie theatres, several indoor and outdoor swimming pools, three bowling alleys, a horse racing track, two skating rinks, championship golf course, an airport and more...
Medical men of every persuasion came here to take advantage of the health-giving benefits of the waters. They brought their families and set up their practices. At one time there were more than 20 clinics, hospitals or sanitariums. They each had their area of expertise. They ranged from family practice to specialists. Specialties included female complaints, cancer cures, stomach disorders, colon rectal treatments, hemorrhoid removal (surgically or non-surgically!), arthritis, rheumatism and stress. Among the most famous clinics were the Mitchell Clinic, Ball World Clinic, and McCleary Clinic. These clinics attracted people from around the world.
And the people came and kept coming. They came year after year and generation after generation. They came for holidays and anniversaries. They came for their health, for rest and relaxation. The enjoyed the scenery, the architecture, the shopping, the food, the history, the baths and the waters.
Come visit the historic City of Excelsior Springs, Missouri - the Valley of Vitality. Come see world famous Elms Resort and Spa, partake of the waters at the World's Longest Water Bar, take the baths at the Hall of Waters Spa, and find out more at the Excelsior Springs Historical Museum.