White Sulphur Springs – nationally known spa and resort
(Editor’s Note: The following story about White Sulphur Springs, penned by the late Eli W. Plummer, appeared years ago in The Jena Times, and was included in the publication – “LaSalle Parish History: Families Past and Present; Volume I” – published by the LaSalle Parish Genealogical Association, with Louise DeMars Windham serving as project coordinator.)
White Sulphur Springs, located on Highway 8, approximately twelve miles southwest of Jena, was a nationally known spa and resting resort during the 1830s, 40s, and 50s.
There champagne glasses clinked, beaux and belles danced the Virginia Reel and stately minuet, and uniformed Negro slaves catered to the guests’ every desire. Gamblers spun the roulette wheel, and hot heads settled their arguments with “forty-fives.”
The lame responded so completely to the curative powers of the magic spring water that wagon loads of discarded crutches and canes had to be hauled away.
In 1830, long before the advent to wagon roads here, Joseph P. Ward, an adventurer of both means and visions, from White Sulphur Springs, Georgia, and bound for Texas, stopped his train of horses and fellow travelers and made camp by a beautiful spring bubbling freely from a hillside.
After taking one long draught of its cool water, he exclaimed, “White Sulphur Springs, Louisiana”, and a vision was born. He would make a resort here even superior to that of his native town.
So sure was Ward of the possibilities here that he built a big two-story hotel, a saloon, gambling house, spacious dance hall, set up a general merchandise store, and built extensive quarters for his Negro slaves.
The success of Ward’s venture exceeded all expectations. Adventurers, sportsmen, vacationers, as well as the lame and ill, gathered here from all parts of the country to enjoy the phenomenal fishing in Trout Creek and Little River, and repose in the quietude of shady dells.
They also sought out new trails in the wilderness and drank water that would cure their ills. Indeed, here in one place was adventure, unexcelled outdoor sports, revelry, romance, repose, and a “sure way to health.”
With this beginning, White Sulphur Springs continued to expand. By 1850, it boasted two big hotels, a livery stable, cotton gin and grist mill, a post office, and a school.
Reconstruction Days started the decline of White Sulphur Springs. By the turn of the century, the Whatley House, where room and board could still be had, was the last remnant of this fabled mecca of yore.
Its demise came in the year 1911, when Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the Louisiana Board of Health, on analyzing the water, reported that it not only had no curative value, but menaced the health of those who drank it, because it was laden with bacteria.
In the year 1916, Mr. W. G. “Buck” Walker, father of W. Bolton Walker, built the octagon roof over “The Springs” and the circular concrete wall around it. Today, those who pass the mecca of an age gone by, see nothing but the octagonal roof under which White Sulphur Springs, yet bubble merrily on, emitting their pungent sulphurous odor.
Those who linger there for a while to engage in retrospect can appreciate the sentiment portrayed in “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Hall.” Questions still arise in the minds of many. Was the pollution of White Sulphur Springs a temporary condition? If so, could it be remedied? Is it possible that all of the ill who were “cured” by drinking this water were victims of some imaginary illness?
Answers to these questions are purely conjecture. However, it does not appear reasonable that so large a number of people suffering with so many different ailments could have been cured by the power of suggestion or some manner of hypnosis. Perhaps at some future time, White Sulphur Springs will rise again.
Many of LaSalle’s elder citizens still believe that the water of White Sulphur Springs has marvelous curative power for the very convincing reason that drinking it has cured them, and many others they knew, of long standing diseases after all other remedies failed. In talking to me by telephone and in conversation, these elder citizens express the hope that White Sulphur Springs will again be developed for the benefit of the ill, especially those suffering from rheumatic diseases.
But regardless of what the future holds for White Sulphur Springs, its historic past should not be forgotten. White Sulphur Springs is one of the most historic points in LaSalle Parish, if not in the whole central Louisiana area. During its heyday in the middle 1800s, “The Springs” was a nationally known health resort and recreational center that attracted its clientele from every section of the country and from every stratum of the social and economic ladder. All came to drink the water that would cure their ills.
The well to do boarded at one of the swank hotels where sumptuous meals were served, while those of lesser means camped in crude shelters or tents. Natives who lived within a day’s journey from the Springs, took the water to their home in demijohns and jugs. During the Civil War, a troop of Confederate soldiers who were assigned to round up “scalawags” and “jayhawkers” bivouacked at White Sulphur Springs.
Records bearing the signatures of guests who registered at White Sulphur Springs in the early days have, unfortunately, been lost. However, according to folklore, they represented every stratum of the social structure – governors, socialites, outlaws, gamblers, missionaries, adventurers, tycoons, vacationers, the ill, and the halt.
Jim Bowie and his brother, Rhesa, who owned land grants near Manifest, some twenty miles away, were reportedly regular habitués of the gambling hall. All guests were reminded to follow this admonition, “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing.” Somebody was apt to get trigger happy, and Sabine River and safety were only two days’ journey away.