Less than a 2 hour drive from Indianapolis is a world class resort that combines both 21st century amenities with the vestiges of a bygone era. I’m talking about the French Lick Resort & Casino and the West Baden Springs Resort which have a rich history that few people know about. We were there recently and stayed at West Baden Springs Resort. It left me with a haunting memory on 2 levels that I just can’t shake.
First the history: French Lick’s hotel was built in 1850 and West Baden just a couple of years later. They’re a little difficult to get to today so you have to wonder why and how did anyone go there back in 1850. The “why” is the water. There are mineral springs flowing under French Lick and West Baden that people back in the 19th century believed to be “curative” waters. They were proclaimed to cure every ill from constipation to diabetes. The springs are still there today, but are covered up to try to disguise the strong sulfur smell. But back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s people were paying top dollar to drink the waters and spend time at the resorts.
The “how” was the old iron horse. Trains took people from all over the country right up to the front door of the French Lick Resort. In fact, there was a special receiving depot where the passengers would disembark and immediately partake in the “healing” waters before retiring to their luxuriously-appointed rooms.
West Baden which is only a mile from French Lick was built to be spectacular. When it was completed, it had a dome that was the largest in the world. In fact, it was referred to as the “8th wonder of the world”. There were rooms that overlooked the massive dome’s lobby and there were spas and restaurants and shops. They say people would sit in the gorgeous and expansive lobby to chat, people watch and look out for celebrities.
Both hotels went through fires and renovations and resurgences. But for almost 100 years, they were world-renowned and they welcomed just about everybody who was anybody. Clark Gable stayed there. So did Bing and FDR and…. well, they have walls full of pictures of celebrities and politicos who have stayed at the resorts.
The Great Depression hit them hard and the owner of West Baden eventually sold it to the Jesuits for $1. The Jesuits called it home for 30 years and then sold it to Northwood College. The college held it for another 20 years and then when they left, it fell into complete disrepair for another 15 years until Historic Landmarks bought it and convinced the late philanthropist William Cook to restore it. Some $400,000,000 later, both resorts are back to the original splendor. In fact, they may be even better now since a world class golf course has been added to the property. The Pete Dye Golf Course at French Lick was designed by arguably the best golf course designer in history, Pete Dye and it is unbelievable. It’s built in the hills of southern Indiana and provides a truly breathtaking view. I, frankly, wondered how they could charge $300 for a round of golf in Indiana but after seeing the course, I can understand.
That’s the history of the resorts….and now my history:
I spent the honeymoon of my first marriage at French Lick back in 1975. I was a 19 year old girl at the time and was getting ready to embark on a new adventure: moving with my first husband, Bob, to Tehran, Iran where I lived for 1 ½ years. It was the start of a new life full of promise. I was very excited and had a great time during the short, 2 day, honeymoon stay at French Lick. But the promise didn’t hold true and the marriage ended 19 years later. I’ve been hugely happily married to John for 16 years now, so it’s rare for me to think of my past life and feel any real sadness. But while at French Lick I found myself feeling a little haunted by the person I used to be. John played golf one day and I went back over to the French Lick resort to walk around by myself. And to add to my nostalgic mood, the resort was playing melancholy 70’s music! Tears actually welled up in my eyes as I fondly remembered my time there and the feelings I once had for Bob. It was strange but maybe good too. Bad memories so often crowd out the good ones that you forget you had good times too.
The French Lick Hotel reminds me a bit of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan which is where the cult classic movie “Somewhere in Time” was filmed. The movie is a tragic story about lost love and time travel and was set in the same era in which the French Lick resorts were popular. I usually need Kleenex when I watch “Somewhere in Time” so that feeling served to evoke a rather haunting feeling in me as well.
We visited French Lick again back in the 80’s after Northwood College had abandoned it. It was in terrible shape. I remember walking inside the littered lobby and looking up at the incredible dome and thinking “I’ll bet this was really something in its day”. Well, now, it is once again!
It is well worth a trip if you’ve got a weekend to spare. Be sure and check out the old barbershop at West Baden Springs for a trip back in time. And at French Lick be sure and stop to check out the wall posters that are everywhere. They are of actual postcards of the resort dating back to the early 1900’s. There’s also a gazebo behind the resort that still has an open spring of the famous “Pluto” water that the resort was famous for. You’ll know when you’ve found it from the smell!