History of French Lick
Reprinted with permission from the Springs Valley Herald, September 19, 1957 issue.
The health resorts of Orange County, Indiana, are among the many things which nature has lavished upon this beautiful and interesting section of the Hoosierland state. The "licks" of French Lick and West Baden Springs, without doubt, were first discovered by the "wild life" that inhabited this region, and the health giving virtues of these waters were known to the French adventurers who came over from the Vincennes settlement. The traditional attempts of the French settlers to manufacture salt from these waters are well founded. The hostilities of the Indians led to the abandonment of this region on the part of the French settlers.
The affinity of the wild animals of the region toward these waters is attested by the early English settlers and the "licks" were a rendevous for deer, bear, and buffalo until they were eventually wiped out by the removal of the frontier westward.
THE INDIAN STORY--The French Lick Springs were the undisputed happy hunting grounds of the American Indian for at least five hundred years up to the French settlement at the place about two hundred years ago. Until that time the red man considered the springs the gift of the Great Spirit. Here they held their councils and smoked the pipe of peace. Here the wild beasts were at peace with man.
This was to the Indian a type of future state, the Happy Hunting Ground where the good Indians with their dogs were to enjoy the chase to all eternity.
The settlers preferred their good-will. The least breach of hospitality was sure to bring trouble. The Indian never forgets a kindness. Neither did they allow the white man to scape vengeance when he offended them. The revengeful spirit of the Redskins is illustrated by the following true story:
It occurred about the opening of the war of 1812. It would appear that the Indians were offended at one William Charles, a married man having a wife and one child. The Indians just before leaving the country determined on this man's death. To accomplish the deed they laid around in the dense forest and from their hiding places in the hills they saw Charles ploughing corn near the French Lick fort. On the night following the Indians hid themselves behind a stump of a large tree that had been chopped down for timber in building the fort. Here they awaited the return of Charles on the following day. Charles came in the morning and all day long followed the plow across the field uninterrupted. Late that evening, just as the sun was setting, the treacherous Indians fired the fatal shot and Charles fell dead in the furrow.
The Indians made a rush for his scalp, but the sound of the gun alarmed the soldiers of the fort, and they made a dash for the corn field. The Indians fled, never more to return. Their revenge was accomplished and they hastened to join the members of their tribe in the Land of the Setting Sun. The shock was too great for the young widow. The mutilated form of her husband was brought to the fort. The sight of the object of all her dearest affection, cold in death, with the marks of the efforts of his murderers to carry away the shining locks that adorned the head of him she loved better than life. The cuts about the head plainly indicated that after the victim fell to the ground they were only prevented from accomplishing their cruel design by the presence of the soldiers, who followed them until they were lost in the dense woods. That was a sad night to all the company at the fort, with doubly sad to the widow. Tradition tells us she became a maniac. From that time until her death she wore the hat that the Indians cut with their tomahawks in their effort to take his scalp. She died in a few months of a broken heart. The child grew to manhood swearing vengeance on the whole Indian race.
His father's cruel murderers were beyond his reach, safe in the almost impenetrable wilds of the far west. The man's desire for revenge was never gratified. The mangled remains were sorrowfully buried near the fort, and tradition asserts that it was on the very spot where the French Lick Library now stands.
Before we had a stock law in Indiana, the farmers of this section permitted their stock to run at large. The hogs and cattle would wander for miles from their homestead to come to these springs in seeking to drink from nature's pools in preference to fresh water add testimony to the health giving virtues of these famous springs. And land about these springs, along with other lands in the state which were known as saline lands, were reserved to the state and were sold in 1829 to Thomas and William A. Bowles.
William A. Bowles was a physician of renown and quickly recognized the virtues of these waters in establishing the first health resort some time prior to 1840 and built the first hotel at French Lick which stood without much material change until 1881. For several years after establishing this hotel he operated the business and in later years leased the hotel and grounds to Dr. Samuel D. Ryan for a period of 15 years. In about the year 1845 Dr. Bowles entered into a lease with Dr. John A. Lane for what is now known as the West Baden Srpings. Dr. Lane built the first hotel in West Baden and was quite successful in this venture. At the end of five years, the term of his lease, he was able to buy the West Baden Springs from Dr. Bowles and from that time until now there have been two resorts within a little rmore than a mile apart.
William A. Bowles was a remarkable man. This was, perhaps, due, first of all, to his fine appearance. Physically he seemed perfection, large and at the same time very handsome. He measured in his stockings, six feet and two inches in height, and weighed over two hundred pounds. In addition to this a voice of superior softness and musical sweetness charmed the listening ear. These two endowments enabled him to capture the eye and the ear on the first acquaintance. Added to these qualities he wore a pleasant smile and a marked self-confidence that illuminated his physiognomy. He was at one time physician, theologian, minister, politician, statesman, warrior and sage. He knew his intellectual power and used them to mold public opinion. If he was not always sincere he had the faculty of making those about him read in his words and his actions the deepest sincereity. His stock of general information was wonderful. No subjects seemed new or complicated to him. Men came to him for information from every walk of life, and went away satisfied with his confident answers. So popular was he as a physician that his name was a household word in Southern Indiana. The most complicated cases were accorded to him, and often when other doctors gave up a case the old doctor was called in and many times the patient recovered.
In 1846 he was made a Captain of a compnay that enlisted in the Second Indiana Regiment for the Mexican War. The company was formed largely by his influence, and he was unanimously chosen Captain. On the organization of the regiment he was promoted and became Colonel of the Second Indiana Regiment. His popularity was unbounded until the great battle at Buena Vista was fought. The Second Indiana was in the thickest of the fight and lost heavily. At one time during the engagement the Second Indiana was confronted by six to one, and at the same time exposed to a cross fire of artillery. In this dilemma the regiment fell back, and in the disorder which followed Col. Bowles and a part of his men fell in with a Mississippi regiment commanded by Jefferson Davis.
Davis, in making his report to General Taylor, asserted that the Seconed Indiana ingloriously fled, with the gallant Colonel and a few of his men, who remained on the field and did good service in Davis' regiment. When this report became public the soldiers of the Second Indiana were very angry. They acknowledged falling back before the enemy, but asserted that it was by the order of Colonel Bowles. The dispute between the Colonel and the members of his regiment caused ill feelings that were never obliterated.
On the other hand Bowles having been complimented by Jefferson Davis for his gallantry, the two men became life-long friends. Jefferson Davis afterwards became President of the Southern Confederacy and Colonel Bowles of the Second Indiana became the leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Bowles was at last arrested for treason, tried by court martial and sentenced to death. On the request of Governor Morton, President Lincoln commuted the sentence to imprisonment for life. He was incarcerated in the Ohio penitentiary until the war closed when he was pardoned and returned to his French Lick home. Broken with age and disappointed ambition he lingered until 1873. He died in his home in the presence of his third wife. Two former wives having each been granted a divorce. The body rested for a number of years in a stone vault in sight of his home. For some reason the remains were then removed to Ames Chapel, some five miles away and buried in a lonely part of the cemetery. Peace to his ashes.
West Baden Springs passed out of the ownership of Dr. Lane about 1884 and was owned for some years by the late John T. Stout, his brother, Amos Stout, Dr. James Braden, George W. Campbell and Elvet B. Rhodes. In 1887 the control of West Baden Springs passed into the hands of Lee W. Sinclair of Salem, Ind., whose guiding hand brought a great development to the resort, cumulating in the building of the famous hotel with its 200 foot dome. This building is now occupied by the Jesuit Order of Priests and known as the West Baden Springs University. This wonderful hotel was given to the Jesuit order by the late Ed Ballard.
Soon after the French Lick Springs hotel was leased to Dr. Samuel Ryan in 1867, the second wife of Bowles obtained a divorce against him with $15,000 alimony. Before the judgement was satisfied, the divorced wife was killed in a steamboat explosion on the Mississippi River. Dr. Bowles remarried in 1873 leaving a widow with no issue. There were two grandchildren who were heirs of the first union of Dr. Bowles, namely, William A. Dill and Minnie Dill. Friends of these grandchildren became interested in them and asked for a revivial of the judgement in favor of Mrs. Bowles, first, of $15,000 which the court granted. In 1880 the hotel property was sold to satisfy that judgement and was bought at sheriff's sale by Hiram E. Wells and James M. Andrews of Paoli, Indiana.
Under the direction of this partenership, extensive improvements were made. The resort became more widely advertised and very popular. It was a fine place for that day. After several years of successful operation under Wells and Andrew they sold out to a Louisville syndicate. Mr. Wells retaining a one fourth interest until 1891 when he sold out to the Louisville group. The new company made quite extensive improvements adding a general power plant and eventually making an all year round resort which up to that time had only been operated in the summer season.
The place suffered a disastrous fire in 1897 which burned the main building including the dining room and kitchen with extensive quarters for the employees. As a result of this fire the ownership of the hotel passed into the hands of Capt. John C. Howard, one of the original members of the Louisville syndicate and his son, Dr. John L. Howard.
In 1901 the Howards sold the property to a group of men headed by Thomas Taggart, a well known hotel man of Indianapolis, Ind. The touch that the hand of Mr. Taggart brought to the business was almost like magic. The first year witnessed the erection of the first brick wing of the present hotel which was completed in 1902. From that time each succeeding year brought new improvements. The name French Lick which is the combination of French and Lick which was suggested because the place had been known as a "lick" and the French were the first white settlers so the name was thus formed which today is known throughout the United States and in other countries also. Since the passing of Mr. Taggart in 1929, the hotel was under the ownership of the members of his family and his son, Thomas D. Taggart who died in 1949.