In 1906, the Hot Wells Hotel in south San Antonio, offered a $1k reward to any soul who could disprove the hotness of their sulfur spring. Of course anyone with a candy thermometer could have checked the temperature of their stinky water. The reward was just a clever way of luring eyes to the ad that lured folks to the spa.
Belief in the healing power of mineral springs, of course, is as old as mankind’s relationship with water. From the time it was built in the late 1890s, the Hot Wells Hotel drew crowds, celebrities, politicians and even entire baseball teams – all seeking refuge from misery or trying to stave it off.
Just about everything listed in the ad above, I suffer with. My immune system has been kicking my butt for twenty years. In addition to the prescription meds available, I’ve tried fish oil, flax oil, curcumin, yoga, special diets…any and every “cure,” I’ve given it a shot. So I can fully appreciate why people trekked to the Hot Wells Hotel craving relief. I would have been right there with them.
In 1893, the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum dug a water well for their facility near the San Antonio River. Instead of the sweet water of Edwards Aquifer, they brought in a gusher of warm sulfuric agua that flowed at nearly 200k gallons per day. So they dug a better well for potable water and quickly leased the rights to the sulfur spring.
Within a year, the leaseholder built a hotel, and within a year, it burned. The hotel was rebuilt bigger, better, fancier. A swanky bath house, world class cuisine, an orchestra, electric lights and telephones in each luxury suite. In 1902 the lease went to Israel Putnam, an Okie real estate developer. Putnam pledged to invest $350,000 to triple its capacity, add a separate café and a roof garden to the hotel (a $10 million investment today.)
Meanwhile, a Californian named S.W. Slinkard bought twenty acres near the resort to run his livestock on. Menfolk at the Hot Wells Hotel enjoyed a bit of gambling after the arrival of the animals, but these weren’t your typical pony races. Mr. Slinkard was an ostrich farmer. He brought about 300 of the leggy birds to San Antonio to make his fortune supplying Texas with ostrich feathers. Ladies would ride out to Hot Wells and purchase plumes to festoon their hats & finery for a nickel apiece.
In 1911, H. H. Franks of Austin was brought in to run the Hotel. He spiffed up the place even more. In addition to the 190-room hotel and enormous bath house, there was swimming & boating in the river, horseback riding, tennis, croquet, concerts, lectures and dances. There was a footbridge across the river to the ruins of Mission San Jose. A sidetrack to accommodate private railroad cars allowed the rich and famous to roll right up to Hot Wells’ doorstep. Swimming pools, movie stars.
WWI forced change. The ostrich farm, a symbol of leisure & frivolity, was sold to a concern who produced rubber goods. Tourism declined. The hotel tried to adapt by hosting concerts and formal dinners to lure more locals to the resort. Prohibition was the straw that broke the hospitality camel’s back. In 1923, the property was sold to a Christian Science congregation to be used as a school & dormitory. Two years later, the hotel burned to the ground. Again.
The bath house remained. Who needs a fancy hotel when the spring itself is the main attraction? San Antonians improvised. Tourist cottages sprang up around the bath house and people continued to bathe in the warm waters, next to the charred remains of the old hotel.
Just as the U.S. entered WWII, trailers entered the grounds of the Hot Wells Hotel. (You had to see the mobile homes coming, folks.) The site was operated as a motorcourt and trailer park by the Ralph Jones family for the next thirty-five years. The bath house lobby became a burger & beer joint popular with locals…knockin’ back a cold one while taking a dip in the hot sulfur pools. The Jones clan ended their run in 1977 and the contents of the bath house were sold at auction. The site was closed.
A final conflagration ended the era of intact buildings on the site. In 1997, the middle of the bath house burned, giving us the view we have today. The original well that gave life to the resort was capped in 2014 and Bexar County went to work cleaning up the grounds. The ruins were stabilized and a park was established.
Everything is tidy and stark. It feels more sterile and well lit than ruins maybe should, but I think that’s appropriate for a bath house. It’s eerie but only in its aesthetics. The feeling around and in the ruins is a very serene one.
This is how I ended up finding relief at the ruins of a 19th century placebo playground…
When my immune system fired its first volleys at me, the best available medicine was Prednisone. I took gobs of it because my doctor told me to. I was young and ignorant, woefully ill-equipped to be my own patient advocate.
Ever wake up one day and realize the 115-pound person you were 2 months ago has been swallowed by a 197-pound person you don’t recognize? My frame groaned. My joints screamed. My skin ripped. No clothes that fit. I had a moonface. My dad repeatedly told me I didn’t look like his daughter anymore. (That wasn’t kind but he wasn’t wrong.) Under the new skin I was living in, irreversible changes were afoot. I had osteoporosis before I was 25. Cysts on my ovaries. Elevated heart rate & blood pressure.
…but no therapeutic benefit. At all. I tapered myself off and began creating my new normal. Midway through this mess, I started a publishing company. Learning from that health disaster and creating Copano Bay Press are my two achievements I love best. I wouldn’t be me without either of them.
My immune system continues to whoop up on more of my body. My eyes often don’t produce tears and I’m half blind when they don’t. When my salivary glands are inflamed, I have a tough time swallowing food. Sometimes my finger joints burn with red hot pain. Other days, it’s my toes and ankles. Many days, I feel like a tiny man is sprinting through my lower abdomen with an iron fresh out of the fire. Sometimes my skin feels like I’M on fire. 14 pulmonary nodules serve as scars from past attacks. In 2010, my overachieving immune system even attacked my sweat glands!
On a good day, there’s this low hum of pain from many quarters that interferes with my ability to concentrate as deeply as I’d like. By the grace of God, though, I still make sense of life and live the hell out of it.
…I ended up at the ruins of the Hot Wells Hotel in San Antonio seeking comfort in the scene, not the sulfur. The peace I find in research and exploration is powerful medicine. Even on days when it hurts to walk or my energy is in the crapper, exploring can turn my day around. Thinking about how I can describe to you a place you may never visit takes my mind off the pain signals.
When my fingers hurt too much to set type or my eyes are too angry to read much, I go find a thing to photograph and tell you about. Then I wait until I have a good day to sit and type the story. Today is a good day, folks.
There now exists a new class of IV medications (often failed chemo meds) used to treat people like me, but I couldn’t find a doctor willing to put me on them. In July, a very thorough gastroenterologist in San Antonio agreed to give it a shot. Lots of insurance red tape and three months later, in the midst of a pandemic, I am beginning treatment to take my immune system down a few pegs.
The medicine will spike some of my white blood cells to prevent them from firing on me. Without an attacking army inside me that never sleeps, I may begin to heal. While I wait for it to work, I’ll be kicking around town squares, ruins and the countryside after each appointment, seeking the new relief I find in old places. If you have a place you recommend, please send it on.
The beauty of misery is the contrast it provides. Had I never been miserable, I’d appreciate the good times exponentially less. Every day has good times in it if you view it through that lens. I know I do and I know good things are coming.