French Lick Springs Hotel Celebrating 175 Years

The Grand Lobby of the French Lick Springs Hotel has been restored to the opulence of the past. PHOTO: Elizabeth Granger

Story by Elizabeth Granger 

It was all about the water, the “magical” mineral springs that could cure a myriad of ailments. It was the water which made the French Lick Springs Hotel enormously successful.

This year, with all it has to offer in fine dining, lodging, gaming, golfing, and more, the French Lick Springs Hotel will be celebrating its 175th anniversary.

It all began in 1845, when Dr. William A. Bowles built the French Lick House. When he went off to fight in the Mexican War in 1846, he leased the hotel to a traveling patent medicine salesman named Dr. John A. Lane. When Bowles returned earlier than expected he would not renew the lease with Dr. Lane. The displaced- -and displeased—Lane went up the road to the north to Mile Lick and built his own hotel, the West Baden Springs Hotel. Both touted the benefits of the water that could cure whatever ailed you. Lane eventually changed the name of his town to West Baden, after the famous springs in Weisbaden, Germany.

Both hotels prospered after the railroad came to the valley in 1887, with one-upmanship the order of the day. “Competition like you wouldn’t believe,” says hotel historian Jeff Lane.

As in the past, rocking chairs beckon on the front porch of the French Lick Springs Hotel.
PHOTO: Elizabeth Granger

Bought by former Indianapolis mayor Thomas Taggart in 1901 along with three partners, the French Lick Springs Hotel was expanded with lavish furnishings and two golf courses. The ambience was luxurious, the service impeccable, the amenities many.

And to strengthen the lure of coming to the valley, there was gambling. Although outlawed in Indiana in 1851, it flourished quite openly. The Valley was likened to Monte Carlo and, later to Las Vegas. This playground for the rich and famous had as many as 20 hotels and rooming houses and nine named casinos.

After the Stock Market crash, French Lick Springs Hotel turned its attention to the convention business. It proved successful, for a while. But gambling came to a halt in 1949, and a series of owners attempted a variety of renovations that pretty much failed. By the advent of the 21st century the future of the hotel was in question.

And then, a major turnaround. Gaming was legalized in 2003, and a casino was built at the French Lick site. That, and the never- waning interest of preservationists Bill and Gayle Cook, saved both hotels. The Cook Group bought both hotel sites and renovated the properties, increasing convention and lodging space, expanding activity options, … It returned both sites to their former glory–and then some. To the tune of $600 million.

Early 1950s’ guests arrive via passenger train. PHOTO: French Lick Resort

But there’s no status quo. By the middle of November, 71 additional rooms were opened, and options are increasing every day. The atmosphere is definitely upscale with a comfortable, welcoming vibe that’s more approachable than all those decades ago. The resort offers golf, spas, fine and casual dining, casino gaming, bowling, …activities and events both indoor and outdoor.

Like a century ago, says Lane, “there are times we are packed solid.”

Free trolley service runs to all the resort sites and there’s free shuttle service to places in town.

Historical tours of both hotels are provided year-round through Indiana Landmarks. During the summer months, special twilight tours present costumed characters from the past. There are also tours of the stables.

May, which celebrates National Preservation Month as well as Resort History Month, will see
the major kick-off to the 175th anniversary celebration with special events still in the making. They’ll be listed on the resort’s website: FrenchLick.com