Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: French Lick Springs Hotel (1845), French Lick, Indiana*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
The first hotel on this site was built in 1845 by Dr. William Bowles as a health resort to take advantage of the natural sulphur springs and mineral water. The original hotel burned down in 1897 but was rebuilt on a grander scale by Thomas Taggart, the mayor of Indianapolis (and later a U.S. Senator). The Monon Railroad built a spur directly to the hotel grounds with daily passenger service to Chicago.
Casino gambling, although illegal, flourished at the resort. In its heyday in the Roaring Twenties, the surrounding Spring Valley had 30 hotels and 15 clubs. At the time, it was a lively community for gamblers, politicians, sport figures, entertainers, and gangsters. The town got its name from the French traders who founded it and the salty mineral deposits that attracted wildlife. During the Prohibition years, French Lick had 13 casinos, all of them illegal. Famous guests who visited French Lick included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Adlai E. Stevenson, the Marx Brothers, Joe Louis, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Douglas MacArthur, Bud Abbott, and Lou Costello.
In the 1950s, Sheraton acquired the six-hundred room French Lick Springs Hotel, 1,700 acres of land, the makings of an artificial lake, a shooting range, bridle paths, sulphur baths, and two championship golf courses for one million dollars. After extensive remodeling, air-conditioning and modernizing, Ernest Henderson, President of Sheraton, wrote that "the renovated resort is definitely one of the brighter stars in the Sheraton constellation." However, despite hotel-sponsored jazz and music festivals featuring Duke Ellington and Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops, the Sheraton French Lick Springs Hotel never fulfilled Henderson's prediction. Some 50 years later in 2006 under new ownership, the French Lick Springs Resort reopened after a two-year historic renovation of its 443 guestrooms, restaurants, casino, spa, and golf course.
The 1917 Donald Ross golf course at the French Lick Resort reopened in September 2006 unveiling a $4.6 million restoration of a famed course where Walter Hagen won the PGA championship in 1924. Similarly, Betsey Rawls walked off the 72nd hole in 1959 with an LPGA Championship defeating Patty Berg.
The French Lick Resort's new casino is apparently as luxurious and as big as the original. The 84,000 square-foot casino features 1,200 slot machines and dozens of blackjack, roulette, craps, and poker tables. The Resort has eight new restaurants, six-lane bowling, indoor tennis, riding stables, and promenade shops. The casino was built in the shape of a riverboat and is surrounded by a moat (in accordance with the 1993 Indiana state law which permits gambling only on riverboats). French Lickers call it the "Boat in the Moat". The French Lick Springs Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of America and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed, and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.