Guest Author - Sarah Roop
West Baden Indiana has a rich history starting in 1778 when salt licks and mineral springs were discovered by George Rogers Clark. By the time that Dr. John Land built a sawmill, and opened the first hotel in 1851, there was a settlement established called Mile Lick. The hotel took on the name of the small town and called itself the Mile Lick Hotel. Then in 1855 both the town and the hotel decided to change their names to West Baden, and Americanization of the German town of Weisbaden, which was world renowned for its mineral springs. West Baden’s trademark elf “Sprudel” also appeared at this time, and they began marketing their bottled spring water, which they called Sprudel Water. Sprudel Water was taken directly from the mineral springs on the hotel property.
The hotel eventually came into the ownership of Lee Sinclair, who added an opera house, a casino, and a third mile oval bicycle and horse track. The track building was two stories and featured a lighted baseball field in the center. The hotel soon became the spring training ground for several major league baseball teams.
Then in 1901 tragedy struck and the hotel burned to the ground. Although everyone escaped unharmed, Mr. Sinclair was devastated. He decided to rebuilt immediately, bigger and better. He hired an unknown architect, Harrison Albright. Sinclair had been told his plan of making the atrium have the world’s largest dome was impossible. Albright told him it could be done. He hired a 500 man crew to work day and night until the hotel was finished. Work was completed on the new hotel in a mere 270 days.
The new hotel opened on September 15, 1902, only a year after the original hotel was destroyed. The West Baden Springs Hotel was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World and boasted the largest dome in the world, complete with several glass skylights. The new hotel had many new amenities such as outdoor mineral baths, casino natatorium, bowling alley, billiards, movies, a spa, and even a banks and stock brokerage. The atrium that dome covered was graced with palm trees, upholstered furniture, and birds flying about freely. The large fireplace could hold 14 foot logs and was decorated with fired enamel stones depicting a country scene complete with the hotel in the background and a picture of Sprudel in the foreground. At the time the hotel advertised 700 rooms, although historians now believe the total number was much less.
The hotel quickly became one of the top vacation destinations in the world and was frequented by the rich and famous. Al Capone came to the hotel regularly complete with his entourage when things too hot in Chicago. Diamond Jim Brady, Eva Tanguay, Helen Keller, Irving Berlin, and the Vanderbilts were also guests of the hotel.
Sadly, the hotel’s business started to drop off as the automobile came into more common use, as families would to further destinations that were not readily accessible by train. Then when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, the hotel most of its remaining guests overnight. During the next two years the hotel did little business due to the depression.
In 1934 the hotel was donated to the Jesuits, who chose to remove all the luxurious adornments of the hotel. They filled the mineral springs with concrete and gravel, and turned the once grand resort into a seminary. The West Baden College was a subsidiary of Loyola University. The college ran for 30 years, then closed due to ever falling enrollment and rising costs. It was then purchased and made into a private college and renamed the Northwood Institute. This college ran until 1983 then closed as well. The hotel then sat vacant for over a decade.
Thanks to Bill Cook and the Cook Group, the hotel was saved from further deterioration due to over 35 million dollars in donations to maintain the structural integrity and renovate the gardens, dining room and atrium. This was done in part to attract potential buyers to the property. The hotel continued to sit vacant for 5 more years however, until a gaming ordinance was passed that would allow casino gambling.
In 2006, after two failed purchase attempts, the hotel was signed over to the Cook Group for a token amount due to the generous donations he graciously contributed throughout the years. In May 2007 the hotel opened for business again.
Today the hotel has been completely restored to its former luxury. It now has 243 luxurious rooms, a natatorium, fitness room, spa, 2 golf courses, riding stables, retail shops, both casual and formal dining, historic tours, hot tub and lap pool, and shuttle service to the French Lick Casino and Conference Center. It has won several awards and it has a rich history that will only continue to be enhanced throughout the years.