The Great Hot Springs of Sebring

A town still in its infancy bursts with excitement over a natural wonder found in the heart of downtown!

Sebring promoters standing on the Circle in 1921 with signs proclaiming “On the Ridge. Health Water”

“Eureka!” we can imagine he shouted. Our protagonist’s name is unknown, so for the sake of the story-telling effect, let’s call him “Harold.”

It was late in the summer of 1921. Harold and his crew worked at Park Street, on the block between Lime Street and Maple Avenue. In the heart of what was then (and is now) a more industrialized district, on the north side of the Commerce Avenue spoke of Sebring’s circle. This is the central hub of downtown, for you out-of-towners.

Harold had drilled down about sixty feet for the water well he was tasked to build. It was then that they finally got a good flow of running water. The sun was beating down hard on the team, as it tends to do in early August in Central Florida. Harold was presumably well-pleased with their efforts, and the workers probably considered calling it a day.

Then they noticed something peculiar. As our dramatization goes, Harold reached for a refreshing splash from their newly-tapped bubbling brook. To his astonishment, it wasn’t cooling at all! In fact, the stream they had unleashed from the ridge below was coming up… downright hot!

People were called over one after another to verify the find as if they could not fathom it was real. Soon word spread through the entire town… there was a hot spring right in the middle of Sebring’s downtown!

Advertisement in the Tampa Tribune from February 1921 for Sebring.

Locals could hardly believe their luck! Earlier in the year, they had just launched an advertising campaign that promoted the benefits of Sebring’s pure and supposedly medicinal water supply. During this era, it was common for northerners to relocate to Florida for health reasons. Its climate and spring waters most were sure had healing powers.

But with the addition of a hot spring — OH BOY! — this ten-year-old town was bound to become a mecca for tourism! The only other hot spring in Florida (near Pensacola) had dried up decades earlier. Sebring developers were confident they’d soon rival Hot Springs, Arkansas!

From a 1921 issue of the Sebring White Way newspaper. Via Allen

“Old Faithful,” the townsfolk decided to dub the discovery. Electricity ran through the veins of every proud citizen of Sebring. For weeks the well’s flow continued to reliably pump around 40 gallons per minute at downright sizzling temperatures averaging 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

With that kind of consistency, all felt confident it was no fluke. A national publicity campaign began immediately. And the word really did spread! The media wire picked up the story, and word of Sebring’s natural wonder was published in major newspapers throughout the country.

Local investors began to contemplate the construction of a large-scale heath-oriented resort (back then, known as a sanitarium). In the immediate term (until more permanent facilities could be built), a tent city and a proximate cafe were planned to nourish the guests. Both would be necessary to handle the influx of northern tourists, who were bound to beat down the town’s doors that coming winter.

Roanoke Hotel and the Circle Inn at Circle Park. State Archives of Florida.

The original spring that Harold and crew had tapped was great and all, but ideally, a better location could be found! The fiery fountain was located in a relatively unsightly district of downtown. It was right across the street from the ice plant, not far from the water and power plants. A nicer venue would be closer to the handsome circle and existing hotel accommodations.

So in early September, a geologist named Herman Gunter was called in to help learn more about the natural treasure. They hoped he could pinpoint a spot for a more convenient well. To the delight of all, the scientist opined that the source was coming from the south. The flow was in the direction of the ice plant and likely passed through the center of the Circle itself!

A city council committee was formed to examine the feasibility of dropping a well in the middle of the circle. It only took a few days to green-light the project, and the Sebring Real Estate Company okayed sinking the new well.

As seen in 1919, Kenilworth Lodge was primed for new tourism from the seemingly imminent spa tourism trade.

The town’s collective heartbeat seemed to pause as the citizenry awaited the results of the new excavation. Finally, the first samples bubbled to the surface… but it was cold!

Unfazed, another was dug nearby the original on Park Street… also cold! The city’s newspaper, the Sebring White Way, attempted to calm the nerves of its now confused patrons. The weekly insisted the failed attempts had “demonstrated that hot water wells are not common even around Sebring… that goes to show that Sebring really has… the genuine article.”

Despite the setback, plans continued to advance around the single spring near the ice plant. Outside partners were sought, culminating in negotiations with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg — yes, the founder of Kellogg’s cereal but also of a similar health resort in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Then almost as suddenly as it had started, the buzz stopped. The exact circumstances of the second discovery at Sebring’s hot springs have been lost. For the sake of the story, let’s say… the ice plant to the south of the well had a malfunction of its machinery and shut down production for repairs. A few moments later, the scalding fount ran cold! What is going on here??!!

It turns out the whole thing had been one giant mistake. After almost three months of hype, the entire pomp had been based on a fallacy.

There was, in fact, no hot spring in Sebring. It may seem counter-intuitive, but ice plants produce a lot of heat. The facility used large quantities of water to cool down its machinery. The runoff from that super-heated water flowed into the ground, under the street, resurfacing precisely in Harold’s formerly remarkable well.

And thus ended Sebring’s brief foray into the health resort industry.

One response to “The Great Hot Springs of Sebring”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *