Land of Healing Waters

Many are surprised to learn that Citronelle was a nationally recognized health retreat around the turn of the last century. In 1902, an observer of the city wrote, “The elevation combined with its pure water and the mild sea breezes that waft through the pines, impregnating the air with healthy ozone, renders this place one of the most attractive and healthful resorts in the South.”

While several factors did indeed play into the town’s healthful image, it was the mineral springs that drew much of the visitors’ (and even scientists’) fascination. To this day, natural streams bubble forth from Citronelle, but what does this say about the town’s geography? The answer can be found just beneath the earth’s surface.

Among the substances found dissolved in spring water are gases, salts and sulfur compounds. Mineral springs are often classified according to their chemical makeup. For example, lithia springs contain lithium salts, calcic springs contain lime and chalybeate springs (the type most commonly found in Citronelle) contain salts of iron.

The Citronelle Formation, a geologic blanket of sediments stretching from Texas to Florida, is directly responsible for the area’s high water quality. The formation, though several hundred feet underground in some locations, is closest to the earth’s surface at Citronelle, hence the formation’s name. Its clay, sand and gravel act as natural and remarkably effective water filters.

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A mineral spring is a naturally occurring spring with water containing dissolved substances and minerals. The occurrence of such springs is strongly related to an area’s geologic structure, as most are found along fault lines or corrugated regions. Around 10, 000 mineral springs have been mapped in the United States.

Though largely unproven, there are many purported health benefits to bathing in and consuming mineral water, namely increased circulation, reduced stress and pain relief. Of chalybeate waters, one 17th-century physician wrote, “These waters youth in age renew, strength to the weak and sickly add, give the pale cheek a rosy hue, and cheerful spirits to the sad.”

Citronelle’s altitude, a direct result of the Citronelle Formation, is the main reason for its healthy reputation. At an elevation of over 300 feet, the town is the highest point, for its distance from the coast, between Maine and Texas. Such elevation wards off the humidity and stagnant waters usually associated with coastal areas.

Healing Citronelle

The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all celebrated the therapeutic benefits of water. More locally, the Native Americans who lived in what is now Citronelle called the area “Citronella, ” meaning “I heal.” The location was considered so beneficial, it is said that these Natives even took in the sick from other tribes to nurse them back to health.

  • In the late 1800s, a handful of hotels were built in Citronelle as the resort town’s popularity boomed. At one point, Citronelle had seven hotels, the most famous of which was the Hygeia, a first-class establishment that doubled as a tuberculosis sanatorium. A small cottage on the grounds of the Citronelle Depot Museum is the last remaining remnant of the Hygeia Hotel.
  • “All Roads Lead to Citronelle, ” a 1902 publication by the Citronelle Call newspaper, boasts, “No hotel in the South has such pure water as does the Hygeia, for it comes from a spring nearly a half mile from the hotel, thereby being absolutely free from the contamination of any impurities.”
  • Citronelle’s healing waters were favorably compared to the famous mineral springs of Europe. At the turn of the century, the water supplied by the Hotel Citronelle even attracted researchers from the Chicago Clinic and Pure Water Journal, who concluded the water was 99.99963 percent pure.
  • Although Citronelle’s health tourism peaked in the 1930s, many of its natural wonders remain. Gordon Vernon, former president of the Citronelle Historical Preservation Society, says that Lake Chautauqua at Camp Whispering Pines in Citronelle is fed by about 19 natural springs.

Text by Breck Pappas

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