All That Remains of an Old Florida Resort

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Suwannee Springs Resort | Suwannee County, Florida | Founded c. 1830s

*Thanks to Eric Musgrove, a local historian who provided the research for this piece*

Standing quietly along the Suwannee River in Florida is a relic from another time. The ruins of a grand resort that once flourished during the era of the hot spring hotels. When tourists from around the U.S. would travel to this area by wagon, then trains, to access the purported healing waters of the natural springs here. This was one of Florida’s earliest tourist destinations- visited by those looking to heal and relax in the resort-like atmosphere of a grand hotel. A hotel that could host 150 guests, although if you passed by today, you would never know it was there.

View of the Suwannee River at the site of the former spring resort.

Francis J. Ross Builds a Hotel

The first settler to establish himself at Suwannee Springs arrived in 1831. Originally from Jacksonville, Francis J. Ross purchased the spring and surrounding land for $5,000 and began building a resort on the site. Within a few years, the resort was being advertised in Florida newspapers and reported that it could host up to 150 guests. It also had a large hall that could accommodate 200 people. The hotel was visited by tourists who came on the weekly stagecoach that connected Tallahassee and Jacksonville. The springs could be enjoyed by tourists from the banks of the river while spring baths and showers were offered to the old and infirm who couldn’t make it to the riverside.

The second half of the 1830s was challenging in this part of Florida. The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) discouraged tourists to this region. As the Second Seminole War erupted, Ross led one of the local militia units that helped to defend against Seminole attacks around the Florida frontier. Ross is listed in 1837 as captain of a company of the 1st Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the Florida Mounted Militia (“Old Greys”). In February 1837, Ross was authorized by the Florida Legislature to build a bridge across the Suwannee River, however, it was likely never built because that same year, a nationwide financial panic forced Ross to sell the resort in 1838. Ross moved across the river to Hamilton County where he purchased a large plantation.

Advertisement for Suwannee Springs Resort.

Its new owner, Hector W. Braden purchased the springs for $5,000 and things began to turn around for Suwannee Springs Resort when the Second Seminold War ended in 1842. New ferries and bridges were opened along the river, opening the roads to more tourists. Guesthouses at Suwannee Springs were again found in Florida newspaper advertisements, described as: “the very best fare that can be obtained in this section of the country”. In addition to relaxing at the mineral springs, guests were offered hunting tours and were also served local delicacies, like gopher gumbo. The resort continued to flourish up until the Civil War when operations at the hotel halted.

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After the Civil War

After the Civil War, Florida flourished with visitors from the northern states who came for the warmth and healing springs. The state invited tourists from all over the U.S. and the arrival of trains to this area only expanded the emerging tourism industry. The owners of Suwannee Springs worked to gradually expand their hotel to accommodate more guests.

1916 photo of the trolley at the springs that ran from the train station to the hotel, and also took guests from the hotel to the springs. Photographed here are: Mahone Rees, Mattie Stapleton (Hall), Alice Andrews, Geraldine Logan (Lane), & Gladys Logan (Horne)Photo courtesy of Jo Patterson.

They built a trolley that ran down to the bathing area, exercise courts, a bowling alley, a water bottling plant, and stone walls around the springs that still exist today. There was also a trolley that shuttled guests from the nearby Suwannee Station to the resort and back. 

Suwannee Station, located one mile from the resort where resort guests would arrive and board the hotel trolley.
Suwannee Station.

A Tragic Fire

The first grand hotel built here after the war was a massive wooden structure with five turrets and 125 rooms surrounding a great open central square. A newspaper article about the hotel said the building was “probably the finest structure of the kind in the state.”

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Designed by Levi Scoville and Jesse Culpepper, the hotel was lost in a tragic fire on January 17, 1884- shortly after it was completed. Reports said that the fire started at about 4:30 in the morning on the second floor above the kitchen and quickly spread to the rest of the building. There were an estimated 100 guests at the hotel at the time, many of whom were infirm and invalid. The report said that all guests were saved, although some had broken limbs from jumping from their second-floor windows. However, an African American girl and boy who worked as servants at the hotel were reported missing and assumed lost in the fire. So traumatic was the loss that a special train was sent from Jacksonville to help in relief efforts for the many displaced guests. The hotel was underinsured and the owners were only able to recuperate half of what it was worth. 

A New Resort

After the loss of the hotel, a new one was built in its place and completed in 1885. The owners were obviously weary of such a large, wooden hotel so a new structure was made of brick and only had 25 rooms.

The second hotel built at Suwannee Springs. Photo c. 1895.

They also built new, stand-alone wooden cottages around the property so that if a fire were to break out again, they wouldn’t lose everything. But even brick construction couldn’t save them completely, and in 1901, the new hotel burned as well- however, all 18 surrounding cottages and the hotel’s annex were still intact.

A postcard showing a row of guest cottages at Suwannee Springs.

A third hotel was built on the site of the previous hotel’s annex alongside the cottages which continued to operate into the 1920s.

Guests at the springs in 1922.

However, scientific evidence began to show that sulfur didn’t hold the healing powers that were once thought to be miraculous and visitors became fewer and fewer. In 1925, the third hotel was also lost to fire after the wooden roof caught fire, leaving only a scattering of wooden tourist cottages scattered across the former resort property.

Campers at the Suwannee Springs Cabins c. 1920s.
One of the remaining guest cottages at Suwannee Springs.
One of the remaining guest cottages at Suwannee Springs.
This brick and stone structure was built in the style of the second postwar hotel.

Suwannee Springs Dries Up

New roads were opening in Florida- making beaches more accessible and taking tourists away from central Florida in favor of the coasts. In 1931, a through truss bridge over the Suwannee River was built, but tourism had already started to dry up and the community of Suwannee Springs did too.

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This steel truss bridge was built in 1931 by the Austin Brothers Bridge Company and was abandoned in 1971 when US-129 was rerouted and a new bridge was constructed.

Today, all that is left of the resort that once drew tourists from all over are a handful of wooden cottages and the walls that formerly surrounded the springs and bathhouses. The area is state-owned/maintained through the Suwannee River Water Management District which has modernized the site with boardwalks, stairs, and picnic areas.

Photo of the walls of the former spring house at Suwannee Springs. Photo courtesy of Lands of North Florida Realty.

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