Resorts and Spas

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RESORTS AND SPAS. In the years following the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, mineral springs became as much a vogue in America as they were in England, because of their therapeutic promise—drinking, bathing, and inhaling were recommended for a variety of rheumatic, liver, kidney, alimentary, and other complaints—and because they had become a "fashionable indulgence" of the colonial gentry. Stafford Springs, Connecticut, with seventeenth-century roots, Berkeley Springs, Virginia, and many others locations with mineral springs conceded preeminence to Saratoga Springs, New York, in the nineteenth century.

Springs, Seashores, and Esoteric Cures

As the country expanded westward, new spas attracted visitors. Early in the nineteenth century, numerous "temporary retreats" sprang up throughout the Mississippi Valley, among them Hot Springs, Arkansas (1804), and Blue Licks, Kentucky (1818). Later, the presence of springs coupled with salubrious climate brought health seekers to spas at such places as Colorado Springs, Colorado; Las Vegas, New Mexico; and the Napa Valley and Santa Barbara in California. All the states and the District of Columbia were included in a 1927 list of mineral water spas.

The twentieth century saw the development of resorts and spas (so-called) that dotted the country, many in unexpected places. They offered a whole gamut of attractions that reflected the hedonistic excesses, the obsessions with fitness, and especially the fascination for esoteric and mystic ways of escape and spiritual fulfillment of certain segments of American society. Most of the resorts were thematic, with their offerings running from strenuous ranch life to "palaces of pleasure" to virtual religious and meditative retreats. Everything was available, from Ayurvedic (Hindu) treatment to Zen meditation, from aerobics to "yoga with a kabalistic focus."

The seashore also offered some hope to the sick, but its attraction was more often recreational. Long Branch, New Jersey, claimed prerevolutionary roots, but by the mid-nineteenth century, the Atlantic Coast, and to a lesser extent the Gulf Coast, boasted many resorts. Long Branch and Cape May, New Jersey, catering to the gentry from New York City, Philadelphia, and the South, lost their fashionable position at the end of the century to Newport, Rhode Island, where only the wealthiest could build their "castles."

Steamships, railroads, stages, and eventually trolley cars brought excursionists even to the most exclusive resorts, and with the two-week vacation becoming more commonplace, the shore was no longer the domain of the elite. In the late 1800s, Atlantic City, New Jersey, began to flourish; by the 1950s it boasted 1,200 hotels and 12 million visitors a year.

Mountain Houses, Hotels, and Sanitariums

Still another type of resort—the mountain house—attracted easterners. The Catskill Mountain House in New York State opened in 1823. Late in the century, often under the stimulation of the railroads, the White Mountains, the Berkshires, the Adirondacks, and much of the Appalachian chain became studded with resort hotels, some very large and very fashionable.

In the settlement of the American West, the search for good health was turned into a business of immense proportions. Railroaders, real estate operators, and public officials (often with the help of the medical profession) puffed as virtually miraculous the climate of the Great Plains, the deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and southern California. Hotels and sanitariums, often indistinguishable, catered especially to the tubercular and the asthmatic and played a significant role in the growth of cities in Colorado, California, Arizona, and Texas in the last third of the nineteenth century. For the most part, only the well-to-do could afford the accommodations provided, but arrangements existed for a substantial "invalid traffic" of people of modest means and even of the indigent. By the 1890s, bitter experiences and new medical knowledge brought disillusionment. Resorts and hotels began to discourage the patronage of the sick.

Winter Resorts

The railroads, which had made it possible for easterners to winter in California, made Florida even more accessible. Florida had appealed to health seekers even before the Civil War, but its buildup as a major winter resort was the later work of entrepreneurs, who mixed railroading and the hotel business, and of speculators and promoters. The culmination came with the creation of Miami Beach out of a jungle in ten years, from 1913 to 1923. The automobile and then the airplane helped to turn Florida into a winter haven for many easterners and midwesterners.

One other type of winter resort was to flourish—that devoted to winter sports, especially skiing. Although skiing was not unknown earlier, it was not until the Olympic Winter Games of 1932 at Lake Placid, New York, that American interest in skiing began to skyrocket. Ski resorts first became popular in the Northeast. The introduction of uphill transportation in Vermont and New Hampshire in the 1930s, the weekend ski and snow trains from the seaboard cities, and the ease of automobile transportation all helped to popularize the sport and build up the resorts. At the end of the twentieth century, one ranking placed ten ski areas in Vermont and New Hampshire among the country's best fifty.

Colorado, with its ideal climate for skiing and its more than fifty peaks of over fourteen thousand feet, was not far behind in developing ski resort areas. The winter carnival at Steamboat Springs went back to 1913; Aspen built its first run in 1935. By the end of the century, according to the same ranking noted above, fifteen of the best fifty ski areas were in Colorado. Skiing, with its health as well as recreational aspects, continued to flourish. In Idaho, the Union Pacific Railroad turned the town of Ketchum into Sun Valley, a magnificent resort area, in 1936. In California, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and Donner Summit were among the early ski areas. In the Northwest, ski lodges appeared in the vicinity of Mount Rainier in the State of Washington and Mount Hood in Oregon. From Butte, Montana, to San Diego, California, to Flagstaff, Arizona, ski resorts appeared.

The popularity of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain regions resulted from the ease of air travel and the promotion of "package deals" by the airlines. One added feature was the development of the ski resort as a family vacation spot, as evidenced by the ready availability of children's rates, nurseries, and baby-sitters. Ingenuity in the East rose to meet the competition of the West: the snow-making machine was to turn every sizable hill within driving distance of any populous area into a ski resort.


Amory, Cleveland. The Last Resorts. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Corbett, Theodore. The Making of American Resorts: Saratoga Springs, Ballston Spa, Lake George. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Holmes, Karen B. 101 Vacations to Change Your Life: A Guide to Wellness Centers, Spiritual Retreats, and Spas. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1999.

Jay, John C. Skiing the Americas. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Jones, Billy M. Health-Seekers in the Southwest, 1817–1900. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

David L.Cowen

See alsoAtlantic City ; Medicine, Alternative ; Miami ; Saratoga Springs ; Skiing .

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Resorts and Spas

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Resorts and Spas