Mt. Clemens, 'Bath City of America'

The Mt. Clemens city hall and courthouse in the 1890s.

Health-conscious Americans flock to  European and American resort spas like La Costa in California, Green House in Texas, and the Dead Sea resorts in Israel. These visitors come to relax and be pampered in the healing mud and mineral baths.

But it wasn’t so long ago that these same people would have descended on Mount Clemens just outside Detroit to soak in the mineral baths of this small Michigan town.

A view from the Market Street bridge during the height of the bathhouse era. In the background is the county jail, The Medea Bath House, its boiler room and aerating vats, and Freimans Brewery.

      The Mount Clemens bath era began during the Civil War in 1862, which was also the height of oil prospecting fever that gripped fortune-hunting Americans. Charles Seffens, a local businessman who hoped to become rich on the black gold, sank the first oil well in the city, but brought up only brine. Efforts to extract salt from the waters also failed because minerals in the smelly water prevented the extraction of a commercial grade of salt.

According to local folklore, the medicinal properties of the water became known when a decrepit horse became rejuvenated after drinking and rolling in it.

The horse’s owner, a Frenchman on East Street, had worked the creature so much that the old nag was turned out to pasture. Taking shelter from the sun, the animal wandered under the drippings from an old abandoned brine tank. As the story goes, the farmer later visited his rheumatic old horse and found it galloping around the fields, cavorting like a young colt.

Meanwhile, a mill manager named Dorr Kellogg arrived in town suffering a severe case of eczema. Hearing of the horse, Kellogg collected dark water from the field wells and soaked himself. After repeated baths, his eczema disappeared. Kellogg claimed the restorative powers of the brine had healed his ailment.

As more tested the healing but odorous waters, the fame of Mount Clemens spread.

In 1873, Henry Taylor, a local physician, formed the Mineral Springs Company and opened The Original Bath House. During its first 20 years of operation, The Original administered 750,000 mineral baths. In an era before antibiotics and modern drugs, the news of the curative powers of these sulphur-rich waters spread across the country and over the oceans.

Gratiot Avenue in downtown Mt. Clemens in 1926.

      Rheumatism, syphilis, jaundice, obesity, polio and liver woes were among the maladies that could be cured by soaking in the city’s tubs, according to the advertisements.. So many people answered the call that by the turn of the century, the small town on the Clinton River had 11 bathhouses and numerous hotels and boarding houses. More than 50,000 visitors seeking cures in the city’s soothing baths made the city known as “Bath City of America.”

Over the years such celebrities as boxer Jack Dempsey, baseball’s Babe Ruth, actor Clark Gable, actress Mae West, publisher William Randolph Hearst, and entertainers such as George Jessel and Eddie Cantor made the pilgrimage. Railroad sidings held the private cars of industrial tycoons like the Vanderbilts. Even beauty maven Helena Rubenstein, who later opened her own beauty spa in New York, visited.

By the year 1928 the population of Mount Clemens numbered 16,000 and the income from the baths amounted to $3 million annually.

World famous bath houses like the Arethusa, Colonial, Fountain, Medea, Park, Plaza, Olympia, and St.Joseph, fought for tourist dollars. Runners greeted newcomers as they arrived by train and boat and vied to entice them to a certain spa. Later city fathers enacted an ordinance that curtailed their zealous sales tactics.

The hotels and bathhouses competed to provide the most luxurious appointments. Imported marble floors, and colored glass mosaics covered the windows of many baths. Dramatic lobbies and curved ceilings reflected the elegance and grandeur of the era.

The bath houses brought prosperity to the city and lined its streets with gracious homes like these on Cass at Lodewyck.

      The Colonial Bath House offered a solarium and sun parlor while The Medea Bath House boasted rooms tiled with white Italian marble. The Fountain Bath House provided large tubs for handicapped guests who had difficulty conquering the rims of the standard sized tubs. Fine restaurants like the Crocker House also competed for visitors during the city’s heyday.

Other businesses prospered, including two breweries, a horse racing track, and excursion boats.

According to an old newspaper clipping in The Detroit News archive, George Hutchinson, like thousands of other tourists and vacationers, came to Mount Clemens in the early 1900s to soak in the famous baths. But unlike the other visitors, Hutchinson was barred from taking a bath because he was black.

Henry Lightbourne purchased the Eureka Bath House from George Hutchinson and renamed it the Mt. Clemens Hotel. Lightbourne became one of the area’s most successful black businessmen.

      Hutchinson resolved the by buying the hotel and mineral bath, thus becoming the first African American owner of a Mount Clemens health spa. Local historian Norm Lorway writes, “Hutchinson said if they won’t let (him) take a bath, ‘I’ll buy my own bathhouse.’So he sold some property he owned in Detroit and came to Mount Clemens.”

The city published a business directory, which said Hutchinson’s hotel was for “colored only.” Hutchinson operated the bathhouse known as the Eureka and a companion hotel called the Northwestern.

Later Henry Lightbourne, who became one of the best known black businessmen in the area, purchased the bathhouse and hotel from Hutchinson and renamed it the Mount Clemens Hotel. Lighbourne, a savy entrpreneur, bottled the so-called “miracle water.” He patented a medicinal brew made from the mineral water and sold it under the label “Clementine.”

Chemists studied the properties of the city’s water and according to a book by

The bath houses attracted celebrities like actress Mae West.

John Meyer, in “The origin of the Mount Clemens Mineral Water,” wrote that “Superiority should be duly granted the Mount Clemens Mineral water bath for the reason that it ranks foremost among the spas of the world in reference to mineral constituents. No other natural mineral water can claim such an array of valuable chemical elements; and to my knowledge no such precious metals as gold and silver have ever been discovered in any.”

A bather paid one dollar for the bath and 50c for the assistance of a bath attendant. Many guests suffered from arthritis or polio and needed caring hands. The dark, rotten-egg smelling waters were heated to about ninety-eight degrees, soothed the bather by supposedly opening the pores and releasing toxins from the system. The bacteria-free waters filled with minerals were also said to promote healing.

After a luxurious soak, the bather would undergo a vigorous massage, then wrapped in heated over-sized towels and sent off to a lounge area, or solarium, to relax or nap. The full course of treatments averaged 21 sessions over a period of 21 days. Difficult malaises, of course, required a longer stay. These long stays allowed the restaurants and businesses in the city to prosper, as well as the bathshouses.

Along with the legitimate establishments a variety of illegal activities blossomed. Gambling and prostitutes attracted those revived by the baths. The Riverside Hotel attracted dice and card players.

The most famous Lady of the Evening, Mae McKenna, was late featured in a book entitled “The Motor City Madam.”

“She was a good-hearted woman, but all business.” a life-long resident told a reporter years ago. “She always drove a nice new Cadillac. I’ll tell you how famous she was: when she died, I saw her death notice in the Yank Magazine while I was stationed in New Guinea.

“There were about seven of those houses in the city,” he continued, “girls and drinks during Prohibition were the big things.”

But the Depression slowed tourism. The bath fever reached its peak in the 1940s and then rapidly declined. Modern medical breeakthroughs such as penicillin and the polio vaccine made most people skeptical of the waters’ power. With the popularity of the automobile, week long visits by train or boat were no longer necessary. As the bathing industry faded, the once imposing hotels closed. Some burned, and other were eventually demolished.

In 1988 Norm Lorway, a Mount Clemens history buff and president of the Bath City Collectors, a group of local residents interested in memorablilia from the era, campaigned to save the Medea from Macomb County government which was looking for land to build new administrative offices.

Fraser entrepeneur Patrick Visingardi, another preservationist, said, “If we brought this building back to what it once was, it would be worth more to the city than any new building could be.”

Lorway said the Bath City Collectors would be ready to “get the pickets and placards out” to protest demolition of the Medea.

“It is our last remaining connection with the one thing that made Mount Clemens world reknowned-the Mount Clemens mineral baths.”

However, in 1990 the decision to tear down the Medea Hotel and bathhouse spa to make way for county offices prevailed.

The Mount Clemens Historical Commission sold 300 bricks from the Medea to collectors. In 1991 Oak Park businessman Max Simon, recalling the elegance and grandeur of the “Golden Bath Era”, proposed building a one-story mineral bath spa in the community. He got one-and-half acres of land with a mineral well, and applied for a loan, but the plan fizzled.

The Riverside Hotel was known as a gambling joint were newly rejuvenated bathers could be skinned of their remaining funds.

By Pat Zacharias and Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News