Simplified map of brackish and fresh groundwater resources in Missouri.
Yellow tier of counties are mixed groundwater.

Salt Licks and Spas--Mineral Waters of the Ozarks

Most of the well-known deep Ozark springs are cold, freshwater and fairly highly mineralized as a result of the karst processes which form them. Chemical analysis of Ozark spring water yield moderate to high concentrations of elements and compounds such as silica, iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, carbonates and bicarbonates, sulfates, chlorides and fluorides. Some springs, such as Mammoth Spring in Arkansas, and Morgan Spring in Oregon County, Missouri, are so rich in carbonates and bicarbonates, they can be seen to visually "gas off" in their rise pools.

Not surprisingly, calcium, magnesium and iron are among the most common minerals in our spring water, rendering them "hard" or difficult to lather in the presence of soap, and tending to leave a mineral deposit when boiled. Most of these springs are "sweet" that is, their mineralization does not affect their taste, or use for human purposes.

This is not so in northern Missouri, where shallow wells tap fresh water trapped when the region was glaciated. Deep wells are not so blessed, tending to be heavily contaminated with salt, sulfur or iron. If shallow wells become contamninated, or demand for water outstrips supply, other resources such as rivers, reservoirs or cisterns must be used.

Salt Springs

The deep Ozarks are not known for their salt or mineral springs. However, on the fringes of the region are such springs which have been of great value over time. None of these springs are extremely large, but they have provided important economic benefits to the region far in excess of their size.

At the time of early settlement in the 1700's, salt springs in Ste. Genevieve and Jefferson Counties provided an early source of that important mineral. Settlements grew up near these springs, or "salt licks" which were initially found on the basis of Native American reports, and the behavior of animals, such as deer, which frequented these springs. The early settlers would evaporate the salt laden water, yielding the crystalline form for use.

The Saline and Little Saline Creek area in southeast Ste. Genevieve County near St. Mary's and Kaskaskia was one of the earliest of these salt works. As early as 1770, Montesano Springs (later Kimmswick) in Jefferson County was the site of a salt making operation. Saline Creek in northern Jefferson County attests to the early salt makers. Further to the north and west, but no less important, the resources of Boonslick and Saline County in mid-Missouri were valuable as settlers moved west along the Missouri River.

Boonslick Salt Spring -- Then and Now (in winter).

True salt springs in Missouri were never as plentiful as in other parts of the country, and their yield could not support large numbers of people. New methods of brine evaporation and better inland transportation made salt cheaper to buy than to manufacture quite early on. But as the salt works declined in importance before the Civil War, other entrepreneurs set their sights on Missouri's mineral springs.

Most people today don't think much about water. To our ancestors, fresh, clean water was not a given but a precious commodity. Perhaps because most water is now chemically treated, only those people who currently drink specialty bottled waters think much about its taste. Reading 19th century literature on the merits and drawbacks of water from various sources reminds one of the winetasting books of today--copious information with fine distinctions among the various varieties. From their discovery, mineral springs were often categorized by the taste of their waters, and by the supposed benefits achieved from drinking or bathing in them. Most common of these were the sulphur springs, the carbonate and bicarbonate springs, the ferro-magnesian springs, lithium springs, and various combinations thereof. These highly mineralized springs often produced telltale odors, and stains, and were noticeably bitter to taste. Different springs in nearby locations often had differing characteristics--a well-known spa often contained a variety of waters, some from springs, others from artesian wells--anothe common source of mineral waters.

Mineral Spring Spas and Resorts

Mineral springs were the base of resorts at El Dorado and Excelsior Springs, Missouri.

Spring with iron fixing bacteria.

The crude state of medicine for much of the 19th century opened the door for many forms of "water cure" --drinking, bathing, and in general pampering oneself with mineral waters, either on-site at a spa/hotel, or by having the water shipped to one's house for private use. Eighty three mineral water localities in thirty seven Missouri counties were reported by Paul Schweitzer in 1892, most of which had either a hotel, spa, or bottling facilities.

The popularity of these water cures became a large business after the railroad made travel easier, and enough of the population had achieved enough prosperity to take advantage of these mineral springs, spas, and resorts. Medical doctors, quacks, resort developers and get-rich-quick artists all jumped on the wagon. After all, weren't healing springs mentioned in the Bible? And some of the patrons did get better--usually those lacking in the provided minerals, or those for whom a rest cure of any sort would have been beneficial.

By the turn of the 20th century, the spa business was in full swing. The most well-known of the Ozark sites were Excelsior Springs, found to have medicinal value in 1880, and located just outside Kansas City, and the world known Hot Springs in Arkansas. Unlike most of the Missouri springs, Hot Springs came to be all the rage because of their natural temperature, and the low concentrations of radium found in the water, which are still advertised today.

Other well-known resorts in the state included Sweet Springs in Saline County, the Meramec Highlands and nearby Sulphur Springs in St. Louis County. The 1904 book The State of Missouri, intended as a field guide to the state for World's Fair goers, includes:

These are but a few of the more successful mineral springs resorts--if you go to any small Midwest town with the word "springs" in its name, ask around. You'll probably find an interesting tale or two.

This page last updated on May 2, 2006. Return to Missouri Springs homepage.