Traces of 19th-century high-society spa are found in wooded area near UMBC

December 15, 1991|By Robert Erlandson | Robert Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Sulphur Springs, a 19th-century spa in what is now Arbutus, once lured prominent statesmen including Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to sip a glass or two of its mineral waters.

An 1813 newspaper advertisement said analysis found the water "strongly impregnated with iron, sulphur, sulphuric [sic] acids, intermixed with lime."

The ad also said the water "has been found to be very strengthing [sic] to those that are in debility, bad digestion, dropsey [sic], rhumatic [sic], bilious and the ague, it has made perfect cures."

Besides the purported health benefits, ads for the spa, which apparently dated back to at least the late 18th century, offered visitors the best accommodations and the finest cuisine.

Stagecoaches ran daily from Gadsby's Tavern in Baltimore. "Ladies or indisposed persons" could be picked up at home. After a mid-century heyday, however, Sulphur Springs declined. The death blow fell in 1895 when part of the old hotel collapsed and the rest was demolished, according to sparse contemporary accounts.

The spa was forgotten as the site, on land now owned by the University of Maryland Baltimore County and designated for a research park, was all but buried beneath a blanket of brush and woods.

It remained lost until 1989, when an Arbutus man found the ruins of what he believes is the hotel's foundation and made preserving the site his mission.

Since then, Charles A. Kucera, a systems analyst at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, has spent almost every weekend campaigning for an archaeological study of the area and for its preservation as a nature conservancy.

Although he is not an archaeologist, Mr. Kucera, 48, produced such a meticulous research report about the spa that the State Office of Archaeology included it on its inventory as an archaeological site.

He has pressed federal and state officials, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, for assurances of an archaeological investigation of the area -- which also contains several prehistoric Indian sites -- before work begins on the research park.

The law requires a survey, Governor Schaefer replied. "If a

representative amount of the foundation of the Sulphur Springs Hotel is located, the university plans to create an interpretive learning center around the area," he said.

UMBC has applied for $1.45 million from the Maryland Industrial and Commercial Redevelopment Fund for initial planning of utility infrastructure for the research park and for an archaeological survey.

In October, Elizabeth J. Cole, archaeological services administrator for the Maryland Historical Trust, supported the grant request. "We . . . emphasize that the archaeological survey should be closely coordinated with our office and completed well in advance of construction," she said.

Among the key questions is whether there will be significant enough finds to justify preserving the site and designating it on historic registers.

Although few remains are visible, Ms. Cole said, "we don't know what may be underground. The site has survived relatively undisturbed so there's going to be a story unfolding as the college goes ahead with the survey."

Bernard L. Berkowitz, UMBC senior adviser for economic initiatives, said the survey will cover the 95-acre research park site.

"We intend to be good citizens," he said. "If the survey finds that what appears to be the hotel foundation is the foundation we'll preserve it. We agree that it is a significant artifact to preserve for posterity."

"I would like to see it preserved and landscaped, for example, like a British stabilized ruin," said Baltimore County historian John W. McGrain. He said no photos or drawings of the hotel have been found.

Mr. Kucera said he became a preservationist almost by accident, after a community battle with UMBC over an illegal dump on the campus.

Mr. Kucera, an outdoorsman, said he had tramped the wooded acres for more than 30 years with his dogs, unaware of the site's history as a busy resort.

In early 1989, he saw a 1985 Arbutus Times article in which Mr. McGrain said the old hotel had been somewhere along the southern edge of the UMBC campus but that the exact location was unknown.

"I got really fired up," Mr. Kucera said. "At the Catonsville library I found an 1888 map that showed a structure in the area. It said hotel so I knew something had existed there. My first goal was to see if anything was left."

Fortunately, he said, the alignment of Sulphur Spring and Shelbourne roads had not changed over the years. That allowed him to extrapolate from the old map. "I found an area that was not so overgrown. I found broken bricks and the corner of a stone building foundation."

He spent six months perusing files in archives and libraries. Broken pieces of decorated pottery, drinking glass shards and a rusted iron hinge convinced him "there was something there." He also found several large depressions that might have been bathing pools or springs.

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