Miracle of the ‘nasty water’

A visit to the legendary cure for life’s ills in Bristol.

There’s only one lake I know of in Bucks County where people once flocked to take a dip in “nasty water”. That was the case 300 years ago in what is today’s Silver Lake on the Bristol-Bristol Township border. Concerned about obesity? Head to the lake. Too frail? Take some sips. Got a terrible hangover? Silver Lake, the perfect antidote. Infertility? Languish in the magical waters.
In the company of lake historian Clarence King, I decided to take a look. Perhaps the reservoir was the lost Fountain of Youth. Could a back stroke in the lake shave 20 years off my age?

Silver Lake is within a 460-acre wooded marshland bound by Route 13 and Bath Road. In the early 1700s, a landowner built a dam across the marshes to power a grist mill. Eventually an earth berm replaced the dam to create today’s much larger Silver Lake. In doing so, the marshes dried up below the embankment where today’s Route 13 highway exists.

Clarence King points to where Bath Springs used to exist below Route 13 in Bristol Borough.

On the far side, twin founts of an underground spring that once fed the marsh burst to the surface. They created a pool of strange ochre-colored water. Homesteaders viewed the anomaly as “that nasty water.” However, someone tasted it. Not bad! Another belted down a mug-full. Yummy! He jumped in, followed by others. They emerged vibrant, claiming greater health. Town physician John DeNormandie publicized the experience of those taking the dip between 1768 and 1770. His work drew the attention of famed Philadelphia surgeon Benjamin Rush who announced iron salts known as chalybeate infused the springs. In a speech to the Philadelphia Philosophical Society, Rush declared the springs could cure palsy, epilepsy, diarrhea, hysteria and rheumatism. A testament of the time put it this way: “Chalybeate restores youth and cures the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours; it makes the lean fat, the fat lean; it kills flat worms in the belly, loosens the clammy humours of the body, and drys the over-moist brain.”

Thus began the rush to take the “Bath Springs” plunge. Soon a bathhouse drew the elite who enjoyed mineral waters having “the pleasant taste of a half-boiled, half-spoiled egg.” Hundreds arrived by river boats and fancy coaches, the Rolls Royces of their time. They followed the King’s Highway (Old Route 13) out of Philly to the King George II Inn on Radcliffe Street. There, carriages took patrons to the bathhouse on Bath Road where today’s Golden Eagle Diner exists.

After the American Revolution, the springs lost out to Saratoga Springs in New York. Dr. Joseph Minnick of Philadelphia in 1808 decided to pump new life into the local springs. He built 30-room Bath Mineral Springs and Grand Hotel featuring stables for 100 horses, a piazza, ballroom, tavern and 44 acres of orchards and forests with walkways leading to the lake. The hotel offered four mineral spring baths, two shower baths and one hot bath. Among distinguished bathers were Baron Ludwig of Prussia, Prince Murat of France and Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte who lived in a palace in Bordentown, N.J.

The bath house and its luxury resort hotel that made Bristol an international draw in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The resort was sold as a private estate in 1816 to French Army physician Joseph Guille. A subsequent owner in 1850 reopened the hotel as a dance hall where the “Bath Springs Polka” enticed patrons to cut the rug. The estate eventually passed to the Pennsylvania Railroad for its high speed line between New York and Philadelphia. Ugh! Commercialized New Route 13 followed, paving over Bath Springs.

Double ugh!

Still the lake survived as a swim resort in the 1940s and ’50s. Industrial pollution eventually closed it to became a county park with no swimming in 1957. Public amenities include a nature center, amphitheater, marshland boardwalk and miles of hiking trails. The park is highly prized for the only coastal woodlands left in Pennsylvania where rare Red Bellied turtles, Southern Leopard frogs and Sweet Gum trees thrive.

The former bath springs and Silver Lake transformed into a swim park in the 1940s.

My friend Clarence attests to the benefits of the park’s springs. “Everyone who grew up on Bath Road like me have lived into their 80s and 90s. They all drank Bath Springs water. It was piped into the borough water supply. Too much iron in the pipes forced Bristol to shut it down eventually.”

My grand kids wanted to see the “magical waters” so we trekked down Silver Lake trails to where a marsh bridge crossed a remnant of the original springs. A pool with a reddish streambed was clear. I dipped a glass jar to gather what appeared to be a light tea with maybe a wiggly or two. “Want a sip?” I asked. Dashiell and Margaux shouted in unison “Yuck!” while backing off. Mom Genevieve shied away as well. One look convinced me not to take the Bath Springs plunge. I decided to forego being 20 years younger. Sorry, Mary Anne.

Sources include “Episodes in Bucks County History, a Bicentennial Tribute” by George F. Lebegern, Jr. published in 1975 by the Bucks County Historical Tourist Commission, and Clarence King, a noted Silver Lake historian who grew up trapping muskrats in the marshlands.