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Host of attractions in Indiana towns

The glass-and-steel domed atrium of the century-old West Baden Springs Hotel rises above the trees in the town of West Baden, Ind.
The glass-and-steel domed atrium of the century-old West Baden Springs Hotel rises above the trees in the town of West Baden, Ind.
Tom Strattman, Associated Press

FRENCH LICK, Ind. — A century ago, gambling, elegant hotels and hot mineral spring baths turned this town into a destination for wealthy travelers, Hollywood stars and U.S. presidents.

Four Major League baseball teams came for spring training, and as many as 17 casinos offered gambling in the southern Indiana hill town's 1920s heyday.

"A local person couldn't get in," recalled Parke Flick, an 89-year-old lifelong resident who worked at one of the grand hotels in the early 1930s. "This was strictly for the millionaires. They would come to town with their chauffeurs."

These days, the millionaires are gone, although native son and NBA basketball legend Larry Bird — also known as the "Hick from French Lick" — frequently returns.

Claims about the water's healing powers have evaporated in an era of greater skepticism. And the illegal-but-officially tolerated gambling went by the wayside under a 1949 order from the governor — though it's scheduled to come back next year, legally, when a casino opens nearby.

But those not seeking a lucky strike or a miracle cure still will find an abundance of attractions in French Lick and neighboring West Baden Springs.

The century-old hotels, a throwback to an age when almost no expense was spared in pursuit of architectural artistry, still attract visitors.

And the forested hills provide a scenic backdrop in spring, summer and fall for golf, tennis, archery and horse rides. In winter, there's even skiing at nearby Paoli Peaks — a pastime one might not expect to enjoy in mostly flat Indiana.

Other attractions include cruises on nearby Patoka Lake, historic train rides to Hoosier National Forest and tours of the grand hotels.

Visitors still take mineral springs baths at the 471-room French Lick Springs Resort & Spa, where the so-called "Pluto" water was once promoted with the slogan: "When nature won't, Pluto will."

The resort averaged just 34 percent occupancy last year, but a privately operated casino is scheduled to open some time in 2004 along a waterway connecting the towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs. Locals hope that will increase tourism.

Despite the appeal of the area's solitude, tourists from Newcastle, Ontario, agreed that the area could use the additional visitors the casino is expected to bring.

"It's such a beautiful place," said Karen Richardson, who was part of the Canadian group playing croquet on the front lawn of the French Licks resort. "Why waste it?"

French Lick, about 100 miles south of Indianapolis and 50 miles northwest of Louisville, Ky., was named by French explorers because animals came to the springs to lick salt deposits.

The area's architectural gem, the West Baden Springs Hotel, was collapsing into ruins until restoration work began in 1996. A $32 million renovation has partially restored the 500-room hotel, which is a National Historic Landmark.

More money is needed to renovate gutted rooms and circular corridors surrounding the hotel's centerpiece: a restored glass-and-steel domed atrium soaring 100 feet above a mosaic-tiled floor. These days, the hotel is open only to tours, afternoon teas and other special events. Resembling ancient Rome's Pantheon, the atrium was the world's largest freespan dome before the Astrodome's construction in Houston in 1965.

The hotel struggled after the stock market crash of 1929 and closed three years later. In 1934, it was sold for $1 to Jesuits who used it as a seminary for three decades. In 1919, the hotel briefly served as a hospital for wounded soldiers returning from World War I.

Most of the time, the atrium and its acoustically shaped dome are the quietest spot in West Baden Springs, which billed itself as the "Carlsbad of America" patterned after famous springs in Germany.

The hotel features images of "Sprudel," a pixie mascot for the Sprudel water that bubbles up from local sulfur springs. It was sold in bottles as a cure-all for everything from jaundice to alcoholism.

"If you had it, they'd say you could cure it," said Sandy Woodward, a hotel tour guide.