The Ruins of the Hot Wells Hotel
Yum, sulfur. That rotten egg smell never gets old. At the turn of the century it was believed that groundwater infused with sulfur had magical healing properties. The geology of the San Antonio area is such that some of its groundwater has sulfur in it, something that the wealthy businessmen of the late 19th century capitalized on. The Hot Wells Hotel and Spa just west of the San Antonio River was one of the best luxury resorts of its day. The resort had 80 rooms, three swimming pools, a bathhouse, a private rail station, individual telephones, and steam heat. Celebrities and politicians alike stopped by the hotel when in San Antonio, hoping to take advantage of the healing properties of the natural hot sulfur baths. The problem? The building kept catching fire. The Hot Wells Hotel caught fire at least 4 times, twice after it was decommissioned. The damage hasn’t been fixed; the resort now lies in ruins. The Hot Wells today looks more like an old Roman fort than a luxury spa. There’s also rumors of the ruins being haunted. While no one may have died in any of the fires, the pleasantries that the Hot Wells brought to its guests kept them coming back, even in the afterlife. An investigation by paranormal experts found that the spirits tend to be quite friendly, but that doesn’t mean they’re not frightening. Witnesses are still spooked by the disembodied voices and phantom footsteps. There’s also a strange woman who always seems to be looking out of the same window, often seen at night. The Hot Wells Hotel and Spa is now the Hot Wells of Bexar County, a local park that’s open to the public. The county hopes to preserve the ruins as a historic artifact, which will also give its spirit residents a home for years to come.
The Magical Healing Sulfur Water
In 1892, the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, now the San Antonio State Hospital, was in its final stages of construction. The facility was ready to take patients, it just needed water. So the developers began digging a well across the street. What they hit wasn’t freshwater, but 104℉ sulfurous water. Geology was still in its infancy, and the complexities of the Edwards Aquifer were not yet understood. The hot and smelly concoction was useless as far as the State Hospital was concerned, but developers still saw enormous value.
At the time, sulfur water was touted as having healing properties. The Asylum leased the water rights to the developers, who did not hesitate to capitalize on the stinky underground water from the bellows of San Antonio. To the entrepreneurs, the magic healing powers of the sulfurous water meant that they had found a gold mine.
The Hot Wells Hotel & Spa
Local businessmen secured the lease to the water in 1892, and in 1893 the Hot Wells Hotel and Spa was up and running. The site was bustling. The hot springs drew large crowds, and shuttles full of more visitors were arriving at the hotel every 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the Hot Wells burned to the ground during its first year of operation. This would be the first of several fires to destroy the building.
Investors weren’t giving up. They secured a 25 year lease on the water rights in 1899. They rebuilt the Hot Wells Hotel, and this time it was bigger and better than ever. The massive Victorian-style bathhouse was the centerpiece of the hotel, and would come to represent the memories of the Hot Well’s heyday. The new and revamped hotel came loaded with 80 luxurious rooms, 3 massive swimming pools, individual telephones, and steam heaters. The investors had now made sure to build a well on the property, so water from the Asylum no longer had to be piped in from next door.
The Hot Wells Hotel became the go-to joint for the rich, powerful and wealthy. They came from all over the country to take advantage of the sulfur spring’s healing properties. Charlie Chaplin frequented the Hot Wells, as did Theodore Roosevelt. Railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman had a side rail built to the hotel so wealthy businessmen could have a direct route to the Hot Wells. Harriman himself worked out of his railcar office, and would walk right out of work and into the spa.
The Hot Wells was called the “Second Hollywood.” At least seventy silent movies were filmed at the hotel, one of which won an Academy Award.
The Hot Wells Hotel No More
World War 1 broke out in 1914. The war weighed heavily on the hotel’s revenue. The usual guests spent less on leisurely activities during wartime. The rise of modern medicine was the next obstacle facing the Hot Wells Hotel. As medicines advanced and a scientific approach to disease and illness developed, there was less hype around the healing properties of the sulfur. The final nail in the coffin came during Prohibition. Being that alcohol sales were the hotel’s main revenue stream, the Hot Wells was doomed. The owners put the building and property up for sale in 1923.
The former luxury hotel was bought out and became a parochial school. Even this endeavor was short lived. The building was hit by a massive fire in 1925, destroying some of the buildings. But not all was lost. Tourist cottages were built around the property in 1927, and guests had access to the swimming pools.
The property was again purchased in 1942 by a woman named Cleo S. Jones, who converted the property into a motel and trailer park. Cleo had the lobby of the bathhouse renovated and turned into a bar and grill. She called it The Flame Room. Whether this was a deliberate attempt at an ironic joke is unknown, but The Flame Room was open until 1977, when it caught fire and burned to the ground.
The hotel was abandoned after the fire and became a shady abandoned hangout for local teens and troublemakers. The buildings caught fire two more times since then; one in 1988 and again in 1997. The former Hot Wells Hotel and Spa had come to resemble medieval ruins. Only the stone walls of the bathhouse and some surrounding buildings remain standing. The pools were still there, as were the stairways into the lower levels. The ruins of the Hot Wells gained notoriety for its creepy, labyrinth-like structure. Ghost stories began to make their way around town.
Bexar County officials decided it was time to put an end to the shady activities at the ruins. They saw the historic and aesthetic value of the Hot Well’s remains and decided that it should be preserved. The artesian sulfur well was plugged for good in 2014. In 2017, the County of Bexar and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bought the land around the area and created a park. The ruins were fenced off, but tourists can still view the ruins up close, but they can’t physically enter without permission. The Hot Wells of Bexar are now a historic piece of the San Antonio area.
Ghosts of the Hot Wells Hotel
The ruins of the Hot Wells already project a spooky vibe. Walking up to the ruins you see the remains of the stone bathhouse poking into the sky. The walls are still charred from the numerous fires. The windows are boarded up. The Hot Wells looks more like an old Spanish fort than a luxury spa. The ruins of the Hot Wells doesn’t just look haunted, it is haunted. Ghosts and spirits still live within the ruins of the old luxury resort.
The Hot Wells Hotel was a fun place. People went there to relax and heal while bathing in the hot sulfurous groundwater. Despite the creepy surroundings, many say that the ghosts in the ruins are friendly, still enjoying their time as they did 100 years ago. One spirit, who paranormal investigators identified as a man named Nick, seemed to be a quirky soul. He was a dapper gentleman from the early 19th century, and investigators were able to communicate with him and carry a short conversation through their spirit box.
Many have seen the spirit of a woman through one of the second story windows. She always peers through the same window, and is only seen at night. According to the locals, the woman was an employee who worked in the bathhouse. The paranormal investigators were able to communicate with her as well, although they couldn’t get her name. She seemed quite friendly towrds the investigators.
In the past, many visitors have said that they’ve heard disembodied voices and phantom footsteps throughout the ruins. Many have also felt an uneasiness while walking inside of the ruins. These reports come from before the ruins were made into a public park, so the once restless spirits may have found comfort in the renewed status of the Hot Wells and have become a bit friendlier.
Want to learn more about the haunted history of San Antonio?
The strange and interesting history of San Antonio has left behind some spooky folklore and unusual ghost stories. You can’t visit River City without stopping by the Alamo. Once a Native American holy site before serving as both a chapel and a fort, the bloodshed of the Battle of the Alamo has left behind many restless spirits. Right across the street is the Emily Morgan Hotel. Named after the Yellow Rose of Texas, the hotel was once a hospital, and the ghosts of patients and nurses still walk the halls. You should also take a trip to the ghost town of Shafter Lake, where the hollow-eyed children might steal your soul. You can also read up on the top ten most haunted spots in San Antonio right here!
Main Image Source: Flickr/Nan Palmero