West Baden Springs National Historic Landmark
West Baden Springs, Indiana, USA
West Baden Springs National Historic Landmark
Location: West Baden Springs, Indiana
Equipment: Appetite for history
Time: 2 hours from Evansville (by bus)
Cost: $10/adult tour
What was once a spa hotel is now a tourist destination in central Indiana. West Baden Springs National Historic Landmark, while a mouthful, was, in its prime, Indiana’s best answer to the Grand Hotel Era of the early 20th century. The huge and lavish atrium, Moorish towers, and sunken garden made West Baden a haven for the rich and fabulous, and since it’s been restored, anyone can visit. The town has more bed and breakfasts than you can shake a stick at, and uses them as its primary claim to fame. As with many towns in central Indiana, it takes just one special thing to set it apart, and the huge landmark does it for this one.
In fact, West Baden has become such an attraction in recent years, it’s sometimes the object of specific and random-seeming tours, like those high school field trips we remember so well. While the resort itself is impressive and high class, what I think is important for the non-Midwesterner to glean from the story I’m about to impart is the ‘anything can happen’ caveat road trippers face every time they set out. Even on innocuous looking stretches of highway, even in the middle of southern Indiana, even on a bus full of high school kids, there are accidents.
As recounted to me by a former student:
My econ class went on a field trip my senior year of high school. We got on a bus, rode for what seemed like ages. The drive up was pretty uneventful, most of us were sleeping through farm after farm after farm. Sleeping, that is, until we got to French Lick, and this kid Rob noticed a sign for “French Liquors” and shouted it to the rest of us, which remains hilarious to me years later. So we got there, got off the bus, and were greeted by an ancient and creaking tour guide, a volunteer, who wasn’t exactly thrilled to see a group of high school students getting off the bus, and who immediately instructed us not to touch or look too hard at anything. They were in the middle of restorations at this point, although they had already completed millions of dollars’ worth, and I think they had just started opening the thing up to tours.
We were told a lot about celebrities who used to go there, which I didn’t really believe at the time because I couldn’t understand why movie stars would want to come to Indiana. Apparently, there are hot springs on the grounds of the hotel – they’re what give the town its name – and sometimes they’d get people like Marilyn Monroe or Al Capone coming there to take advantage of them. So we went on a tour of the grounds; we couldn’t actually go to any of the springs. Well, we may have been able to if Mrs. L. (the chaperone) had forked over an extra $50 or something, but we didn’t. I remember the grounds had these really low brick walls as landscaping, with shrubs and things – all of it really nicely manicured – and there was a track for riding horses on, places for polo… it was like, what rich people did for entertainment before there was golf. There were even old-fashioned looking lawn chairs for spectators.
West Baden is situated in these rolling hills, surrounded by lush greenery. When we went inside, I remember very clearly the giant ballroom. Awe. Some. There were giant chandeliers and big squishy chairs all over the place, with ornamental rugs on the floor. The fireplaces were giant and marble, carved very ornately. We also saw the rotunda room, which was a few stories high. I think it’s tiled, with tiny little pieces – which apparently were a big part of the restoration process. It was very neat. Mrs. L. thanked the tour guide fawningly, and we wrapped up our little tour after a few hours.
Then we got back on the bus. We were all very excited to go to McDonald’s or wherever it was we were stopping for lunch. We’d had enough “econ” for the day. I still don’t get why we went there in THAT class. So we’d been on the bus for maybe half an hour when it crawled to a stop, and I remember we sat there for ten minutes or so, none of us kids caring or noticing that we were no longer moving.
After fifteen minutes or so, we started to get restless – actually, Mrs. L. started getting restless, sniping at the bus driver – and we were behind a huge line of cars. Mrs. L. got off the bus at that point; she was all, “I’m gonna go see what this is about,” and she was severely annoyed, greatly inconvenienced. She stormed up to the front of the line of traffic, and we started craning our necks out the window to see what was going on. We couldn’t see anything because there was a slight hill, but Mrs. L. came back a few minutes later. Her badditude had dissipated; she looked quite pale and her nose was all wrinkled up.
We had been sitting there in the heat for a long time by then, and we had started to notice that the air smelled kinda funny. Mrs. L. announced then that we would be sitting there for a while, at least an hour or so, and someone asked why. She informed us that a big truck carrying livestock, filled to the brim with chickens, had lost control and flipped over on the road in front of us, expelling chickens everywhere. I don’t know quite how to say it… it basically killed all the chickens, smearing them all over the road. It was like it flipped, the chickens fell out and then the truck skidded through the chickens for a hundred feet…
Mrs. L. eventually excused us to get off the bus and ‘stretch our legs’, so we all immediately headed straight for the front of the line of traffic. I got close enough to see that there was a huge mess on the road, but at that point I didn’t really want to get any closer. My friends and I went and hung out in a nearby field for a couple of hours until we got the all clear. Notably, none of the other drivers looked the slightest bit surprised, like this kind of thing happened all the time. We got back to school way after school had ended, but for whatever reason, we were all fine with that.
I wasn’t happy about the carnage, but my God, it was f-ing hilarious. Only in Indiana could that happen. Some sort of drunk truck driver with a thousand squawking chickens in the back of his truck…he probably swerved to miss a cow in the middle of the road or something.
Lesson to potential tourists: don’t stop at ‘French Liquors’, get in your chicken heavy truck, replete with ‘the South will Rise Again’ bumper sticker, and then hit the highway, blasting Lynard Skynard and flying Confederate flags out both windows. You might just ruin a field trip. Watch yourself.