Spring Pilgrimage 2005:
Taggart's French Lick & West Baden
French Lick, West Baden and Paoli, Indiana
Thursday, April 28, 2005
By Bob Bratton
Early on Thursday morning, April 28, 2005, a busload of Indiana Pioneers left the Second Presbyterian Church parking lot for a day of enlightened adventure to the southern Indiana hills of Orange County. Despite the ominous threat of rain in the forecast, our able and well organized guide, Sue Thomson, handed out a bag of breakfast treats provided by Tiffany of the Westside Retirement Center and introduced us to our history guide, Jim Fadely. Jim took his Ph.D. in U.S. History at IU Bloomington and wrote the book Thomas Taggart: Public Servant, Political Boss, 1856-1929, published by the Indiana Historical Society.
After acquiring an additional group of Pioneers on the south side, we left Southern Plaza for the trip to Orange County. On the way to our destination, Jim gave us an overview of the history of the Taggart family and their important ties to French Lick and to the state of Indiana.
The Taggart family came from Ireland in 1861 to Xenia, Ohio, and lived in poverty for a time. Thomas was sent to Garrett, Indiana, in 1875 to work in the railroad depot restaurant before coming to Indianapolis. He was transferred to Indianapolis at age twenty-one to work in the Union Depot Hotel restaurant. As a result of much hard work and business savvy, he became involved in ownership of restaurants and hotels and became wealthy. Taggart acquired the Union Depot Hotel and soon owned the Grand Hotel and had a controlling interest in the Denison Hotel. In 1886 he ran as a Democrat for the position of Marion Co. auditor in a largely Republican city. His great popularity with the people resulted in his election. He became chairman of the Marion County Democratic Party in 1888, carrying Marion County for Grover Cleveland over hometown favorite Benjamin Harrison. He then became chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party in 1892 and was largely responsible for Benjamin Harrison losing Indiana in that Presidential election.
His popularity led him to seek the Mayor’s office in 1895 and he was successful. He served until 1901, three terms in all, and was chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1904-08. He filled the unexpired term of Benjamin Shiveley in the U.S. Senate in 1916 and ran for the office in the next election but was defeated. He failed to win the seat back again in the election of 1920. Any talk about Taggart running for the presidency or vice presidency came to naught because he was not native born. Taggart was an influential political boss on the national stage because of Indiana’s electoral importance. He was instrumental in putting Hoosiers on the national Democratic ticket in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
In 1901, Taggart and several partners, with financial backing from the Monon Railroad, bought the French Lick Springs Hotel from a group of Louisville businessmen. He later bought out his partners and invested the profits in the hotel’s expansion. He liked the natural beauty of the area and made even more money by bottling the “Pluto Water” as a natural cure-all. Gaming was a major attraction of the Springs Valley area and Taggart participated as well, despite denials to the contrary.
He and his family built homes in Indianapolis and Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. He also built a home for his son Tom in French Lick on top of a hill that was a copy of the family’s summer home in Hyannis Port. Jerry Fuhs, a local businessman, now owns this home. The Pioneers went to the top of Mt. Airie to view this magnificent home, which was rescued by Mr. Fuhs from years of neglect.
Taggart died in 1929 and the hotel struggled from then on as the Depression ensued. His son carried on the resort until 1946, when he sold the hotel. Governor Schricker closed down gaming in 1949. The Sheraton hotel system, among others, had control of the resort for the ensuing years until the recent legislative act to restore riverboat gambling to the area. Plans are to restore the French Lick Springs Hotel to the grandeur of the bygone era. The new owners, the Cook-Lauth group, are expected to invest many millions of dollars in refurbishing the hotel, golf courses, and surrounding area.
Following lunch at the Beechwood Inn, the group toured the West Baden Springs Hotel and grounds. The Beechwood Inn is the former home of Ed Ballard who had been an owner of the West Baden Hotel. It was a beautiful home on the Historic Landmark’s list that is now operated as a restaurant and bed and breakfast inn.
Our guides met us at the entrance to the West Baden Springs Hotel and conducted a most enjoyable and educational tour of the “8th Wonder of the World.” It is truly an engineering marvel with beautifully renovated public spaces highlighted by the impressive dome. It, too, is scheduled to be revived and restored to its former glory by the Cook-Lauth group and will eventually reopen as a hotel-resort.
This hotel and resort was opened in 1855 and eventually acquired by Lee Sinclair in 1888. He expanded the resort and offered competition for the French Lick facility. His hotel burned in 1901 and from its ashes was born the magnificent hotel that was built in a year’s time. The resort had horseback riding, bicycling, golf, shopping, the spas and mineral waters that were claimed to be cure-alls. Many of the rich and famous visited here. Sinclair died in 1916 and eventually Ed Ballard bought the hotel with casino money he had accumulated. Gaming became the most important activity in the 20’s until the 1929 stock market crash. After this, the area declined rapidly and the hotel closed in 1932. It was sold to the Jesuits in 1934 and was operated as a seminary. The Jesuits cared for the old hotel but made a number of changes that can still be seen. In 1966 Northwood Institute, a school for hotel and restaurant management and related fields, acquired the hotel. When Northwood closed in 1983 a real estate firm from California took over but went bankrupt. The hotel was in danger of being lost to the wrecking ball, even though it was listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Part of the outside wall collapsed in 1991. The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana invested money in an effort to repair the wall thus saving it from total destruction. This was a rare investment for the foundation as it seldom is involved financially in properties it does not own.
After visiting a beautifully restored guest suite and a visit to the gift shop we began our next adventure with a ride on the Indiana Railway Museum’s train to Cuzco. We boarded a 1930’s-era passenger coach and at an amazing speed of 25-30 mph we traveled out of the station in French Lick and back again. Twice we passed through a tunnel, which was totally dark for a few minutes. The railroad museum has amazing restorative possibilities and has a dedicated crew of restorers who work on the projects as funding allows.
Following our excursion, we boarded our bus for the trip back to Indianapolis, passing the beautiful and historic Orange County courthouse in Paoli. The courthouse predates the Civil War and is a wonderful example of Greek Revival architecture. Passing through Orleans, the “dogwood capital of Indiana,” we soon reached Southern Plaza and said goodbye to our “southern” Pioneers and reached Second Presbyterian about 9:45 p.m., tired but full of Hoosier history.