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The first visitors to Big Bone Lick, of both the human and animal variety, were drawn there by the large salt deposits. The salt had attracted early Native Americans, explorers and prehistoric animals. The fossilized remains of these creatures were well preserved in the bogs surrounding the mineral springs, and have been a fascination to many since their discovery.
Stories of the enormous bones began to spread east, told by explorers who had been to Big Bone as early as the mid-18th century. This discovery captured the attention of many; founding father Thomas Jefferson among them. Along with the westward expansion, the population grew, and tourists began to arrive.
The mineral-rich sulfur springs also became a great draw to Big Bone Lick. The need for a hotel was met when the Clay House opened circa 1815. As the springs gained notoriety, the resort’s popularity grew. Guests came to relax, bathe, and drink the beneficial waters of the springs, and to view the ancient fossils. Sadly, fire destroyed the hotel in 1845.
Though the Clay House was gone, the springs remained. The water was bottled, advertised in newspapers, and distributed by dealers throughout the area. In addition to sodium, the spring water contained sulfur, limestone, magnesium and other minerals. Cincinnati physician, Dr. Daniel Drake, described the odor of the mineral waters as “sulpherous (sic) and offensive to strangers”, but acknowledged its healing qualities. His recommendation was to drink up to a gallon each day.
Reports of the era advertised the improvement of numerous medical conditions, including: gout, constipation, eczema, and rheumatism, and others. The popularity of resorts with mineral springs grew throughout the country. A trip to “take the waters” became quite trendy in the late 19th and early 20th century. After the Clay House burned, the property near the springs remained quite valuable, but a hotel was not built until after the Civil War. Newspaper accounts of 1860s mention the springs, but a hotel is not named. In 1876 a new “Clay House” opened, with numerous guest rooms, bath houses and an open pavilion. The hotel changed hands several times, and was damaged by a tornado in 1895. Other guest houses, like Dr. Stevenson’s “Valley Hotel” were also the site of healing and recreation.
As the world began to change, the resort lost popularity. A writer for the Louisville Courier Journal in 1912 describes the Clay House resort as “deserted”, though mention of any other hotel is absent. After WWII, the Clay House was dismantled. Though the springs are no longer a destination, the fossils still fascinate visitors. Big Bone Lick State Park, established in 1960, now offers a unique destination for travelers.