Ask an Arlington resident what motivates someone to pack their bags for a visit to our fair city, and you’ll get a pretty standard set of answers: business at the Arlington Convention Center, the lure of Six Flags roller coasters, a concert at AT&T Stadium, a Texas Rangers or Dallas Cowboys game— and during the season, a possible visit to Hurricane Harbor.
What your average local may not know, however, is that long before there was a waterpark in these parts, visitors flocked to Arlington for an entirely different kind of water experience—namely, the chance to visit a mineral well that existed in downtown Arlington for the better part of a half century. Let’s take a look at the story of this once semi-famous landmark, one of the more interesting chapters in the Arlington history book:
The heart of the community:
The well’s origins date back to 1891, when local businessman Rice Wood Collins (yep, the namesake of Collins Street) launched a campaign to finance the drilling of a public water source for Arlington, then a cotton-ginning and farming community and stop on the Texas-Pacific Railroad. Evidently it was a successful effort, because the City of Arlington authorized the project a couple of years later in 1893, when drilling commenced at the corner of Main and Center streets under the supervision of a gentleman named Sam Shafer. Records note the fact that he used a wood-powered steam engine, which we’re guessing was pretty cutting-edge in the 19th century.
Once constructed, the well quickly assumed an important role in the small town’s daily life. Not just because it was a water source for local homes, businesses, and the occasional horse, but because the well performed double duty as a symbolic designation of the heart of a growing community.
“For about fifty years, everything important in Arlington happened around the well,” explains Geraldine Mills, executive director for the Arlington Historical Society. “It was the central gathering point for parades, political rallies, cotton sales, you name it.”
The late great Gary Cartwright, an acclaimed writer about all things Texas and an Arlington High School alum, recalled the well’s strong nostalgia factor in “Going Home to Arlington”, a Texas Monthly article that appeared in 1974:
“The town—town meant downtown, a place that hadn’t changed much since the turn of the century—the town radiated out from the mineral well like points of a compass:
Terry’s Drug, where we sat on the Coke box under a sluggish overhead fan waiting for the Rainbow Girls to get out…Coulter’s Drug with its fading photographs of Arlington Downs in its glory, and the fat Persian cat who hopped among the perfume bottles without incident…Mac’s Cafe …the bowling alley where I stacked pins for 10 cents a line…Purvis’ Variety …the bank, the Texan, the Aggie, the gas company,
Rockeyfeller’s Hamburgers, Albert’s Pool Hall, the feed store…and past the feed store a grove of trees signifying what trees always signify, that sanity prevails. I remembered wide downtown streets where cars parked slant-in to the curbs or parallel in the middle. And I remembered high curbs where you could still see iron rings used to hitch horses.”
Arlington’s “Healing Waters”
Community doings and small-town nostalgia weren’t the only activities associated with Arlington’s mineral well. “Taking in the waters”—that is, drinking or bathing in mineral-laced waters that were thought to have medicinal qualities—was in that era a very popular health and wellness pastime, somewhat akin to our contemporary fixation with yoga classes or gluten-free diets.
“People would come from all over to buy jugs of well water,” says Mills. “They also bought the crystals that the water formed, in the belief that both could cure chronic ailments and improve your overall health.”
America’s obsession with healing waters began to wane after the 1920s, and although the Arlington well had its share of fans, Arlington as a mineral water destination never caught on to the extent that it did in places like Mineral Wells, TX. Still, the well continued to serve as a significant Arlington landmark through the beginning of Arlington’s post-war industrialization boom, until it was permanently capped under the pavement in 1951 to make way for the ever-increasing auto traffic in Downtown Arlington.
Soon, however, you may be able to take a little trip back in time to pay homage to the well’s history. “Back in 1976, during Arlington’s Bicentennial celebration, Arlington put up a pedestal monument with information about the well, along with an Arlington history time capsule, at the George W. Hawkes library downtown,” says Mills. “They both had to come out when the library renovation began, but we’re hoping to get everything relocated to Founders Plaza sometime soon.”
More fun facts about the Arlington well:
The Arlington well was far from the only mineral water destination in Texas.
Indeed, the Arlington well was one of about 100 mineral springs destinations located across the Lone Star State, drawing thousands of visitors each year during the height of the healing waters craze. One hot spot, the ultra-luxurious Baker Hotel in nearby Mineral Wells, offered high-dollar mineral spa treatments that attracted Hollywood elite and other A-list visitors for a couple of decades.
Arlington’s well water wasn’t popular with everyone.
In fact, some residents declared that the water was so rank that even thirsty horses refused to imbibe. For many years, drinking from the well was a hazing prank perpetuated upon freshman cadets at the
military academies that were forerunners of today’s UT-Arlington. The well’s reputation improved, though, once it gained status as a source of healing water.
Our well was kind of fancy.
In 1910, the Commercial Club, a forerunner of today’s Chamber of Commerce, funded the construction of two ornate fountains at the site of the well, one of them featuring lions’ heads atop a four-sided pyramid. Later, part of the well’s platform was enclosed with brick and plate glass windows that displayed those miracle crystals.
Article sources: Fielder Museum, the City of Arlington, the UT Arlington Library, the Star-Telegram archives.