Happy Trails to You

In May, 2003, The New York Spa Promotion Alliance (NYSPA) was formed to support communities interested in revitalizing and restoring their historic spas. At one time, spas made towns like Avon, Clifton Springs and Dansville famous. Along with its revitalization help, NYSPA plans to organize the spas and health resorts along “trails” so that they can be promoted collectively. Similar trails of wineries helped the Uncork New York campaign jump-start the state’s burgeoning wine industry in the early 1980s.

Alliance members believe it will pay off in a big way for everyone involved. Given the nationwide trend toward preventing illness and promoting fitness, the tourism potential is enormous. The group hopes that it will spawn economic development and increase revitalization efforts. In addition, because they will be so accessible, the natural health therapies will improve the well-being of residents.

For the past year and a half, NYSPA has researched spas across the state, both active and inactive, and visited historic communities to discuss the feasibility of spa revitalization. They’ve also made an inventory of the state’s natural springs. Charlotte Wytias, manager of The Springs of Clifton, and an NYSPA leader, has scheduled a Spa Symposium on May 19, 2005, when the group plans to present its findings to the state’s elected officials, offices of economic development, tourism leaders, entrepreneurs, historians and others.

Did New York invent spas?
At one time, New York State was a natural medicine mecca. People from all over the country traveled here by the trainload to take advantage of such innovative treatments (at the time) as massage, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, physical activity and nutrition. Some historians believe that the practice of natural medicine was invented in New York. Thomsonian Herbalism, hydropathy and hydrotherapy, homeopathy and naturopathy, and a host of other natural cures originated in New York.

The 1914-1915 edition of Polk’s Medical Register and Directory of North America listed no less than 115 sanitariums across the state that treated ailments ranging from tuberculosis to nervous and mental diseases. Among the biggest were Clifton Springs Sanitarium, Dansville’s Jackson Health Resort, and Sheldrake Springs Sanitarium. New York quickly became the host of the first thriving spa industry in the country, and remained its leader until traditional Western medicine forced natural cures to “go underground” 60 or 70 years ago. Most of the sanitariums, in their original form, did not survive.

But since the 1960s, natural medicine has been experiencing a slow and quiet resurgence, as more and more people realized that Western science was not the only game in town. In 1992, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that increasing amounts of out-of-pocket money were being spent on “alternative” therapies such as acupuncture and chiropractic. A 1996 update showed those numbers still climbing.

The Springs of Clifton
Through it all, Clifton Springs remained an innovator in healing and wellness. Within the traditional medical hospital that he started in 1850, Henry Foster, M.D., made it a center for water cures. He continued to expand its therapies, then built a sanitarium that offered the best of conventional, natural and physical medicine. A pioneer in mental health, he believed that the mind, body and spirit were one, in health, illness and healing.

A new building with physicians’ offices and expanded hospital services was erected in 1926, and in 1971 a modern hospital was dedicated. The medicine practiced there was decidedly conventional Western, but Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic always maintained its spiritual core.

As interest renewed in some of the original treatments practiced by Dr. Foster, plans were made for The Springs of Clifton Integrated Health Depart­ment. As a wing of the hospital, The Springs reopens the sulphur baths, and also offers acupuncture, aromatherapy, ayurveda, chiropractic, classical Chinese medicine, Hatha yoga, healing touch, holistic nursing consultations, massage, medical hypnosis, QiGong, Taijiquan, and nutritional and spiritual counseling.

The New York Spa Promotion Alliance is currently being funded through Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic. “Thanks to its sulphur springs, the village of Clifton Springs has a long history of health and healing,” said Valerie Knoblauch, director of tourism for Ontario County, and NYSPA participant. “The practitioners there were really the impetus for the spa trail.”

There must be something in the water
The secret’s in the springs. New York State is loaded with them. Their wonderful curative and rejuvenating powers were enjoyed by generations of Native Americans well before white pioneers discovered them and built entire settlements around them.

Geological reports credit the state with “a larger number of localities than any of her sisters in the union,” notes the book Mineral Springs and Wells of the United States. It adds, however, that our state’s springs may be documented and studied more than others because of the success of Saratoga Springs, one of the oldest resorts in the country.

Some springs are known for their purity, and others are praised for their high mineral content, so high that in many cases that you can smell it in the air. Research has shown that sulphur waters effectively treat a variety of illnesses including rheumatoid conditions, respiratory illness, some metabolic disorders and many skin diseases.

Whether you drink it, inhale it or bathe in it, experts have recognized that New York State spring waters have the same potential as New York State grapes – they can form the backbone of a unique industry that has potential for development all over the state.


by Tina Manzer
Tina Manzer’s spa experiences include stays in Saratoga Springs and Geneseo. She looks forward to visiting all of the others along the proposed spa trail.