Springs of the Holy Spirit
Visit Florida’s “Health Giving City” in search of De Soto’s Fountain of Youth.
In 1539, Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto thought he had struck gold. Arriving on the shores of what is now Old Tampa Bay, the explorer found what he thought was the legendary Fountain of Youth, a series of five nearby mineral springs. Though native Tocobaga Indian mounds close by suggest that the spring waters at the north end of Tampa Bay have been inhabited by one group or another for thousands of years, De Soto believed that he was the first to “discover” them. He could not even believe that his adventurous, rambling predecessor, Ponce De Leon, the Fountain Story’s most emphatic believer, did not find it. On his way to further exploring the American Southeast, De Soto named the area Espiritu Santo Springs, or “Springs of the Holy Spirit.”
The focal point of the Tocobaga Indian culture in what is now north Safety Harbor was the Tocobaga Indian Mound, a towering three-story, manmade hill that served as both a center of religious and cultural ceremonies for tribes that lived nearby. Not a burial mound, as no human remains were discovered at the site, archeologists do believe that the top of the mound once had smaller buildings or structures that housed spiritual leaders and served ceremonial purposes. Today it is the highest natural point on the coast, a perfect lookout into Tampa Bay that extends south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Whether you believe in the Fountain of Youth Story or not is a matter of opinion, but the miraculous healing qualities of the springs is undeniable. During the mid-19th century, the evolving area was known as “Green Springs” after a popular folktale of Jesse Green, a crippled farmer who “[threw] away his crutches and [resumed] plowing his fields” after taking the waters over the course of a year, according to Safety Harbor Resort & Spa lore.
In 1842, French Count and entrepreneur Odet Philippe acquired the land that today makes up the majority of Safety Harbor, becoming the first permanent non-native settler to the Pinellas County region and the first to cultivate grapefruit production in Florida. The forefather of many of Tampa Bay’s pioneer clans, Philippe Park in Safety Harbor is the site of the original Philippe plantation and the count’s final resting place.
As word got out, Safety Harbor boomed as “The Health Giving City” with resorts, clinics and treatment centers capitalizing on the healing potential of the waters. Five distinct springs were identified and labeled according to their presumed abilities: Beauty Springs, Stomach Springs, Liver Springs, Kidney Springs and Pure Water Springs. A bottling company sold the water in five-gallon jugs, shipping it around the world to health-conscious customers. Famous celebrities of the time like Houdini, the Seagreams of Canada and department store founders F.W. Grant and Russ Kresge began making annual visits.
By the 20th century, a series of succeeding owners turned what was once the Safety Harbor Sanatorium into what is today the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, complete with a 45×95-foot swimming pool, mineral and steam baths, hydrotherapy and spa pools, all constantly filled by the influx of fresh spring water. Coolers throughout the resort offer chilled spring water as well. The modernized resort provides full amenities, fine dining options, solaria and an art studio, all within the complex. An on-site retreat for visitors who want to recover, relax or experience a one-of-a-kind Old Florida experience should definitely pay a visit.
Truly one of Florida’s least known attractions, Safety Harbor remains a unique twist of history, culture and healing that remains as vibrant as it was at the turn of the century.