by Bill O'Donnell
Over the years, Ozark springs have been used as campsites, power supplies for grist mills, tourist resorts and even hospitals.
Hospitals? Yes, hospitals. Back in 1913, an Illinois doctor named C.H. Diehl bought Welch Spring for eight hundred dollars. Dr Diehl believed that the spring water had healing properties and that cool, pollen free air coming from the adjacent cave would be beneficial for people with asthma, emphysema, and tuberculosis, which together were called "consumption" at the time. He said that it worked for him, helping him with a chronic case of hayfever. To tap this clean air resource, Dr Diehl built a hospital over the mouth of the cave. Welch Spring, which flowed from the cave, was dammed up so that water would close off the entrance. This was to force more air out through the cave opening into the hospital. In today's terms, it might be better called a "health spa" since there wasn't much in the way of formal medical treatment, just an invitation to breathe the fresh air of the cave.
Dr Diehl was not blind to the scenic values of the region either. He hoped to run a thriving campground resort to supplement his medical fees with tourist dollars. In time his healing resort expanded to a few small cabins, a campground, a show cave and he even had an electric generator running off the spring. Visitors came from the local area and from as far off as Oklahoma and Illinois, but times were hard and travel to such remote places still difficult.
Unfortunately, the hospital and resort were not a big success. Roads in the Ozarks were rough and unpaved, making it difficult to get into the Current River Country. Few tourists were willing to make the trip. The good doctor died in 1940, and his family did not have much interest in keeping up the resort afterwards, which soon fell into ruin.
Was Dr Diehl just a man ahead of his time? In time, tourists did discover the Current River, over a million come to canoe, camp, hike and fish every year. As for his medical ideas, he wasn't out of step with his times. Many people at the time believed in the healing qualities of cave air and spring water. It was almost a cliché for people to take a vacation to "take the waters" at one spring centered resort or another. This was the heyday of the healing spas at Hot Springs, Arkansas among others. Years earlier a tuberculosis sanitarium had been built in Mammoth Cave, some three hundred feet underground.
The hospital is a ruin today, but still stands next to the beautiful Welch Spring. It is located between Cedargrove and Akers on the Upper Current. It is best reached by canoe. You can drive to it also, go north from Akers on Route K. Turn left on the first gravel road past the Akers Group Camp. At the end of the road, park next to the river and walk a trail north along the river for about a half mile. At the end of the trail you will be able to see the hospital, although you will be across the spring from it.Please do not wade in the spring, metal debris from the hospital period may injure you. Springs are also delicate biologically and wading and swimming can cause damage.