WALKER — The role that natural springs played in the founding and ultimate development of Denham Springs is a part of the history of a city that is today the largest municipality in Livingston Parish and the residential and business hub of the area. The very name of what would become today’s city, Denham Springs, evokes a legacy tied to waters seeping from the ground in amounts large enough to encourage early residents to use the springs as an impetus for settlement and growth.
Douglas Carlson of the LSU faculty is studying the role that the area's natural springs played in the early development of Denham Springs. Using sophisticated equipment and techniques, he has explored the land from which the original settlement sprung in a study that is part of a research effort tied to the Louisiana Geological Survey.
In an address on Oct. 16 at the Livingston Parish Literacy and Technology Center, Carlson shared some of his research with a handful of residents interested in local history. His findings indicated that springs were common in the area and that some “seep holes” that pour water from the earth are still in evidence today. Carlson’s findings also indicate that hotels associated with the early development of Denham Springs were located in the area where the springs were common. However, he was unable to exactly identify which hotels were located in the area and the exact placement of these old structures.
Denham Springs traces its founding back to the early years of the 19th century, when John Noblet and Alexander Hogue obtained the first known title to the land that would ultimately become Denham Springs. According to accounts of the city’s history, in 1828 William Denham, of Mississippi, and his wife, Mercy Hogue, daughter of Alexander Hogue, purchased 640 acres of land from her father. Early accounts of the settlement started by Denham indicate that numerous springs were located in the area and they were used for drinking water.
Evidence exists that by the 1850s, small hotels had been established in the area and that visitors were coming to the springs to bathe in the waters, which were believed to have some healing properties.
In 1855, Denham sold his land to Stanley Covas, and Covas apparently developed some of the waters, known as Amite Springs at the time, into facilities for those seeking medical help from the springs. Ultimately, George Minton became owner of the land and was elected the first mayor of the fledgling community. At about this time, the town became Denham Springs even though William Denham had moved away 30 years earlier.
By the early years of the 20th century, several hotels were known to have been located in the area, and one of the reasons that people were drawn to the town was the establishment of the Denham Springs Collegiate Institute.
Carlson showed drawings of one of those early hotels, the Denham Springs Hotel, that was reportedly founded in the 1850s. Another hotel that is frequently mentioned in the early history of the site is the Watson Hotel. It was supposedly burned during the Civil War, though Carlson said there is no proof of the hotel being burned because of Civil War activity. Apparently that hotel was rebuilt and continued to flourish. A third edifice with historical connections was the Spring Hotel, probably built around 1906.
Carlson concentrated much of his research in an area now known as Spring Park, located on River Road. Carlson said he conducted his research in an area generally bounded by Tabernacle Street to the north; River Road, also known as Main Street at one time, to the east; and Magnolia Street to the south.
Artesian wells, which force water up from deep underground using natural pressure forces, were common in the area, Carlson said, and these wells have been found in more modern history. He said that during his exploration, he located five springs or “seeps” in the area. He also discovered what he said were possible well sites near the entrance to Spring Park. The tools he was using could detect the site of wells, but not their depth, Carlson said.
Carlson’s primary equipment for exploring what is below the earth was a magnetometer, which can detect certain items and structures buried over the years. He said that when old structures decay and fall, or when they are destroyed by fire, they leave behind metallic debris such as nails, pots and pans, and metal fasteners and such.
“Magnetic surveys can pinpoint where a structure was but cannot give a definitive description of exactly what a structure may have looked like or its size. To learn those characteristics and to pinpoint an exact location of where a building might have been, an archaeological dig would have to be accomplished,” he said.
Using the magnetic sounding equipment, Carlson worked out an area, making readings at regular intervals.
He pointed out that floods in the area over the years have left behind layers of new soil that further obscure what is below the surface.
In addition to the evidence of past springs and buildings in the area, Carlson found a cistern, an underground area where natural groundwater accumulates, on the grounds. He showed photographs of one of the cisterns that had a concrete rim around its mouth.
Carlson said water was easy to find in the Denham Springs area because of the preponderance of underground natural water systems.
“You can dig a hole just about anywhere in Denham Springs and you can find water," Carlson said. "Many old wells were only 30 to 60 feet deep. What is important is not how deep you dig a well, but the depth at which water is found and if it is good water.”
Carlson said oil and gas developments in Livingston Parish had no impact on the natural water that seeps in the Spring Park area. He said that at one time there could very well have been sufficient water coming from natural springs that pools could have been created with enough water to afford patrons the opportunity to bathe in the waters.
“That is, if you would have wanted to bathe in those waters," he added. "They were clean and people apparently wanted to use that water for medicinal purposes.”