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From black water bathhouse to a church, a place for healing in Alden

The way Margaret Rose sees it, the building that is home to St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Alden serves the same purpose today that it has always served.

“It’s been a site of healing for 100 years,” said Rose, the church's warden and worship leader. “There may have been a doorway blocked off, a floor covered, but basically it looks very much the way it used to look.”

But looks can be deceiving. The building that is now a house of worship got its start in life as a much different kind of house: a bathhouse. It was built at a time black water transformed the rural village into a giant health spa, with three bathhouses operating and attracting visitors by the trainload who bathed in a mineral-rich elixir that was known as black water.

Alden will celebrate its bathhouse legacy Saturday when the Alden Historical Society continues to mark its sesquicentennial with a Black Water Day bus tour. The tour from 2 to 4 p.m. will trace the story of the 20th century bathhouse phenomenon.

“It was an economic boom for the village. Hotels were built, and villagers turned their homes into boarding houses,” said Mayor Michael Manicki. “At the last centennial we sold bottles of black water, but wells are now all capped.”

Black water was discovered by accident in 1891 when businessman Frank Westcott was drilling for natural gas in what is now Town Park, said Alden historian Karen Muchow.

The Original Black Water Bathhouse from the Alden Historical Society's postcard collection. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"One of the workers at the drilling site had a bad shoulder, so he heated the water to soak towels and he wrapped the towels around his shoulder,” Muchow said. “The next day he felt better."

Alden's famous black water sprung from wells that contained the dark, thick liquid that smelled like rotten eggs. Some 800 heated medical baths were provided each week, treating patients suffering from rheumatism, jaundice, syphilis and polio with a 21-bath regimen.

“Black water bathhouses peaked in the '20s and '30s. They played an important role in the growth of the village," said Muchow. "The healing property of the black water was a matter of pride. Patients using crutches and canes when they arrived were able to walk away without them."

A bottle of the famous black water from the Alden Historical Society's collection. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Three bathhouses operated in Alden from 1904 to 1965. Today only one remains, the Original Black Water Bathhouse at 13021 W. Main St., which is now home to St. Aidan's.

The bathhouse built in 1914 operated until 1964, when it was purchased and converted to St. Aidan's. The building features an overhanging roof and spacious front porch and was built in a style reminiscent of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frederick H. Mitchell grew up across the street from the bathhouse. As a boy of 12, Mitchell recalled cleaning the two towering cedar tanks behind the bathhouse where the water was stored after it was pumped from the well. The water’s mineral content ate away at metal and concrete, Mitchell said. Waterlines were changed yearly.

“Sludge formed on the bottom of the tank, and the translucent water used for the baths would be drawn from the top,” said Mitchell, 70. “I earned 50 cents a day collecting the muck from the bottom. We used to be in the bathhouse all the time."

A 1930s promotional brochure from the Original Black Water Bathhouse. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Alden was the only source in the state of black sulfur water, which was more potent than white sulfur water, according to a promotional pamphlet printed in 1915. Analysis of the black water found that each gallon contained more than one pound of chemicals including silica, bromide, calcium, magnesium, sulfuric acid and chlorine. The water was also bottled and administered orally for stomach, liver and kidney ailments, according to information in the pamphlet.

"The silverware in our house would tarnish if we kept the windows open while the water was pumped," recalled Mitchell, who said the water "looked almost like coffee."

The bathhouse featured a wooden pool – like a hot tub – that seated a dozen people who ate food from a wooden platter while they listened to musicians and soaked their ailments away. A steam boiler in the basement heated the pool and the building, said Mitchell.

The main bath hall – today’s worship space – was divided in half and held individual porcelain tubs for men’s and women’s bathing. From $1 to $2 was charged for each bath, and while the patrons were in the tubs they also received a massage – from attendants who at the time were called "rubbers," said Muchow.

Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Greenhouses, still lives across the street and has served as the church groundskeeper since he was 15.

“There’s a lot of history in that building,” Mitchell said.

The men's tub room at the Original Black Water Bathhouse from the Alden Historical Society's postcard collection. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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