The Mystery of Warm Mineral Springs

The Mystery of Warm Mineral Springs


You can leave your hat on.

There’s no telling whether singer-songwriter Randy Newman had Warm Mineral Springs in mind when he penned that tune, but it would be a good theme song for North Port’s most famous attraction, Warm Mineral Springs.

Since it first opened to the public in the mid-1950s, Warm Mineral Springs has drawn a crowd largely of Eastern European origins. Soothing music is piped in all day long. Visitors are led in calisthenics classes in the water. People come to spend the whole day at the springs, some for weeks on end, with their zinc oxide, their plastic nose protectors, and their hats.

The 80-yard diameter lake is more than 230 feet deep and is constantly fed by an underground thermal plume. Water enters the hourglass-shaped body at around 97 degrees, and mixes with the cold water from countless other springs that feed the lake.

For that reason, the water is a near-constant 87 degrees all year round, making it one of only two hot springs in Florida.

But its appeal is not just that the water is warm: it is also highly mineralized. High levels of chloride, sodium, sulfate and other minerals bring it halfway between freshwater and the ocean.

“It’s part of the European tradition,” said Ed Ullman, whose company, Golden Springs LLC, bought the Warm Mineral Springs property in 1999. “In Europe and even Asian culture, they view hot mineral spas like this as naturally therapeutic, better than drugs. They find it purifying.”

The facilities are somewhat outdated. But the gift shop, the locker rooms and the cafe take a back seat to what many believe are the curative properties of the springs.

“I have received testimonials from many people,” said Elizabeth Nazarian, a North Port resident who is one of the site’s biggest fans. Before moving here, she ran a travel agency in Chicago, booking trips for many Eastern Europeans to North Port.

“Rheumatism, arthritis, psoriasis, many ailments people say are cured just by being in the water there,” she said.

Her zeal is shared by Jeff Merkher, who first came to Warm Mineral Springs in 1992, suffering from the enduring pain of six surgeries on an injured leg. “Within two weeks, I felt better,” he said, so he kept coming back until he, too, decided to move here.

“I study balneology,” he said. “It’s the study of the healing nature of spas. It’s more popular in Europe than it is here in the United States.” Merkher now gives daily talks at the site, giving visitors information about the nature and history of Warm Mineral Springs.

Ancient archeology

The hourglass-shaped body is a sinkhole, a type called a ‘cenote’ by the Mayan people in Mexico. A cenote is formed in limestone when an underground cavity collapses, exposing it to surface air.

The first to explore its underwater reaches was William Royal. Not formally trained in archaeology, he was something of a cowboy, plunging into the dark depths of the highly mineralized waters without knowing what he would find, and resurfacing with a variety of ancient treasures.

In 1959, he discovered a 10,000-year-old human skull, still with brain tissue inside. It seems the combination of high mineral content and lack of oxygen allowed for the preservation of organic material for millennia.

But soon after being removed, the white tissue turned gray and mushy, and the skull was placed in formaldehyde for storage.

Royal also discovered animal bones, including some from a saber cat, as well as mammoths’ teeth. Many of the human and animal bones, as well as stalactites and stalagmites, he found there, Royal incorporated into a huge stone fireplace that was the focal point in his home.

But Royal’s methods were not appreciated by trained archaeologists. For one thing, he recorded almost nothing about the context of his discoveries: where and with what other material the bones were found, for example.

In later years, Wilburn “Sonny” Cockrell of Florida State University brought legitimate archaeological methodology to the springs. His most famous find was a nearly complete human skeleton tucked into a cavernous ledge about 40 feet below the surface.

The presence of stalactites and stalagmites in this niche confirmed that the cavern was once above water. During the last “ice age,” sea level was some 100 to 300 feet lower than it is now, because more water was tied up in glaciers. It is likely, said Cockrell, that the cenote collapsed during that period because the lower water level left the roof of the cavity unsupported.

This niche yielded a skeleton in fetal position, almost certainly arranged that way during an ancient burial ritual. More importantly, associated with the skeleton was a manmade object: the handle from an ‘atlatl,’ a tool that Paleo-Indians used to hurl a spear over long distances.

Finding the artifact with the carefully arranged skeleton was significant, according to on-site archaeologist Steve Koski, because it enhances the likelihood that this was, indeed, an intentional human burial with “grave goods” possibly meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife.

The human remains date back as much as 8,000 to 11,000 years ago. Sediments in the bottom of the cenote have been analyzed and show that this area was once much drier and cooler. The presence of such finds as hickory pollen indicates the area was once surrounded by deciduous forests typical of today’s more northern climates.

You can e-mail Susan Hoffman at shoffman@sun-herald.com.

Springs abound with of unique features

Part 2


(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on Warm Mineral Springs.)

NORTH PORT — Wilburn “Sonny” Cockrell of Florida State University reported that stainless steel wires and bolts, placed in Warm Mineral Springs to denote archaeological study areas, deteriorated to nothing in a matter of months. Gar and catfish that live near the surface, where there is enough oxygen to support them, have markedly shorter life spans than the norm. One mystery of this place is why organic material like bones and pollen is so well-preserved.

The lack of oxygen seems to be key. Picture a thick hourglass and you will have an idea how the Springs looks underground in cross section. Just where it pinches in is where the water level was some 12,000 years ago. About 50 feet above that is the cavern where the burial was found.

About 19 million gallons of water shoot into the sinkhole every day from its lowest point – some 70 meters below ground surface. The water comes in at about 97º F from an aquifer more than 1,000 to 5,000 feet deep where it is geothermally heated. The water has a high mineral content but no oxygen.

Several smaller springs, the cool-water variety, also discharge into the cenote, but they are overwhelmed by the hot-water spring. For that reason, the Springs are 87º year-round.

The water level must have risen not long after the burial when the ice age ended, covering the remains. With the high mineral content and no oxygen, the bacteria and microbes that normally break down organic matter were stymied. That’s why the skeletal remains, bones, pollen, wood and other organic materials were so well preserved.

Although 19 million gallons of water enter the sinkhole every day, only about 9 million gallons are discharged through a narrow channel, eventually reaching Myakkahatchee Creek. Scientists believe the discrepancy is because much of the water soaks back into the ground. In other words, the Springs leak.

Old and new

On-site archaeologist Steve Koski said that in the deepest reaches of the sinkhole, where the hot water emerges, the water is so crystal clear you cannot even see it.

Near the surface, however, where there is oxygen and sunlight, the water looks cloudy. Koski said bacteria reacts in sunlight and sulfate to make the water cloudy. Indeed, after nightfall the surface waters clear up again.

Warm Mineral Springs was once thought to be the elusive Fountain of Youth for which Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sought in vain. Merkher said there is no evidence that he ever visited the site, although he might have heard about it.

But with so many unique features, it’s no surprise that Warm Mineral Springs attracted the attention of a new-age sort.

For instance, Carl Munck of West Virginia, who called himself an “archaeocryptographer,” claims that secret codes embedded in the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge and the Nazca Lines of Peru somehow point to the Springs. Through a convoluted series of calculations using factors such as the longitude of the Nazca triangle and the number of monuments at Stonehenge, Munck claims to show how ancient people calculated the precise location of Warm Mineral Springs.

Back to the future

Warm Mineral Springs opened to the public in the 1950s and for half a century was owned and operated by members of the Daley family. In later years, Sam Herron also became an owner, until it was sold to Ed Ullman of Golden Springs LLC in 1999.

Ullman recognized its potential. After being in a more traditional health career for many years, he grew disillusioned, and was drawn to “alternative” healing systems. Spas like Warm Mineral Springs, although not highly regarded in the United States, were sought by Europeans and Asians. He also saw the tide turning slightly, with more homeopathic methods being used.

“My dream,” Ullman said, “is to build an Institute for Natural Healing and Wellness Center.” He pictures it in tasteful Mediterranean-style architecture, with facilities for lectures, teaching and conventions.

He holds up a photo cut from a magazine to illustrate what he has in mind. Private holistic health practitioners could set up shop.

“There would also be a ‘residency club,’” he said. Not quite a time share, it would be a place where people could reserve rooms, maybe the same week or two every year, or several times a year, to come and stay and get healed in the Springs’ soothing waters. The residences would be far enough from the Springs not to detract from their appeal, he said.

Ullman’s dream might sound like pie in the sky, but his plans are already in motion. A few years ago, he managed to get the property annexed into the city of North Port, so that when city water and sewer come that way, he can tie in.

He has also gotten some conceptual plans approved, although he has no concrete designs yet. He may also have some financial backing from a holistic clinic in Tampa.

“I can see us having festivals here, art shows, maybe some performances,” Ullman said.

But his dreams still include bathers with hats.

 Photos and Cross-section


Warm Mineral Springs contains more than 50 different minerals and water temperatures can near 90 degrees.

You can e-mail Susan Hoffman at shoffman@sun-herald.com

SUN PHOTOS BY KHARLI ROSE, krose@sun-herald.com

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