Use the phrase “grand hotel” in a sentence and your listener is likely to conjure up an image of the alabaster structure located on Michigan’s Mackinac Island.
The term “grand hotel” is not trademarked, however. There are other grand hotels, including Indiana’s French Lick Resort Casino in Orange County. Comprised of two unique buildings, the resort traces its origin back to 1832 with a history beset by tragedy and triumph.
Strange name, stranger genesis
French Lick, Ind., got its name from its discoverers and nearby exposed salt deposits. French traders utilized the place, and this—coupled with the tendency of the animals to lick the salt from easily-accessible sources—resulted in the name French Lick.
By the mid 19th century, many people became convinced that immersing themselves in mineral water—particularly water with a high sulfur content—would cure whatever ailed them. An enterprising local doctor, Dr. William Bowles, purchased several thousand acres of land containing mineral springs from the state of Indiana.
The French Lick Springs Hotel opened in 1845 and became a full-fledged resort in 1888. By 1900, the rich and famous were journeying to central Indiana to partake of the waters. Promising cures for everything from cancer to alcoholism, the resort’s early years were dominated by what some called quackery and others swore was a miracle.
Following devastating fires (as well as some perhaps less-than-ethical deals), the buildings that comprise the current resort complex were designed and built just in time to add illegal gambling and a cure for prohibition to the list of reasons for visiting the resort. It’s said that Al Capone would take the Monon Railroad from Chicago to French Lick whenever he needed an alibi. Indiana’s own bank robber extraordinaire, John Dillinger, often showed up at the French Lick resort along with other members of the broken nose society.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bing Crosby, Cole Porter, the Marx Brothers and Franklin D. Roosevelt were counted among the guests—plus other lesser lights, both famous and infamous.
These first decades at French Lick were a gilded age. The building’s interiors were actually trimmed in gold leaf. If you looked up the word “opulence” in Webster’s dictionary, you’d likely have found pictures of the French Lick Springs Resort and its companion property, West Baden Springs.