Known by the Native Americans that inhabited the area, what became Bethesda Springs was first mentioned in 1834 when government workers took sick and a local guide informed them of the waters. By 1868, Col. Richard Dunbar had purchased the property and launched the Bethesda Spring Water company, named after the pool of Bethesda in the bible. He began what today is known as the Springs Era, transforming Waukesha into a world-renowned resort city. During the Depression, Bethesda Springs went into receivership and was purchased by the Chicago "Bon Ton" business which moved to Waukesha and continued to bottle the water through the 1970’s. Bethesda changed owners several times throughout the period spanning from the late 1970s to the 1990s. By 1997, Bethesda’s last owner went bankrupt and the bottling of water ceased.
Bethesda Spring with Terrace Hotel In background
Pond at Bethesda Spring
Bethesda Spring from Gate
Bethesda Spring Basin Postcard
Early Bethesda Spring House
Backstory and Context
Today known as Bethesda park, this site is home to the Bethesda Spring that reshaped the economic and social landscape of Waukesha in the second half of the 19th century. One of many naturally occurring mineral springs throughout the city, it was developed and marketed by Col. Richard Dunbar. It was marketed as a water based alternative medicine - or hydropathy - offering customers “healthful benefits” by drinking the mineral water. Dunbar first visited the spring while touring a horse pasture owned by his sister-in-law Elizabeth Carney Clark(e). By 1868 Dunbar had purchased the property and launched the Bethesda Spring Water company, beginning what today is known as the Springs Era transforming the village of Waukesha into a world-renowned resort city.
Bethesda Spring was the first spring water company in the city to market nationally, for both tourists to visit the property and for retail sales of bottled spring water. After Dunbar's commercialization of the spring in 1868 and subsequent promotion, the business grew phenomenally. Dunbar developed the land surrounding his spring into a park, planting hundreds of trees, and creating walking paths for patrons to enjoy. A hotel project was planned, with a cornerstone ceremony on September 2, 1870 attended by then Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Salmon P Chase. Unfortunately, the proposed hotel was never completed.
Originally the water was shipped in barrels and ceramic demijohns (jug, or carboy), but eventually a bottling plant was built. Dunbar died of heart failure on December 15, 1878, and the city mourned the passing of a great man. Catherine, his wife, tried to manage the spring for several years, but sold the property in 1881.
The ensuing years were ones of stagnation. A Group of businessmen ran the spring, and while the spring continued to attract visitors, it ran into stiff competition as other spring sites throughout the city.
The board of directors hired Alfred "Long" Jones to manage Bethesda In 1885. Jones was a former Illinois senator and a popular figure. Called "Long" because of his 6'3" height, he greeted his visitors and saw to their every comfort. He also began charging people to visit the spring, a controversial move that met with much opposition. Jones purchased stock in the corporation and was elected chairman in 1888. He oversaw many improvements to the park. Business grew tremendously. In 1889, 5,000 quarts of water were bottled daily.
More improvements were made in the 1890s. Jones constructed a large hotel, the Terrace, on Dunbar Avenue opposite the entrance gate.
Dunbar had built a simple spring house in the 1860s. This was replaced by a tent that was erected each summer during the 1880s. In 1892, a final improvement was added. A magnificent spring house was constructed over the magic font. It stood on eight elaborate columns and was built into the hill. Marble footings supported the columns. A marble tile floor surrounded the spring.
Jones' son, Alfred Wirt Jones, replaced his father as manager in 1896,. Business continued to grow, and by 1906, Bethesda shipped 300,000 gallons of water annually.
During the 1920s, the business was reorganized and continued successfully. In 1934, however, felled by the Depression, Bethesda went into receivership. A trio of Chicago investors, Morris Cohn, Herman Glick, and George Brenner purchased the company and moved the Chicago "Bon Ton" business to Waukesha.
Bethesda products continued to be bottled by the Bon Ton Company through the 1970s. The Slogan "Bottled At The Spring" was adopted. Exciting new soda water flavors were developed by the company in the lab, which was installed in the plant.
The company sold most of the park to the city but retained the rights to the water. In 1949, the beautiful pavilion was demolished. The owners claimed it was beyond repair, and replaced it with a simple concrete block structure, which remains there today.
Bethesda changed owners several times throughout the late 1970s - '90s. The change in ownership led to deterioration of the bottling equipment. In 1997, when the parent company of Bethesda (located in Pennsylvania), went bankrupt, the bottling of water ceased. The water continues to flow at Bethesda Spring, however, and is said to be of the same quality that Colonel Dunbar discovered in 1868.
Armour, Keith. Beglinger, Clarie. Hoefer, Beth. Nelson, Larry. Schoenknecht, John. Eds. Spring City Past. Edition 3. Waukesha, WI. City of Waukesha Landmarks Commission, 2001-2.
Schoenknecht, John Martin. Great Waukesha Springs Era 1868-1918. Edition 1. Waukesha, WI. John M. Schoenknecht, 2003.
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Salb Family Collection
Wisconsin Historical Society Collection