For the second part of our series on ghost towns, KOSU’s Quinton Chandler traveled to the town of Sulphur Springs, known today simply as Sulphur. The town is just a short distance from one of the country’s National Parks, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area – home of the healing waters.
Sulphur is in Murray County, about 30 miles southwest of Ada. It isn’t really a ghost town. The last census reported a little less than 5,000 people living in the area. But, you could say they’re living in the second town. First there was Sulphur Springs, most likely settled sometime between 1890 and 1895. The land was owned by the Chickasaw Nation so the residents had to pay the tribe for the pleasure of staying near these naturally occurring springs Sulphur is famous for.
“We’re in a semi-area savannah. Hot and dry and dusty and if you moved more than 100 yards from these springs you’d never see them, because of where they’re at. It was like a hidden jewel,” says Sulphur native Dennis Muncrief.
Muncrief and I are sitting in an office at the heart of town with a clear view of the Park. He’s a retired contractor who researched and wrote a book on the Park’s history. Kirk Perry is with the Chickasaw Nation. He says a former Chickasaw governor was one of the many people who asked the U.S. government to take over the springs.
“Douglas Johnston wanted to be sure that those were protected so that members of the public would be able to access those springs, rather than the springs being taken over by commercial development where nobody could get into them,” Perry says. “People like bath house owners and hotel people would charge people to go to the springs and he wanted it free for all citizens.”
But there was a price. The people of Sulphur Springs had to move. When I asked Dennis how far he answered with the point of his finger. “Across that fence. But you had to move a whole house or church or store. You only had to move about a quarter of a mile. But you had to jack your house up and tow it. This move didn’t happen in six months. It took like six or seven years to get everything out of the park.”
That’s partly because there were over 1000 people living in town around that time and Dennis counts about a thousand hotel rooms all because of these springs, and their fabled power to heal. Dennis says to this day people still drink the water like a regular tonic or elixir. He told me a famous story about the sulphur water and the park’s first ranger.
“He and his brother loved to fish and a catfish finned him in the thigh. It got infected and back then there were no antibiotics.” “They’d heard about the waters here so they came down and spent the summer here and his mother bathed him three or four or five times a day with that sulphur water. It healed the infection in his leg and he didn’t have to have it amputated,” Dennis says.
For me, accepting that this water can actually heal was a little hard to buy into even though it’s an enticing idea. Dennis on the other hand accepts the springs’ power as scientific fact.
“Bromide water…. The chemical bromide is for indigestion. Sulphur water on the other hand is supposed to heal infections. When I was a kid I’d drink sulphur water all the time. When you sweat that sulphur out it keeps the chiggers off of you,” Dennis says.
Native American’s also used these springs as medicine for hundreds of years and Bruce Noble, the park’s superintendent adds going to springs for healing was a kind of fad in Europe and early America.
“There was a feeling among the people as a whole that these were really healthy places to go. People thought if I can get a taste of that water and soak in it, it’s going to cure all that ails me,” Noble says.
Even today, the springs and the park built around them are arguably the reason Sulphur isn’t a bona fide ghost town.
“The water and the people who come to see the water are every bit as much a part of our reason for being today as was true 100 years ago when the park was first being developed,” Bruce says.
Bruce says over a million people visit the park every year and they bring over $100 million dollars in revenue with them. So protecting this resource is as important as ever, but it’s been a struggle to keep the Springs flowing while meeting the community’s need for water. In the beginning the park started out with about 33 Springs.
“I would say now 2/3rds of those 33 are dry.” We’re looking now at getting some particular protections that apply to the park so that if people are going to drill new wells they’re going to have to do it a specified distance away from the park in order to protect the springs,” Bruce says.
Bruce says he isn’t afraid that one day all the Springs will go dry, not while they’re under government protection and for Sulphur’s sake I hope he’s right.