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Cashing in on the Fountain of Youth

Ponce de Leon gets the credit, but St. Petersburg wouldn’t have a fountain of youth without Edwin Hyde Tomlinson and Jesse Conrad.

After building his father a fishing pier along the city’s waterfront in 1901, Tomlinson drilled a well into the seabed of Tampa Bay to provide a source of fresh water that his dad could use to clean the fish he caught.

The well water stank so much that people could smell it a block away, but that’s what Conrad liked about it. He purchased the pier and the artesian well from Tomlinson and opened a spa where residents and tourists drank the smelly sulfur water and bathed in it, thinking it had health benefits.

Conrad wasn’t the first businessman in Florida to sell people on the idea that the state’s natural waters could ease pain and cure disease. Including references to “Ponce de Leon” and “Fountain of Youth” just made for a better pitch.

“Florida was developed so much later than much of the rest of the country because it was really just swampland until after the Civil War,” says Rick Kilby, an Orlando graphic artist and author of “Finding The Fountain of Youth: Ponce de Leon and Florida’s Magical Waters.”

“Promoters began using the myth of the Fountain of Youth to say that Florida is a place you can come to and have a do-over.”

Florida’s best-known fountain of youth is in St. Augustine at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park — home to a spring that taps into the Floridan aquifer — but there are many others.

In North Port, in south Sarasota County, there’s Warm Mineral Springs, basically a water-filled sinkhole where the mineral-laden water is always a muscle-soothing 87 degrees. The springs have been an attraction since the 1950s. There’s another medicinal spring in Pinellas County’s Safety Harbor, home to the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, and people still look for relief in the spring-fed waters of De Leon Springs State Park in Volusia County.

Punta Gorda has a notable water feature, too, downtown at the intersection of Taylor Street and Marion Avenue, just across the street from a Coldwell Banker real estate office.

It’s not a fountain, exactly, but rather a tiled rectangle, decorated with images of Ponce de Leon-era Spanish ships. On one side there’s a working spigot that taps into an artesian well below. It has been there since the 1920s.

The water, however, contains high levels of radium, which prompted a 2013 story in National Geographic headlined “Florida’s Radioactive Fountain of Youth May Prolong Life.” There’s no proof that the water actually prolongs life, but people drink from the fountain anyway, despite a sign warning them not to.

In St. Petersburg, Tomlinson’s pier and Conrad’s spa were gone by the 1920s, but the artesian well survived. In 1966, the city piped the water onshore and created a small park, where the water bubbled up next to a small statue of Ponce de Leon. People drank the water, splashed it on their skin and took it home in bottles and jars.

“There was a study, said to be done in the early 1970s, that tested the water and found that it had high levels of lithium,” says Nevin Sitler, director of education at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and author of several books about the city’s history. “The claim was the spring had the highest levels of lithium among other springs in Florida. Lithium has been used to treat depression, so maybe they were on to something.”

The city’s Fountain of Youth Park fell into disrepair during the 1970s. Someone vandalized or stole the original Ponce de Leon statue, and a replacement statue didn’t last long either. Now, there’s an ornate drinking fountain, hooked up to the city’s water system, and a monument nearby etched with the words “Fountain of Youth.” Some of the park’s concrete surfaces and sitting areas have been altered to discourage skateboarding.

“It’s sad as a historian and a resident of this great city to see the current Fountain of Youth in this condition,” says Sitler. “It’s unloved. It would be a wonderful thing to rejuvenate it and bring it back to its glory days and celebrate it. These legends and lore, they exist for a reason. Who doesn’t want to believe?”