Marker #551 "Harrodsburg Springs" and #1297 "Graham Springs"

Historical Markers #551 and #1297—Harrodsburg Springs and Graham Springs—both commemorate the mineral springs, health spa, and social resort operated by Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham in Harrodsburg between 1820 and 1853.

While the waters at the Springs claimed to possess curative properties for visitors seeking cure or relief from a variety of illnesses, the Springs were also marketed as a social destination for the wealthy and elite. Like the neighboring Greenville Springs (Marker #2287), the Harrodsburg and Graham Springs attracted wealthy visitors from Kentucky and across the nation, earning Harrodsburg the reputation of the “Saratoga of the West”—a reference to the famous springs in New York state. Following its peak of popularity, the Springs were later sold to the Federal Government, becoming—for a short time—the Western Military Asylum and later a makeshift hospital for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Perryville, before falling into disuse after a series of devastating fires. Serving a medical, social, and military purpose, the histories of the Springs highlight the importance of mineral springs to the larger history of Harrodsburg and Mercer County.

Although the reported curative properties of the waters at the Springs were well-known by the first decade of the nineteenth century, they were not marketed as a medical spa and social resort until they came under the proprietorship of Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham (1784–1885). A veteran of the War of 1812, Dr. Graham married Theresa Sutton in Mercer County in 1820 and soon after entered into a partnership with his father-in-law in the management of Harrodsburg Springs, also known as Sutton Springs, acquiring the property outright in 1828. As Harrodsburg Springs rose in popularity, business difficulties at the competing Greenville Springs forced a public sale of that resort in 1827. Although Dr. Graham purchased Greenville Springs, he later sold the land and resort to Reverand William D. Jones for the establishment of an early iteration of Beaumont College (Marker #1173). Focusing his attention on Harrodsburg Springs—known now as Graham Springs—Dr. Graham worked to develop the Springs into a social destination for the wealthy and elite.

In an 1829 advertisement published in the Argus of Western America, Dr. Graham described the Springs as “the Saratoga of the West, uniting society for pleasure and health,” and claimed “that the recent improvements have been such as to render this establishment decidedly the most extensively improved concentrated watering place in the U. States.” These improvements included the construction of a ballroom for dances and cotillions, landscaped grounds and gardens to promenade, a hotel, private cottages, and accommodations for hundreds of guests who visited during the “watering season” every year between June and August. Serviced by stagecoach lines operating from both Lexington and Louisville, the Springs received hundreds of visitors every summer. With members of the Kentucky social and political elite—including Isaac Shelby, the Clay family, and the Breckenridges—counted as regular guests, Graham Springs quickly gained a reputation as not only a health spa to escape the summer heat and disease, but also a destination for socializing and entertainment.

While early histories of Harrodsburg and Mercer County emphasize the social and medical aspects of Graham Springs, they often make only passing references to the role of slavery. Slavery and enslaved labor, however, were central to the development and management of the Springs. Visitors and guests likely brought small numbers of enslaved people with them, but many of the enslaved people present at the Springs were owned by Dr. Graham himself. According to U.S. Census records, Dr. Graham owned twenty-six enslaved persons in 1830 and 1840, and fifty-three enslaved persons in 1850. Although it is difficult to trace the identities of many of these enslaved persons and what their lives and labor looked like at the Springs, it is possible to trace three of these men: George, Reuben, and Henry. Enslaved men trained as musicians and dining room attendants, these three men boarded a steamboat from Louisville to Cincinnati, and from there escaped to freedom in Canada. When his attempts to entice the men back to bondage failed, Dr. Graham sued the operator of the steamboat that transported them to Cincinnati, resulting in case of Strader v. Graham, a precursor to the famous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision. In addition to highlighting Kentucky’s role in national fugitive slave laws, the testimony and outcome of Strader v. Graham also provides valuable insight into the role of enslaved people and enslaved labor at Graham Springs.

Despite the popularity of the Springs as a social destination, Dr. Graham sold the property to the U.S. Federal Government in 1853 for the establishment of the Western Military Asylum. Chosen on account of the pre-existing buildings and the association of the Springs with health and wellness, the Western Military Asylum was a facility for the care and treatment of disabled and wounded veterans. The venture, however, was short-lived, and following a fire in 1859, inmates at the asylum were transferred to other institutions. The former Graham Springs remained empty and disused until the Civil War when the cottages and ballroom served as a makeshift hospital for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Perryville in nearby Boyle County (#553). During and after the war, fires destroyed most of the buildings on the grounds, and the land remained mostly unused. In 1911, Judge Benjamin C. Allin reopened Graham Springs, but they closed once again in 1934. Today, the Springs are commemorated by a marker in Youngs Park.