Wilmot Spa Springs

This is the story of Nova Scotia’s famous spa springs… which you have probably never heard of!

Water contains minerals because it absorbs them from the rock it interacts with. For example, water that interacts with limestone will contain calcium because it is a mineral in limestone. Water that interacts with gypsum will contain sulphate. Water that interacts with salt deposits will contain chloride and sodium.

In other words, the minerals in water reflect the geology of the area the water is from.

This can be good and bad. Minerals are essential to health and we get many important minerals from water. However, this process of minerals leaching into water can also cause concentrations of minerals that are a health risk. For example, many Nova Scotia wells contain amounts of uranium and arsenic that exceed drinking water guidelines because all Nova Scotia rock contains uranium and arsenic and they often leach naturally into groundwater. That is why it is important to test well water.

The term “mineral water” usually means water that has absorbed larger amounts of minerals than is common. Today, it usually refers to water that is bottled and distributed for drinking, but the term used to mainly mean spas where people would bathe in water from springs, and sometimes drink it as well, for perceived health benefits.

Nova Scotia had a mineral spa in the 1800s in Wilmot, Annapolis County. (The specific area with the springs is now known as Spa Springs but we will refer to it as Wilmot since historical records do.)

It is said that the Mi’kmaq knew of the spring’s alleged curative powers long before settlers learned of them in the late 1700s. In the 1820s, the spring started attracting people from far and wide who came to soak in it and drink its water.

At first, they had to stay in farmhouses because there were no hotels or infrastructure to accommodate tourists. According to Nova Scotian geologist Abraham Gesner (1797-1864), in the early years the village was “all bustle and confusion, while many for want of accommodation were obliged to depart and few of the requisite comforts and conveniences could be procured for those who remained.”

William Woodbury opened the Spa Springs Hotel in 1831. Features like tennis courts and bath houses were also built in the hope of building a tourism business similar to many European spa towns.

Notable visitors to the Wilmot area would eventually include shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, future Prime Minister Robert Borden, Premier Joe Howe and the Prince of Wales (future King George V).

The hotel register included comments from guests who claimed to have benefitted from the mineral water. For example, N.J. Salmon of Wilmot wrote on July 19, 1831: “Having been long afflicted with a cancer and not being able to find any relief from medical assistance [I] was advised to visit the Wilmot Spring; and to my great satisfaction, in five days after my arrival the illness was entirely healed, and the sores chiefly removed…”

Despite some early success, the spring did not become the tourist attraction many hoped. Abraham Gesner wrote in 1836 that Wilmot’s mineral water possessed “medicinal properties of considerable importance. When the discovery was first announced numerous persons, without reference to the nature of their diseases, and at every stage of their complaints, hastened to the waters and hoped, and vainly hoped, to obtain relief…Many and great were the cures reported but experience shewed (sic) that the powers of the waters were not sufficient to remove all the ailments of its visitors; hence the springs were soon abandoned….”

In 1863, Reverend Dr. Robertson, rector of the local parish, described similar challenges: “In former times the Springs were much frequented; but of late years very few visitors have been near them. The water, however, is remarkably efficacious in curing cutaneous complaints, or eruptions…In my opinion, the Wilmot Springs deserve to be better known, and more frequented than they are at present. If the proprietors were men of substance and energy, I have no doubt but that their locality would be one of the best known in Nova Scotia.”

Henry How, a professor at King’s College in Windsor, tested the water from the spring in 1863 and found that it contained lime, magnesia, soda, potash, sulphuric acid, chlorine, silica and traces of iron and phosphoric acid.

How’s test results were very different from an analysis done by a Dr. Webster from Boston who stayed at the Spa Springs Hotel in the 1830s. For example, Webster found large amounts of iodine in the water and How found none. Iodine is a mineral that has many uses in healthcare, including treating infections, goiters and thyroid cancer.

How did not know whether there was a problem with testing methodology (i.e. heavy rainfall could have affected the samples, or the samples may have been taken at different times of year), or if the spring water had undergone a more fundamental change in the three decades between tests. (This is why it is recommended that wells be tested at least every two years - water can change.)

The Spa Springs Hotel was expanded and modernized in the 1880s but burned down in 1889. A replacement hotel also burned down a few years later.

A bottling plant was built on the former site of the Spa Springs Hotel to use the mineral water in the manufacture of drinks like ginger ale and cream soda, but it burned down in 1908. A new bottling plant was built in the 1980s but it struggled financially and closed in 1992. Today, the Spa Springs Mineral Water Company produces bottled water, energy drinks, sodas and other beverages using water from the spring.

Wilmot township was established in 1764 and named for Montagu Wilmot who was appointed Governor of Nova Scotia that year. Wilmot, a British military officer, suffered ill health, including rheumatism and gout, which prevented him from signing his name for months and confined him to his home in winter.

Wilmot was apparently a believer in the health benefits of mineral waters. In 1766 he applied for a year’s leave of absence to return to Europe to take “the Bath Waters.” He never received a reply – he died on May 23, 1766 and was buried in a vault beneath St. Paul’s Church in Halifax. He never knew about the mineral waters in the town that was named for him.

Montagu Wilmot.