Reviving the Springs

by Stevie Zvereva

Peoria Mineral Springs has a lost history of quenching the city’s thirst… and future potential to do the same.

On the wooded hillside between Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Moss Avenue, an estimated 30,000 gallons of fresh mineral water filter up through a natural limestone base from three individual springs every 24 hours. Some is retained within a cave-like, barrel-vaulted brick reservoir concealed in the hill’s gentle slope—but most of it escapes. Leaking through an arched door built in 1923 to protect the reservoir, this pristine drinking water spills down the hill and straight into the sewers of the city whose thirst it once quenched.

Peoria’s Oldest Landmark
On the world stage, Peoria Mineral Springs is not a huge spring, admits property owner Charles Traynor, but it’s a “very desirable one.” He suspects few residents know about it, let alone the quality of its water, which boasts a pH of 7.11 and a mineral breakdown between 500 and 700 parts per million—on par with some of the highest-rated mineral waters in North America and Europe.

“In Europe, this type of spring would be used as table water—both still and sparkling,” he says, comparing its taste and composition to that of Mountain Valley Spring Water in Arkansas.

Free-flowing for more than 14,500 years, Peoria Mineral Springs is the city’s oldest landmark, a remnant of the glacial retreat that covered the region millennia ago. The evidence is written in the layers of heavy mineral deposits found inside the springs’ vaulted brick reservoir, built in 1834 to capture this natural flow. As the city’s first utility, known as Peoria Water Works, the springs supplied water to residents up to two miles away through a network of wooden pipes—Peoria’s primary source of water for about 15 years. As its population swelled, however, another source was established near the Illinois River to accommodate the rapid growth.

But the springs were not forgotten. Throughout the 19th century, its water was bottled commercially by a number of entrepreneurs, including Ransom Hickey, whose Hickey Bottling Works marketed the stuff in beverages like Peach Cider, Lithia Seltzer and Rose Malt. Years later, Preston Clark, who patented the name Peoria Mineral Springs in 1892, bottled the water as “Peoria Mineral Spring Soda.” But when he closed up shop shortly after the turn of the century, the springs lay dormant; the site was deemed a safety hazard and eventually filled with gravel.

Obsession in the Making
When the Traynor family set out to purchase the property in 1969, their primary motivation was to restore the two-story, post-colonial brick house on site, which had been slated for demolition. The property first belonged to Revolutionary War hero Captain Zeally Moss in the early 1830s, then to his son, William S. Moss, a prominent businessman and riverboat captain. The house was enlarged twice by 1869, including a first-floor, brick-lined addition once used for bottling water from the spring. (Moss’ sister, Bradley University founder Lydia Moss Bradley, bought a parcel of land just above the spring from her brother in 1847; a direct pipe supplied spring water to her residence until her death in 1908.)

“We just loved the house,” Traynor recalls. “We had no idea then about the history of the spring.” But shovel by shovel, they quite literally uncovered this buried history. “It took almost two years to dig out all the gravel that had been pushed into it so we could use it as a water source [in the house].”

Uncovering the spring’s potential was a pivotal moment, Traynor continues. “[My father] told me… this was going to become an obsession, and he was right,” he says with a laugh. Determined to restore and share this lost history, the Traynor family pintucked some damaged areas of the brick reservoir, and officially opened Peoria Mineral Springs to the public in 1976 for a bicentennial celebration. Riding that wave, they successfully petitioned to secure the house, springs and site on the National Register of Historic Places a few years later.

By the early ‘80s, the family had secured a contract with Koala Springs, a water-bottling subsidiary of Beecham Pharmaceuticals. At the time, demand for the spring water was so high that Koala invested $80,000 to run a pipe from the spring, beneath Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, to a well and pump house built to fill distribution tankers, which were bottling a whopping 26,000 cases per run. For the next year, the company collected and trucked the water to EverFresh Bottling Company in Franklin Park, which bottled it for fruit juice and mineral water. But when the contract came up, it was not renewed, and the Traynors struggled to locate another bottling company able to accommodate the sizeable production level. Eventually, with these plans on hiatus, Charles moved to Chicago, and his son, Tobias, took over the property.

The Cave-In
In recent years, the springs suffered significant damage to its overflow system, causing the water table to rise substantially and one of the entrance walls to collapse. “My son didn’t realize what had happened,” Traynor says, describing the damage. “But we came to find out it was a blessing in disguise.”

As father and son began excavations, they discovered a hidden grotto, or cavern, by the caved-in vault door, which may date back even earlier than the reservoir. “At first, we were ready to go up with a backhoe and rebuild, and all of a sudden, we realized, no, we have to do it all by hand.

“The grotto alongside the springs is open, and people could come and get the water there,” he theorizes. But confirming the date of its historic use will require more expertise. “We need people who understand it… [who] can date it and help preserve it.

“It’s a very spiritual place,” he adds. “Being at the source of something so unusual is so special.”


Courtesy of Peoria Historical Society Special Collections

Back to the Surface
The Traynors’ goal is to bring the water back to the surface—“not only for its history, but for the wildlife. The birds just love it,” he notes, describing how they flock to the springs by the hundreds when the water is flowing.

But it’s a slow and physically demanding process. “The water just keeps pouring in, and it’s a constant 52 degrees,” he explains. “It’s cold!” As they work to call attention to the historic springs, the Traynors continue to seek community volunteers for physical, professional and financial assistance in its revival. In time, they’d also like to see the water’s commercial value realized once again; the pumphouse once used for bottling remains standing across the street.

“We see it as a wonderful asset for Peoria—commercially and historically,” he says. “They talk about the river, but we have to keep our eye on the prize, because you just never know. You see what’s happened in Flint [Michigan] and other places. It’s so very important to protect this.” iBi

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