What’s in the Water: Vendome Well, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Sulphur, Oklahoma
by Dinah Gewalt

It is our very nature to interact, change, and cope with our environment. As each place responds to our presence, it becomes a refuge where we can express our relationship with the natural world as well as define who we are as a society and as unique individuals. The Vendome Well of southern Oklahoma is such a place, and has attracted people for thousands of years.

Vendome is the largest artesian well in the state of Oklahoma, tapping deep into the Arbuckle Simpson aquifer. It was first discovered by the indigenous peoples of the southern plains and believed to possess healing qualities that could remedy ill health. This was the beginning of an inseparable bonding between people and water of the sulphur wells and springs.

Stories of the curative powers of the water spread with western expansion. By the late 1890s settlers had built the town of Sulphur (Springs) complete with numerous hotels, resorts, and bath houses promoting the medicinal qualities of the water. Visitors came from all over the United States to cure their ailments or indulge in a recreational retreat. In 1902, the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes sold 700 acres of their land to the United States Government, under the condition that the springs would be preserved. The land was then designated as Platt National Park in 1906, as a tribute to United States Senator Orville H. Platt.

The first well at Vendome was drilled in 1922 and produced a prodigious outflow of 3,500 gallons per minute! The thrilling abundance of water was channeled into a manmade plunge pool and became a destination sought by many (Figures 1 and 2). Vendome Well became an icon of Sulphur, featured on numerous post cards and souvenir trinkets that helped develop a public identity of the town. However, Vendome remained under private ownership. It was located just eight feet outside the main park entrance and only a block away from the railroad depot.

Gewalt Figure 1
Figure 1: This 1920s photograph of Vendome Well in it prime documents its popularity among bathing beauties visiting Sulphur, Oklahoma. Courtesy of Arbuckle Historical Society of Murray County.

Gewalt Figure 2
Figure 2: A postcard rendering of Vendome Well and the neighboring plunge pool in the 1930s. Courtesy of Arbuckle Historical Society of Murray County.

Its success led to the construction of the neighboring Vendome Dance Hall, which contained a bathhouse on the ground floor and dance floor above that operated into the wee hours of the night.  Sulphur was in its heyday throughout the Roaring Twenties until the infamous blows of the Great Depression brought the town to a halt. Many of the springs had gone dry, businesses failed, and the town’s survival looked bleak. 

In 1933, a public work relief program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), was assigned to redevelop the recreational facilities of Platt National Park. The redevelopment ultimately imprinted a legacy upon the landscape—one the finest examples of CCC rustic design in existence. From 1933-1940, a series of pavilions, creek dams, swimming holes, picnic grounds, hiking trails, and campgrounds was constructed or improved by the CCC in Platt National Park. Before their touch, the outflow of Vendome Well was nothing more than a ditch flowing under a parking lot before reaching Black Sulphur Springs. National Park Service landscape architects and engineers approached the drainage system of the well as an opportunity to recreate it into the most distinctive attraction at the main entrance. From 1934 until 1935, the CCC constructed a series of streams, dams, waterfalls, and pools progressing from a structural body of stone walls to a naturalistic streambed bordered by native grasses and wildflowers (Figure 3).

Gewalt Figure 3
Figure 3: One of the many waterfalls along Vendome’s outflow. Constructed from local stone by the CCC during the 1930s. Courtesy of author, 2011.

The influence of the CCC led to greater public awareness and appreciation for Vendome, as well as providing a basis for the protection and development of its water resource. In 1968, a master plan was developed to partner the Platt National Park with the Arbuckle National Recreation Area, but it was not until 1976 that the two parks were officially adjoined as the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Vendome Well was acquired by the recreation area in 1979, rehabilitated and integrated into the Platt Historic District in 1998. It remains as a beloved feature of the park and a landmark within Sulphur (Figure 4).

Gewalt Figure 4
Figure 4: Vendome Well was rehabilitated with limestone similar to what the CCC used throughout the park. Courtesy of author, 2011.

Today, the Vendome system tells a story of the cleansing of the water with enhancing effects of sound and movement, which entices visitor interaction. In the warm months, waders and bathers use the Vendome stream and pools, and some still apply mud from the stream to their skin as a daring beautification treatment. Other regular visitors continue to routinely collect jugs of sulphur water at the nearby Vendome Well.

Vendome itself is a cultural landscape that celebrates the unique sustainable partnership between rustic design philosophy, pre-CCC park design, and commercial ventures from the town. With its close proximity to downtown Sulphur, it defines a gateway leading into the park and taps even deeper into the spirit of this place.  These desirable qualities will be showcased, as Vendome has been selected to be the prime feature of a future visitor center for Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Figure 5). Vendome will become even more appreciated as an interpretative element used to tell the rich history and the “water story” of the park.  It will cohesively bind the entire park with the community through public education, thus creating a sustainable partnership for years to come.  Additionally, Vendome will remain an icon highlighting the very precious history of this town and the park.

Gewalt Figure 5
Figure 5: New visitor center facilities would be constructed to achieve LEED Gold Certification and Vendome well would be rehabilitated. Courtesy of National Park Service, 2011.

Arbuckle Historical Society of Murray County. Sulphur, Oklahoma. April 2011.

Hartsell Brown, Opal. Murray County, Oklahoma: The Heart of Eden. Wichita Falls, Texas: Nortex Press, 1977.

Hohmann, Heidi and Katarzyna Grala. Cultural Landscape Report, Platt Historic District, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Oklahoma. National Park Service & Iowa State University, 2004.

Vendome Well Basin and Channel, V.A. List of Classified Structures. National Park Service, 2005.

Visitor Center Environmental Assessment. Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Oklahoma.  Denver, Colorado: Mundus Bishop Design, Inc., Landscape Architects & Planning, Andrews and Anderson, Architects. National Park Service, April 2011

Dinah Gewalt is a Landscape Architecture and Historic Preservation student attending the University of Washington. She has interned for the National Park Service at the Chickasaw National Recreational Area and the Alaska Regional Office. She can be reached at dinahg@u.washington.edu

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