Friday, August 31, 2012

Eat your heart out, Ponce de León


We all know that the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León discovered Florida whilst looking for the Fountain of Youth...which Captain Jack Sparrow came across in the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. 

Okay, not exactly. 

We mere mortals have long been fascinated by tales of miraculous waters that promote longevity. Alexander the Great was said to have been searching (when he wasn't conquering the known world) for a river whose curative waters reversed the damage of aging. In some Islamic traditions the revered character al-Khidr, a contemporary of Moses, is said to have drunk from the waters of life and become immortal. The medieval tales of Prester John, a Christian king of legendary lands either in Asia or Africa (depending on the legend) included a Fountain of Youth. 

Stories about restorative waters peaked in sixteenth century Europe when they became associated with the wonders of the New World. Juan Ponce de León led the first European expedition to Florida in 1513 but his meticulous exploration notes say nothing of a fountain quest. The connection between this Spanish explorer and the Fountain of Youth was established in a 1535 chronicle called Historia General Y Natural de las Indias by Gonzalo Fernandez Oviedo. The chronicle claims that de León was searching for the waters of Bimini to cure his impotence when he accidentally discovered Florida. Yes, impotence. Now we know what Ponce de León was really looking for. There are several Florida tourist attractions purporting to be de León's fountain, but no word as to whether any of them cure impotence. 

Truth is, if de León really was searching for the Fountain of Youth, he needed a better map. Because it's here in Western Pennsylvania.


 And how do I know this is the Fountain of Youth? Because it says so, silly:



I came across our Fountain of Youth a few months ago when I was driving around North Park looking for the old buffalo paddock site. As I drove down Kummer Road I caught a glimpse through the trees of this springhouse built into the hillside, and with screeching brakes stopped to check it out. I've revisited the grotto many times since.  



It's not surprising that the springhouse blends in so seamlessly with its surroundings. The first County Parks Director, Paul B. Riis, was an advocate of naturalistic construction for municipal recreation facilities that would, as described by the Pittsburgh Press,  "...represent natural bodies of water with overhanging cliffs, whatnots and doodads that put in the 'artistic touch.' "  According to the timeline of the Latodami Nature Center in North Park, Pittsburgh's Fountain of Youth was built in 1938 as "....a springhouse designed as a grotto typical in every detail of a Roman cavern."  It was likely built by Works Progress Administration (WPA) laborers, who constructed so many other park buildings, paths, shelters, and landscaping.

Unfortunately the spring waters of our Fountain of Youth didn't flow free and clear for long. In January 1953, the Pittsburgh Press reported that the pump "...recently developed the squeaks and the dry wheeze, and then broke down completely" and gleefully opined that "....old age had set in."  The handle was replaced due to popular demand and the waters were tested: "Chemists said it was cold, pure and clear but couldn't find anything in it to clear up wrinkles or falling hair." 

Alas, a few years later the pump handle was removed entirely. On May 11 1955 the State Health Department declared the spring waters unfit for human consumption due to "coliform organisms."  A Pittsburgh Press article lamented the news for fans of the spring:  "As a matter of fact, over the weekend we have folks coming all the way from Butler to collect supplies and take them home."  Hopefully those Butler folks boiled their water before using it!  

A subsequent article in the Pittsburgh Press from October 1956 confirmed that the Fountain of Youth would remain closed due to impurities in the water supply.  R. Jay Gangwere's 1986 history of North Park in Carnegie Magazine explained that "When the golf course nearby fixed the leaks in its irrigation system, the Fountain of Youth dried up, but the grotto remains."   It would be ironic indeed if repairs to a broken irrigation system were to blame for killing Pittsburgh's Fountain of Youth. The water supply in North Park had been problematic from the beginning, delaying construction of the golf course and swimming pool until an artesian well was dug in 1930.  A 1932 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted more water woes:
The quality of water used there [in the golf course area] has been a matter of great concern for some time. Its high basic carbonate and sodium chloride content is of a toxic quality, producing alkalinity on the greens....This problem, the director said, he hoped to solve either by application of harmless chemicals or by connections to another well two miles down the valley from the golf course.
County Park Commissioner Riis even blamed the death of several North Park buffalo on water that they drank from a near-by creek.

We must assume that the water is still unfit for human consumption fifty years later (because, really, do you want to be the test case that disproves this?). However, there remains a running spring on the Fountain of Youth premises to be explored, if you're hardy enough to climb down through the brush and poison ivy.  A worker in the North Park office told me that the concrete around the grotto had been repaired in 2004-05, and a Girl Scout had remounted the medallion in 2009. The Fountain of Youth reportedly also hosts a nearby geocache. 

I'd tell you exactly where to find the North Park Fountain of Youth, but that would defeat the purpose of a quest, wouldn't it? If you do visit, remember this: the waters aren't purified. 

Oh, and remember, too, that Ponce de León allegedly searched for magical waters to reverse his impotence. We don't know if he ever found his Fountain of Youth, but we do know that he had 21 children. 

Be careful what you wish for, folks, and don't drink the water.
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Further Reading
Florida's Fabled Fountain of Youth Springs Eternal
Geocaching: North Park Fountain of Youth

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