Scott Brobston wasn’t looking to uncover history about 20 years ago as he walked around Lehigh Mountain, aka South Mountain, on Fountain Hill. But the retired cement worker and volunteer at St. Luke's University Hospital simply fell into it.
Winding through an undergrowth of vines, as he told The Morning Call in 1993, he "damn near fell into" several large tubs and water tanks. It was the remains of Oppelt’s Water Cure Hospital that had closed more than 120 years before.
St Luke's was founded near the site. Once one of the most popular summer resorts in the country where the well-to-do came to "take the waters" and enjoy the pure mountain air, it had closed forever as the result of strained finances of its founder.
It all began in 1843, not a good year in Bethlehem. The collapse of the Northampton Bank in Allentown run by Moravian John Rice had shaken the region to its foundation. Institutions whose funds were connected with the church were bankrupt.
Many people, forgetting that they were in the nation's worst financial panic since its founding and that massive floods had washed away large parts of the canal system that had become the region’s economic lifeblood, blamed it all on that "Oily Herrenhutter" Rice. As it was, fleeing a sheriff’s posse, he was burned in effigy in Allentown’s Center Square.
In desperation, Bethlehem’s leadership did what was unthinkable just a few years before and began to sell some off the farmland on the south side of the Lehigh. And fortunately, that year a young medical man from the German Confederation, the 38 sovereign states that replaced the Holy Roman Empire, named Franz Henrich Oppelt arrived in Bethlehem.
Some sources claim that Oppelt was a Moravian. Others claim that although from Herrnhut, Saxony, where the headquarters of the Moravian Church was located, he was not. Various biographies give his birthdate from 1804 to 1807. But all agree that when he arrived in Bethlehem in the spring of 1843, he had a unique request to make of the Aufseher Collegium, the ruling body of the town.
"The excellent water of the Lehigh Mountain (South Mountain)," he wrote them that June, "and the proximity of Bethlehem, where patients could purchase or have made all necessaries, and those less seriously ailing could have secure board and lodging, has awakened in me the desire to establish a hydropathic institute if I could buy the spring and the necessary ground."
The Collegium was impressed and allowed Oppelt two acres of ground on the mountain rent free. By April 1846, he had cleared the land, built some buildings and was able to purchase it. And so what was commonly known as Oppelt’s Water Cure hospital had begun its career that would see some of the most illustrious figures come to socialize and "take the waters."
What Oppelt was practicing in South Bethlehem was hydropathic medicine that professes to cure disease with water, either bathing in it or drinking it. Although they did not practice hydropathic medicine, as it was later known, the ancient world had a belief in the healing properties of water.
Egyptian, Greek and Roman doctors understood they could be helpful. Wherever they conquered and settled in their empire, baths were among the first things Romans built. Their aqueducts carried water over vast distances. One Roman engineer in the 1st century AD noted that though beautiful, the works of the Greece and Egypt "could not compare with our beautiful and useful aqueducts."
Spa, a resort town in Belgium with mineral spring baths, gave its name to nearly all such baths. In the 1600s during the English Civil War, Charles II spent his time in exile at Spa, adding to the exclusivity of that particular watering place. In the 18th century, gambling casinos sprung up around her.
According to one source, the first U.S. hydropathic baths were established by Joel Shew, a New York doctor in New York City in 1844. That would mean that Oppelt, opening baths in 1846, was among the first in this country to do so.
By the 1850s, there were numerous spas in the United States. There was even a trade publication, the Water Cure Journal, that was published in New York. During that decade it had 50,000 subscribers.
The theory behind hydropathy in the 19th century was that water would enter the body and flush out the impurities that caused illness. Among the methods used were sweating, plunging bath, a half bath and a head bath.
Oppelt’s Hydropathic Institute flourished for 25 years. Its baths were a huge success, bringing in many patients. Many were German-Americans. But it was not just the ill that found their way to Oppelt’s door. The setting was so beautiful with sweeping vistas in the north and east that it attracted a summer resort crowd.
"It was visited at times by people of note," writes Moravian bishop and historian Joseph Levering. "The locality got the name Oppeltsville, and beginning on September 22, 1850, when Moravian Bishop William Henry Van Vleck (1790-1853) officiated there for the first time, stated services were held there by the Moravian clergy of Bethlehem for a few years, during the months when numerous guests were sojourning at the place."
Van Vleck was one of the first of three students at the Moravian Theological Seminary when it opened in 1807. He was pastor at churches in Philadelphia, Nazareth and New York, served as bishop at Salem, North Carolina and attended numerous church conferences including the 1848 General Synod at Herrnhut. Van Vleck was serving at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem at the time of his death. His obituary in the Lecha Patriot newspaper stated he was "known for his punctuality and faithfulness."
By the late 1850s, trains were coming into Bethlehem with those seeking to take the cure. Among them was General Fritz Siegel, who led a largely German American unit during the Civil War. Another was Carl Schwarz. Like many others, he had fled Germany following the collapse of the revolutions of 1848.
He became a staunch supporter of the Lincoln and the Union cause, also serving as a general in the Civil War. He was later the U.S. senator from Missouri and U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
By the late 1860s, Oppelt’s spa was so well established that he decided to expand. The country was booming with iron furnaces and railroads being built all over South Bethlehem. But apparently, he misjudged the popularity of his spa and went deep into debt trying to meet a demand that was not as large as he thought it was. And perhaps the increasingly industrial setting no longer had the appeal when it was more rural.
In 1871, Oppelt declared bankruptcy and the spa/resort was sold at a sheriff’s sale.
Shortly after, Asa Packer purchased the land and with several other wealthy associates like Robert Sayre decided to establish a hospital designed to heal those who worked at the Bethlehem Iron Company, the forerunner of Bethlehem Steel. They called it St. Luke’s after the physician who wrote one of the books of New Testament. Some of the water cure institute’s buildings were used in the early days of the hospital.
Oppelt continued to live in Bethlehem, dying on July 31, 1894. His passing was noted by a brief obituary in the Review of Reviews, a national publication. According to some sources, Oppelt could be seen in his elderly years walking the streets of the town, weeping over the financial losses he had suffered.