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Unknown Stories of WNY: An unexpected discovery that gave Alden an early claim to fame

Alden's black water bath industry was an early 20th century economic boon.

ALDEN, N.Y. — If you look around Alden you'll see the signs, signs of the days where black water created green paper. It was an accidental discovery that led to a small town industry. In 1891, a man named Frank Westcott came to Western New York in search of fortunes in the natural gas business.

Alden Town Historian Karen Muchow says one of Westcott's first wells was drilled in what is now the town park. At a depth of about 1,000 feet he hit a gusher, but not what he was looking for. Instead he found a large deposit of black mineral water.

Some of Westcott's workers told stories of a variety of ailments that were cured by exposure to the water. The waters were said to cure rheumatism, kidney troubles, skin disease, and even nervousness.

Although it was a disappointment to the gas company, it became a boon to the community. At its height, Alden had three bathhouses running. 

Muchow says many of the earliest patrons of these "black water baths" were immigrants. 

"This was early 1900 so there was still that european take the waters mentality," Muchow said.

Within a few years, people were taking the train to Alden from Buffalo and cities in the east, because this particular type of sulphur water was unique to this part of Western New York.

The bathhouses even bought buses to carry travellers from Buffalo, and beyond. A spa and hotel were built, a weekly newspaper was started, banks and jobs all came to Alden. 

Muchow says many people had big dreams of Alden becoming a major tourist destination. In fact in 1936 the New York State joint legislative committee investigated mineral water statewide. The committee concluded that Alden black mineral water is especially beneficial in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis, sciatica, neuritis, salt rheum, high and low blood pressure and skin diseases.

But several factors led to the demise of Alden's black water industry such as advances in medical science, the travel ban of World War II and the lack of entertainment in the village. By the mid 60's the the black water industry had become just part of Alden's history and another chapter in the Unknown Stories of Western New York.