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Atlanta Journal Constitution
04/01/2001


Main Street: Summer fun rarity at old entertainment palace Bill Osinski - Staff Sunday, April 1, 2001

Georgia's most splendid swimming hole has survived some of nature's worst blows.

But luck may have run out for the grand casino building that has guarded Radium Springs for nearly eight decades.

The waters of Radium Springs, just south of Albany, have been prized since before recorded history. Native Americans believed there was magic there. The Earth's crust has been peeled away, leaving the limestone aquifer exposed as a natural bowl for crystalline blue waters of the spring.

Legend has it that warring tribes were at peace when they came together at the spring, and when the Spanish explorers came looking for the so-called Fountain of Youth, Indian guides made sure the conquistadors never saw that special spring.

In the 1920s, publishing magnate Barron Collier was so captivated that he bought it. After chemical analysis showed the water contained trace amounts of radium, he named the place Radium Springs and built a casino, or entertainment center, at the entrance.

For decades, the Radium Springs Casino was the place to go in southwest Georgia for elegance and for fun. Florida-bound tourists traveling the railroad or the Old Dixie Highway stopped in Albany for a trip to the renowned restaurants and swimming at Radium Springs.

For Albany residents, the pecky cypress-paneled ballroom at the Radium Springs Casino was where the style-setters went for weddings, dances and banquets. And regular folks could pay 25 cents and enjoy the natural splendors of a dip in the cold, clear water.

Time and the Flint River have changed all that.

The efforts to operate a commercially viable business have struggled against the development trends that have focused economic growth in the opposite end of Dougherty County.

Even worse, the river itself seems to have turned on Radium Springs. The casino and many nearby buildings were lapped up by the brown waters of the 1994 "Flood of the Century." Four years later, "Son of Flood of the Century" struck.

Now, most of the private landowners of riverfront land in and around Radium Springs have sold out to federal disaster relief agencies, and there are plans to turn the whole area into some form of public green space.

The owner of the Radium Springs Casino is also negotiating to sell to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Once an agreement is reached, the options are limited to either moving the casino or tearing it down, said Paul Forgey, planning director for the Southwest Georgia Regional Development Center. Once the government owns land ruled to be in a flood-prone area, it cannot be developed again.

Also, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has ruled that the casino structure does not qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places because of extensive remodeling in recent decades. This means that it will be difficult to qualify for any public funds to assist in saving and restoring the casino.

To people like Atlanta writer Pat Samford, who literally spent much of her girlhood swimming in Radium Springs, all that sounds like bureaucratic rationalizing.

"They don't realize that they're tearing our hearts out," she said.

Samford said she hardly ever bothered paying the 25-cent swimming fee at Radium Springs; she just jumped into the creek near her home and swam into the springs. Many days, she would get out of the water for a nap at a neighbor's house closer to the spring and then go back to the spring until dark.

"It was such wonderful fun. You can't manufacture that," Samford said. "They need to continue the legend and build on it, not tear it down."

In the early 1990s, Radium Springs Preservation Group Inc. was formed to try to operate the casino as a restaurant and special events center.

"All of us wanted to see that place continue to be there," said Morgan Murphy, a member of the preservation group. "The spring is a window to the aquifer, and for decades, the casino was the gathering place for Albany."

However, the floods and the economic realities of the time defeated the group, and it sold the casino back to its previous owner, he said.

Bo Dorrough, an attorney and an Albany City Councilman, said he hopes there is still time to explore the option of moving the casino. One plan is to move the most historic parts of the building --- the section that includes the ballroom and the original wooden cupola --- to a site in downtown Albany that is being redeveloped as part of a project called the Flint RiverCenter.

But that will take action and a fund-raising effort by preservation-minded people, he said.

"The casino is an architectural treasure. Our community should do anything in its power to preserve it," he said. "Whether our city has a sense of its past is a true test of what kind of future we want."

There are many people who might help, he said, but they need to realize that the clock is ticking.

One day, after it's too late, he said, people are going to realize what has happened and say, "Oh, they're tearing down the casino . . . Isn't that a shame!' "


Published in Albany Herald

(click to enlarge article)

June 15, 2003

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