Today WYSO Curious takes on a question that’s simple, but also age-old. It involves a feature familiar to Yellow Springs locals: the actual springs after which the town is named.
The springs inside a preserve called Glen Helen look bright yellowish orange where the water comes out. So listener Jonathan Kouse, an occasional visitor to the Glen, asked, “Why are the Yellow Springs yellow?”
I turned to Glen Helen director Nick Boutis for the basics. We head down the big stone steps to the springs as he explains the basic hydrology of the region.
“We’re in an area where the aquifer has enormous pressure on it and water is just coming up all over the place,” Boutis says. The names of towns like Yellow Springs and Bellbrook and the city of Springfield pay homage to the areas excessive water, which flows over the region’s hills in rivers, creeks and streams, but also bubbles up from powerful and porous underground aquifers.
Uphill from a creek on a narrow path, we arrive at the beautiful yellowish-orange rock formation with the famous tinted water flowing out of it. Boutis says local folks actually put these rocks here decades ago—the spring used to just bubble up out of the ground, leaving an orange tint on the leaves and sticks as it headed down hill towards the creek. Sediment from the water has added to the human-placed rocks over time, so they’re curvy and natural-looking.
Boutis says long before all this was here, people came here for the water that bubbled up in this spot. Many believed in its healing powers.
“They would be enticed here to travel to Yellow Springs by train and drink from the Yellow Springs to be cured of their bilious affections and other health challenges of being a midwesterner in the 19th century,” he says.
After thousands of years of use and inhabitation by Native Americans (including the Hopewell, the Miami and the Shawnee) the Yellow Springs creek, a feeder for the Little Miami River down
the hill, became a colonialists’ tourist attraction and the site of a small resort in the 1800s. A dam was put in to create a pond for resort-goers to recreate in—the dam broke and was replaced in the great flooding of 1913, but photos from as recent as the 1960s show people ice-skating on the pond it created. Glen Helen became a nature preserve in 1929, when Hugh Taylor Birch donated the land to Antioch College.
The famous Yellow Springs became a public good, and Boutis says he knows of nowhere else in the region with similar springs—the Glen actually has two locations where the water comes up yellow, another further down the same ridge from the better-known spring.
So...why are the springs yellow?
“Why is the Yellow Spring yellow?” says Audrey McGowin of Wright State University. “It has a little bit to do with the magic of chemistry.”
McGowin is a chemistry professor who takes her class to study the chemistry of the spring every year. She says when the water is underground, in the aquifer untouched by air, it’s clear rather than orange or yellow.
“The magic of chemistry is that it combines with oxygen in the air and forms what we know as rust,” she says.
So that’s our answer: rust. The iron in the water hits oxygen, becomes rust, and settles out pretty quickly into that orange-yellow sediment. And McGowin says it’s actually the sediment creating the color, so if you put the water in a clear bottle, the iron will cling to the bottle make it look yellow. She says the iron level in the yellow springs is 10 to 100 times more than area wells she and her students have measured.
It’s hard to pinpoint where the iron sediment in such a high concentration all comes from. McGowin says there could be a vugg, an underground deposit of iron near the spring that’s being dissolved bit by bit and bubbling to the surface with the water. Or, the geology underground could just generally contain a lot of iron.
Can you drink it?
Our question-asker, Jonathan Kouse, also wanted to know whether the spring is safe to drink. Local legend has it that if you drink from the Yellow Spring, you’ll always come back (or, some say, you’ll never leave Yellow Springs), and it’s not uncommon to see people taking sips. The water flows out at a steady 52 degrees all times of year, giving it a pleasant cooling effect in the summer and a steady warmth in the depths of winter.
McGowin says the spring is fairly chemical-free, and there’s no real danger to the iron levels—but she still has a chemist’s answer.
“It seems very refreshing. But I wouldn’t encourage anyone to drink untreated water, just in general,” she says. The clincher there is that there are plenty of animals and pets in the Glen, and “they can make deposits of certain types.”
Still, her class has never measured unusually high levels of bacteria such as e-coli or problematic algal toxins in the water from the Yellow Spring, and the iron and other minerals associated with the hard water can indeed have positive health effects.
McGowin isn’t heavy into the superstition stuff, but I still bring it up a few times.
“Now that you mention it, we do have a certain faculty member in my department who comments that there must be a lot of lithium in the water because everyone in Yellow Springs is so happy,” she says. Her professional opinion is that they haven’t yet measured for that.
Full disclosure: both Glen Helen Nature Preserve and WYSO Public Radio belong to Antioch College. Glen Helen had no editorial influence over the content of the story and the question was submitted by an independent listener.
WYSO Curious is our occasional series about your questions and curiosities—let us know what you are curious about in the Miami Valley, and your question could get answered by a WYSO reporter. WYSO Curious is a partnership with Hearken, founded by Jennifer Brandel based on her work at Curious City/WBEZ Chicago.