Lithia water from Ashland, Oregon. Even the public art thinks it's icky. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlackers

Public Fountain Bubbles Up Foul-Tasting Mineral Brew; Go ahead, Have a Sip

It smells bad. It tastes bad. A sign cautions moderation. Yet the lithia mineral water streaming from eight cheery bubblers in the town square of Ashland, Oregon, has attracted health naïfs and the merely curious for more than 100 years.

Who knew?

We stopped in Ashland to see our nephew, The Music Guru, last month on the way to the 2017 solar eclipse totality zone near Salem. The Guru, who was in town as music director for a run of “Cabaret” performed as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Daedalus Project, suggested visiting the lithia fountain as an entertaining diversion on a hot afternoon. Cruel nephew!

Lithia water in Ashland, Oregon. A very little goes a long way! Trust us. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlackers
Lithia water in Ashland, Oregon. A very little goes a long way! Trust us. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlackers

Lithia water is named for the lithium salts found in this naturally occurring mineral pick-me-up. That would be the same lithium used to treat major depression and bipolar disorder. The spring water also contains barium, which is used as contrast for X-rays of the gastrointestinal tract and to put the green in fireworks. This is quite the elixir.

Once upon a time, Ashland’s city fathers considered the lithia water from Pompadour Chief Spring as a possible ticket to economic prosperity, according to a historical marker at the fountain. They envisioned a mineral spring resort that would attract a steady stream of travelers to this ambitious town below the Siskiyou Summit.

But a pump and pipeline built in 1914 with partial proceeds of a $175,000 bond failed when the wood-stave piping used to save money clogged. An effort in the 1920s to bottle the lithia water failed because, well, it smells and tastes like rotten eggs. And yet the Chamber persisted, and in 1927 the city constructed a public fountain from local Ashland granite that still bubbles lithia water today.

Lovely public square in Ashland, Oregon. PSA, don't drink the water! Dawn Page / CoastsideSlackers
Lovely public square in Ashland, Oregon. PSA, don’t drink the water! Dawn Page / CoastsideSlackers

Despite its failure to develop as a health spa, Ashland has fared well over the years as home to Southern Oregon University and the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival. SOU boasts roughly 6,400 students, and Bard Fest 2017 organizers expect to draw more than 400,000 visitors to Ashland across its nine-month run, not including our nephew.

So, if you visit Ashland for SOU Parents Weekend or a dose of Shakespeare, maybe head to the center of town after the big event and try out the local mineral brew fit for the witches of “Macbeth” — “Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

Go ahead. Have a sip. Or simply lurk nearby and enjoy revulsion in review. Caveat emptor.

“Who Knew?” is an occasional feature of that spotlights roadside wonders and oddities that might be worth a gawk if you’re in the neighborhood.

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