“Taking the Waters”: a 19th Century Summer in the Mountains

When you think of summer, what activities come to mind? Going to the beach, swimming in a pool, getting your drink on in a lawn chair by the lake? All of these activities involve water, specifically bathing in water, which you’ll be comforted to know is something that humans have enjoyed for millennia. Historically, bathing in water has been understood to have healthful properties and occasionally to produce miracle cures (well, duh)- made all the more efficacious if the water in question is a mineral spring.

There is a long-established precedent for humans “taking the waters”, or to be precise, indulging in balneotherapy at mineral springs. As spring water passes underground in a complex equation of pressure and gravity, minerals or gases in the earth may become incorporated into it. Some areas of iron-rich rock may produce what are known as chalybeate springs rich in ferruginous compounds (say ferruginous three times fast, I dare you!). There are also calcium springs, sulphur springs, and of course your basic hot springs.

Interestingly, there is some scientific value in the idea of balneotherapy. Some nutrient deficiencies can be helped by drinking the stuff, particularly iron-rich or calcium-rich waters, and the heat of hot springs has numerous musculoskeletal benefits- just ask anyone with a hot tub. The Romans knew this darn well and many affluent houses had not only running water, but bathing pools heated by hypocausts. After the Great Fall, this knowledge was lost and for fifteen centuries hot water was a precious commodity. If you’re used to quick morning ablutions with a cloth and snowmelt, or the hours-long process of heating water for what will end up being a rather tepid hip bath, a massive pool of blissfully hot water bubbling up from the earth must have seemed like a gift from heaven.

The original “spa” was in fact Spa, a mineral spring in Belgium known to the Romans as Aquae Spadenae. It seems that Roman troops far from their lovely home hypocausts were fond of these springs- not to mention that they were a reliable source of pure water in a time when you just sort of threw everything in the river and forgot about it. Another popular locale was Aquae Sulis in Britain, later called simply “Bath”. When the Industrial Revolution combined economic prosperity (read: disposable income and free time) with toxic environmental conditions that made everyone sick, mineral “spas” such as Bath with healing springs, posh hotels, and quack* doctors out the wazoo became immensely popular tourist destinations.


Pulteney Bridge over the Avon, completed 1774- charming!

Americans, being entrepreneurial souls, took advantage of the numerous mineral springs of the Appalachians and founded their own spas and resorts. George Washington mentioned going to see the famed “Warm Springs” on a surveying trip with Lord Fairfax in 1748 (now Berkeley Springs, WV), and there is another apocryphal story of an early European explorer accidentally setting a mineral spring on fire, much to the dismay of the local natives.

Which brings us to our topic- the Lost Resorts. In the days before air conditioning, when the majority of Americans lived in low-lying coastal cities, it was considered desirable for those who could afford it to retreat to the mountains for the summer. No mosquitoes, no malaria, no typhoid, etc etc, lots of cool mountain breezes and restorative dunks in the mineral springs. The geology of the Blue Ridge is such that springs are everywhere, and many of them are both calcium-rich (due to limestone formations underground) and sulphurous. Despite abysmal roads and difficult terrain, thousands came to the mountains of Maryland and Virginia to stay at resorts built around these “healing springs”.

Some of these resorts survive today, including the Homestead in Bath County, VA and the Greenbrier in nearby White Sulphur Springs, WV. The Homestead was founded in the 1760s by Thomas Bullitt, who built a simple lodge and pavilion around the spring. Nearby, the Warm Springs Pools were in use around the same time and the original 1761 men’s bath house still exists (and is currently being restored). Warm Springs is also often called the “Jefferson Pools”, a clever bit of marketing referring to the 1819 visit of Thomas Jefferson and his letters describing the place as “of the first merit”.


the 1761 Mens Bath House- thanks pmceleveen!



The 1836 Ladies Bath House

The Greenbrier and the Homestead are both located in very rural, very isolated areas of Virginia (sorry, as far as I’m concerned if Virginia can’t secede from the Union, West Virginia can’t secede from Virginia), but they are both very close to major travel routes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries- namely the north-south valley corridors of modern Route 220 and Route 60. Upon visiting Blue Sulphur Springs, Pence Springs, and Sweet Springs, among others of these fascinating architectural time capsules, I can’t help but wonder what medical extremity prompted people to travel there?

Sweet Springs is a large complex of buildings located in eastern Monroe County, WV and actually miles from anywhere. It was founded in the 1790’s as the town of Fontville by William Lewis (brother of pioneer and soldier General Andrew Lewis). Lewis hoped to establish a circuit court meeting at Fontville and by extension to make a brickload of money by selling land for town lots. Unfortunately, the town never took off- probably because it was so far off the main travel routes. When the county seat idea didn’t work out, William’s son John Lewis founded the resort with a stunning Greek Revival hotel and bathing pavilion. Legend has it that family friend Thomas Jefferson designed the main building, but most likely it was designed by UVA architect and Jefferson-phile William Phillips.


The Hotel at Sweet Springs

The hotel hosted such worthies as Robert E. Lee, President B.F. Pierce, President Millard Filmore, and Albert Edward, Prince of Wales during its heyday, though Littleton Washington is recorded as saying “it had not half the animation of the White Sulphur”. In 1850-52, five Gothic Revival brick cottages were built on the property and known as the Five Sisters, along with an expanded pool and bath house.


Sweet Springs declined in the early twentieth century and was finally bankrupted by the stock  market crash of 1929. It was purchased by the state of West Virginia and became a tuberculosis sanitarium, then later a home for the aged. The campus operated until 1993, and is currently abandoned. A caretaker lives on the property, but many of the buildings are in poor condition- see this video for a tour of the interior. Plans were announced in 2009 to restore the site as a resort, financed by a wealthy real estate developer, but no work has been done in several years. However, there is some enterprising individual marketing the spring water of nearby Peters Mountain under the label “Sweet Sommer” as a healing mineral water with medicinal applications. Some things don’t change!

Blue Sulphur Springs is another treasure, and also endangered. The Blue Sulphur is even more remote than Sweet Springs, located in east bejesus Greenbrier County in a tiny, stunningly beautiful valley. Blue Sulphur was developed by George Washington Buster (great name!) in 1834, and the pavilion was the centerpiece of a large resort complex.



A marketing image for the resort ca. 1834

The pavilion is the colonnaded structure at left, between the larger guesthouse and the cottages. The pavilion sheltered a sunken marble pool containing the eponymous azure water of the spring. (Sulfur compounds come in a range of bright colors, like the rich blue of lapis lazuli, bright yellow, or blood red). The pavilion itself is built of native sandstone, with brick columns clad in (deteriorating) plaster, and a wooden late-19th century roof.


The pavilion, currently the centerpiece of… a hayfield.


The pool- heavily overgrown, but definitely still blue!

The resort was the the unfortunate consequence of a nasty Civil War quid-pro-quo, and was burned by the damn Yankees so that it couldn’t be used as a hospital or headquarters by the Confederates. Only the pavilion survived and was left to gently decay until very recently when it became the focus of a grassroots preservation effort. Currently the site is monitored by WV DCH and funds are being raised to conserve the building.


So next time you go to the pool, or even just a hot bath at home, revel in your decadence! For thousands of years, your humble dip was the height of luxury and, in case you were wondering, all those historic resort-goers were also taking the waters in their birthday suits. Medically necessary, I’m sure.



*Side note: Want to know why shady doctors are sometimes called “quacks”? Not because of their bills (haha!) but because doctors during the syphilis epidemic of the 17th-early 20th centuries often claimed to cure the disease by application of “quacksalver”- also known as “quicksilver” spoken in a low-class English accent. For several reasons (economic and social as well as medical), those who presented themselves to doctors with syphilitic symptoms were often men and the liquid mercury was administered per peniium with a whacking great syringe. The “cure” hurt like hell, made you sick enough to die, killed off brain cells, and then (oops) didn’t actually cure syphilis. Quack!


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