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The Springs

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This three-county region presents West Virginia in its most “southern” guise. The character, outlook, and architecture of the springs region recall the Old Dominion, and two of its three counties—Greenbrier and Monroe—share long boundaries with the parent state. Only Summers, a post–Civil War county formed in part from the other two, and far more rugged in topography, seems to have a West Virginia orientation. Even so, Hinton, its county seat, joins Lewisburg and Union, seats of Greenbrier and Monroe, respectively, in having a prominent Civil War monument honoring Confederate, not Union, soldiers.

This is also one of West Virginia's most unspoiled and pristine regions, where agriculture continues to predominate over industry. Monroe County's Confederate monument, on axis with Main Street in Union, exemplifies the prevailing bucolic character. It stands, as it has since it was first erected, in a fenced enclosure within a pasture. Here and there rugged survivors of eighteenth-century settlement survive, but the area's primary architectural attractions date from the first half of the nineteenth century. These were the decades of the spas, when antebellum belles and beaux throughout the South thronged to the pleasant Virginia highlands during the summer to exchange the miasma and mosquitoes of Tidewater lowlands for the pleasures, and supposed medicinal benefits, of the mineral springs.

Belief in the curative powers of mineral-impregnated waters spans the centuries and the continents. From the beginning of their growth as places of healing, whether in Europe or America, these springs became known as playgrounds, and the dichotomy seldom went unnoticed. Methodist circuit rider John Smith recorded in his journal in August 1787 that he “rode over the Mountain to Pott's Creek [and] the Sweet Springs. A place of wickedness. Drank freely of the water was Somewhat Poorly.” Several days later he observed: “It Seem'd very strange to me to go into A room to preach Where men were Setting at Cards, but they were very condescending and stopt their game And so the Worship of God took place but I fear it had but little wait [ sic] upon their minds.” James McHenry gave a different picture of Sweet Springs. Several years after Smith visited, he wrote to his dear Peggy that “the sudden conversion of the only fiddler to Methodism, has effectively destroyed all expectation of [dancing] during this season.” Eventually, the architecture of the spas would parallel the seemingly strange social connection between Methodists and pleasure seekers. As late as the 1820s, when Dr. William Burke first visited the area, however, only the most primitive accommodations were available. As he recalled in his Springs of Western Virginia (1846): “The Sweet Springs, the White Sulphur and the Warm Springs were then the only places of any note in that region, and the White and Sweet were on a par as to extent of accommodations—if indeed a parcel of rude huts, indifferent beds, and the plainest possible fare, can be called accommodation.”

Things changed in the next decade, primarily for two reasons. The James River and Kanawha Turnpike was completed in 1832 to the Ohio River at Guyandotte, providing visitors far easier access to these hinterlands than heretofore. That same year a cholera epidemic that struck Virginia and Maryland ports greatly increased the number who wanted to escape the Tidewater. The architectural response to the challenge of housing such crowds was met by connected rows of cottages, first built of logs, then of wood frame and boards, then, on occasion, of brick. Units in each row were connected by continuous verandas, covered by shed-roofed extensions of the main roof. In 1834 Englishman George Featherstonhaugh noted that these rows gave White Sulphur Springs “very much the air of a permanent Methodist camp-meeting.” In most spas, especially at White Sulphur, each row soon attained its own identity, manifested according to the sort of visitors lodged within. Just as each row in a particular spa had its own reputation, so, in a larger sphere, did each spring. Doctors regularly prescribed visits to certain springs to heal specific complaints, usually recommending that the patients make a tour of all of them. White Sulphur was particularly noted for its power to cure rheumatism, but the waters at Sweet Springs took the crown with their supposed ability to “excite the animal passions.”

As the springs increased in popularity, several wealthy individuals built their own cottages, allowing management to rent them out when they were not “in residence,” an early instance of a time-sharing arrangement. Eventually, neither rows nor individual cottages were sufficient to accommodate the crowds, and huge hotels began to dominate the larger resorts. The Sweet Springs Hotel, one of the grandest, survives, but the largest of all—the Grand Central Hotel at White Sulphur Springs—does not. As at the cottage rows, extensive porticoes, or piazzas, most often multilevel, fronted the hotels. These not only provided comfortable resting places; they were convenient viewing platforms and during rainy weather became the locale for promenades. Dr. Burke afforded a sense of the importance these covered extensions had in the architecture of the resorts in his description of the no longer standing hotel at Blue Sulphur Springs (see GR29), rival to his own Red Sulphur Springs: “The improvements consist of a brick Hotel—180 feet long, and 50 feet wide … with a portico 12 feet wide the whole length. Attached to this building is another … 90 × 32 feet; and adjoining this latter is a two story brick building, 150 × 17 feet, also having a two story piazza. The whole of these piazzas connect; making a continuous piazza of 420 feet.” Burke's Red Sulphur Springs never achieved the renown of the neighboring spas, perhaps because its owner took its purported healing powers too seriously and encouraged invalids instead of partygoers to be his paying customers. One 1834 visitor was definitely put off by the other guests, whose “death-like countenances can be seen on every hand” and whose constant coughing tended to … throw an air of melancholy over the feelings.” His visit was melancholy from the start: the funeral of a General Alston of South Carolina was the main event the day he arrived.

Old White (Grand Central Hotel; demolished 1922)

Within a few decades most of the springs resorts had also succumbed. The Civil War wrote finis to many, though White Sulphur continued to attract crowds in the postwar period, largely because of Robert E. Lee's visits. As the science of medicine advanced during the late nineteenth century, loss of faith in the healing powers of the waters also contributed to decline.

Fortunately, the largest of Virginia's antebellum spas, White Sulphur Springs, still operates as The Greenbrier Resort. It advertises itself, with some justification, as America's premier resort and still proves that rest and relaxation, with a proper dose of recreation, provide powerful medicine.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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