Resort Springs

Nine views of Old Sweet Springs Our subject makes an abrupt and disconcerting shift at this point from urban centers and public transportation, to rural Virginia/West Virginia and the topic of water. Clumsy as the transition is, I hope that by story's end it may seem justified. Today, when half the population of the world seems to be holding a small plastic bottle of purchased "spring" water, some of the very best of it originates in Monroe County, West Virginia. The water bottled and marketed from the springs of Monroe County is world-famous and award-winning for its quality, purity, and taste. The water of the Sweet Springs Valley Water Company from the springs on Peter's Mountain was the gold medal winner in 1991, 1993, 1995, and 1997 at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. In the 19th century the story was slightly different, though then as now the area was noted for both its climate and its springs. The tidewater's oppressive summer heat (pre-air conditioning) made the mountain air irresistible to people near the coast, and the springs, which were numerous, were reputed to be beneficial to health. And earlier still, Thomas Jefferson in his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia (p.32) chose his words carefully: "There are several Medicinal springs, some of which are indubitably efficacious, while others seem to owe their reputation as much to fancy, and change of air and regimen, as to their real virtues. None of them having undergone a chemical analysis in skilful hands . . . , it is in my power to give little more than an enumeration of them." White Sulphur, Salt Sulphur, Hot and Warm and Healing, Blue, Grey, and Red — the list was long. The earliest of all, discovered in 1764, was Sweet Springs in eastern Monroe county. Only a mile away was the Red Sweet, also known as the Sweet Chalybeate.

Most Monroe countians today know of someone who has drilled for water only to find with it a strong sulphur odor or a high iron content. Those with iron in their water can boast of having a chalybeate spring of their very own, for "containing iron" is the meaning of the term. Nowadays we employ devices to improve the taste of such water. In the 19th century the putative medicinal virtues of these springs often proved the basis for successful economic ventures. small pavilion sheltering the White Sulphur Spring Although today White Sulphur Springs has won the economic contest, Monroe's Sweet Springs for some years rivaled it. The brothers Thomas and William Lewis and other members of their family long worked to promote it. Both it and the neighboring Sweet Chalybeate Springs were incorporated in 1836 as health resorts. These were exactly the years during which in New York young John Stephenson was initiating his own business that would before long supply these resorts with our omnibus. White Sulphur was not incorporated until 1845. Incidentally, one today can still taste White Sulphur's water, in a paper cup from a dispenser under the pillar-supported dome that protects the location where the famous water is freely available to those who dare. The spring, frequented less often than in the 19th century, is of course on the grounds of The Greenbrier. The taste is not good. And it lingers. And lingers.

Sweet Springs, as all Monrovians know, long prospered. Oren F. Morton, in his 1916 A History of Monroe County (pp. 205-206), still available at the Historical Society museum in a modern reprint, tells us that George Washington stayed there in 1797, and that Presidents Pierce and Fillmore visited as guests. As for the water? Morton says: "the waters of the mineral spring . . . are mildly alterative and cathartic, and are serviceable in ailments of the digestive organs and in debility. They are thermal, having a temperature of 73 degrees, or some 20 degrees above the mean atmospheric temperature of the locality. Their properties are similar to those of the famous hot wells of Bristol in England." Other authors, particularly those of the 19th century, showed far less restraint than Morton when listing the multitudinous diseases and the intimate anatomical organs and bodily functions affected by the waters from Monroe County's springs.

The physical settings of Monroe's many springs offered a more family friendly topic. The artist Edward Beyer, who visited most of them, creating a painting for each, gave brief and invariably favorable descriptions of their features. Of Salt Sulphur: "This beautiful Watering Place . . . is hemmed in on every side by mountains. . . . The pleasure walks on the heights surrounding the Springs give visitors an opportunity to gaze on the romantic and grand in Nature, while a pathway through the meadow and along the shaded banks of Indian Creek, present not so bold but not less attractive scenery." (VMFA credit) And always, as we have seen, access was available by horse-drawn vehicles. Red Sulphur Springs Charles B. Motley,in his Gleanings of Monroe County West Virginia History (Danville, Va., 1973, p.129), preserves this photo of "Indian Creek, Red Sulphur Springs, W. Va., showing method of conveying passengers to the Springs in olden times." The vehicle in this photo is not an omnibus, but as usual the vehicle appears to be overloaded. The Red Sulphur Spring some 40 miles to the west of Sweet Springs, should not be confused with the Red Sweet, or Sweet Chalybeate, which figures largely in connection with our omnibus.

The old resort at Sweet Chalybeate Edward King (1848-1896), in his work The Great South, says that the baths at Sweet Springs "are frequented from dawn until dusk by crowds who represent the best talent of the West and South," and also says, "The Red Sweet Spring, situated but one mile from the Old Sweet, is one of the prettiest retreats in the mountains. The chalybeate and tonic water annually draw hundreds of visitors to them." Edward Beyer testifies to the friendly interchange between the two neighboring resorts. "There has always been union and harmony between the Old and Red Sweet. Their interests to some extent have been blended; and visitors during the season are continually passing from one to the other." (VMFA credit) Those visitors were transported in our own John Stephenson omnibus, which still bears the Chalybeate Spring name, and can be seen, I believe, standing ready in this old photo of the Chalybeate resort. continue

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