The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Old Time Resorts and Health Spas of Monroe County, West Virginia

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1995

Issue: Winter, 1995

Salt Sulphur Springs is located 22 miles from this issue's Backroad and might make an interesting side trip if you are in the area and have a little time to spare. We found this information interesting because there are so many sulphur springs located in the vicinity, with their history reaching back so far. We have included the location of Red Sulphur Springs on the Backroad. Spa Spring Resorts hit their heyday in the last century and produced quite an impact on local economies. We can well imagine the sorrow of property owners and local residents alike when the economic flow dried to a trickle and then stopped altogether. Today, the area is rural with little showing of its former prominence.

Red Sulphur Springs

In an old book, A History of Monroe County, West Virginia, by Oren F. Morton, published in 1916, we found the following reference to Red Sulphur Springs:

“Red Sulphur Springs lies in a deep hollow, near the mouth of a small tributary of Indian Creek and 12 miles from Lowell, its principal though not its nearest railroad point. The elevation is 1600 feet. The waters, which have a temperature of 54 degrees, derive their name from a peculiar sulphur compound which is held on solution. It is separated in the form of a jelly by atmospheric air and also by acids. Mixed with a small quantity of common water and raised to a temperature of 80 degrees, this compound decomposes and gives off a powerful odor. But the spring water itself is colorless and transparent.

There waters have long been known to have a quieting effect on the circulatory and nervous systems, reducing the pulse and promoting sleep. In catarrh, diabetes, chronic diarrhea, and other affections of the secretory organs, and in functional derangements of the heart and liver, they have been used with great success. But their greatest repute is in the treatment of pulmonary consumption. The water appears to combat the "great white plague" by building up the system and enabling nature to rid itself of the germ that causes the disease.

As a resort, Red Sulphur Springs was opened in 1832 by a Harvey. In the spring of 1837, a company was incorporated, with William Burke as proprietor. Next year the Assembly authorized it to increase its capital stock by $50,000. In 1844 the license paid was $35, showing that the patronage was not so large as at Sweet Springs or Salt Sulphur. During the [Civil] war buildings were used as a military hospital. The property was finally purchased by Levi P. Morton, of New York, who is still in possession.” [Remember, this book was written in 1916. We wonder if the Oren F. Morton who wrote this book was a descendant of Levi P. Morton?] “Mr. Morton paid $10,000 and spent $40,000 in improvements. His representative at the resort was Dr. G. 0. Glavis.”

“During the administration of Governor Dawson, the legislature of West Virginia appropriated $95,000 for a sanitarium for consumptive patients. Mr. Morton offered as a free gift to the state the mineral spring and ten acres surrounding it. A committee went through the form of inspecting the offer. The members came in bad weather, took a casual look at the place, and went back to make an adverse report. It would look as though such a report was predetermined. Mr. Morton was not even thanked for his proposition. A site was chosen at Terra Alta in Mr. Dawson's home county, and this meant a purchase instead of a gift. The unsavory nature of West Virginia's politics lends a suspicious air to the performance.” [Remember, these are the author, Oren F. Morton's opinions.]

“The report of the committee was a mixture of prejudice and misrepresentation. Red Sulphur Springs is surrounded by a well peopled farming community, and there is a large extent of bottom land on Indian Creek. As a source of country produce it would be as promising as that around Terra Alta. It is true that the spring is in a deep hollow, but the open plateau above, 400 feet higher in elevation, affords a more suitable site for consumptive patients than exists at the other point. On the whole, Terra Alta possesses no advantage over Red Sulphur, except that it is on a trunk line railroad. As a practical question, Red Sulphur is not too remote, and a small outlay would vastly improve the ease of reaching it. And finally, it possesses that in which Terra Alta is totally deficient; a mineral spring with an indubitable record of its healing power in tuberculosis.”

“Red Sulphur Springs is practically a closed resort [1916]. Since the contagious nature of consumption has become generally understood, the public has grown suspicious of buildings that have had every opportunity of becoming infested with the bacillus that causes the disease. But the water is there, and some way should be found to make this hygienic resource available. Perhaps it should become the property of the national government, as in the case of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Just outside the springs property William Adair conducted a hostelry before the [Civil] war and it was largely attended. Another of the same period was that of T.S. and Dunlap Campbell.

Not one of the three historic resorts of Monroe lies even close to a railroad. One is no longer open, another is almost in suspended animation and the third has but a fraction of its old-time patronage.

A few other mineral springs occur in the county. Gray Sulphur, a mile east of Peterstown, has not be open for a long while. About midway between it and Sweet Springs is Crimson Spring, which has never developed into a watering place. On Hans Creek is the Larew spring the sulphur waters of which attract summer guests.”

Salt Sulphur Springs

When William Shanks received a grant of 595 acres of land on Indian Creek in 1787, it most likely never occurred to him that one day his land would become this site of a noted Southern resort. One spring - Sweet Sulphur Spring was discovered about 1803 and Salt Sulphur was discovered in 1805. For many years the mineral waters were used only by a few people, but around 1820, the beginnings of a whole resort was begun.

Ervin Benson bought the land in 1797 and two early guests, Issac Caruthers and William Erskine, ended up marrying Benson's daughters. The two brothers-in-law took over the operation of the new resort and in the coming decades built it into one of the most popular of its time, along with Red, White, Sweet and Hot Springs.

They operated a store at the springs (which is located on highway 219, about three miles south of Union, West Virginia) and built cabins and a frame hotel. The large stone hotel was built between 1820-25 and was restored as a private dwelling home in the 1960s, along with some of the brick cottages.

People from all over the South began coming to the spa for both social and health reasons. It was especially popular with South Carolinians, and they even had a row of cottages named "Nullification Row."

Because of the popularity of Salt Sulphur Springs, the two brothers-in-law decided to expand. They built an elegant hotel on a ridge above the valley and called it Erskine House. It was 206 by 45 feet and contained 72 rooms. Salt Sulphur Springs lies in a rather shallow ravine with Indian Creek cutting through it. Besides Sweet and Salt Springs, a third existed there called Iodine Spring and all three were used to the benefit of visitors as a remedy for "chronic diseases of the brain" such as "headaches, incipient mania and local palsy dependent upon congestion or chronic inflammation." There were also cures for neuralgia and other ailments of the day.

During the Civil War the resort was used as a rest area and headquarters by both Northern and Southern armies. Little damage was done to the resort during the War, but little maintenance was done either. William Erskine had died in 1863, and his wife ran the place as best she could under wartime conditions.

After the war, the resort remained closed. Adam King of Washington, D.C. bought it in 1867, but there is no record of it being operated again until 1882. There were camp meetings held there in the 1870s. In 1882 Col. J.W.M. Appleton became manager and the resort was upgraded and regained some of its past glory.

By the turn of this century, things had begun to deteriorate. After Appleton died in 1913, the springs closed. The property was sold at public auction in 1918 and in 1922 it was again sold to P. E. Holz of Charleston, West Virginia. Holz made improvements and reopened the spa, but the business failed to make a comeback. Social conditions were much different during the Great Depression years, and in 1936, the resort closed for the final time.

Mrs. Ward Wylie and her late husband bought the old resort in the 1960s, and turned the stone hotel into a private residence. At that time they also restored two stone spring houses and two brick two-story cottages on the property. Unfortunately, the Erskine House started deteriorating rapidly in the 1940s, and little is left.

At one time there were many mineral water springs operating as thriving resorts in Virginia and West Virginia, but today only a few remain. The popularity of spas seems to have peaked in the mid-1800s, with a brief surge again in the 1880s.