White Sulphur Springs
A Short History of the White Sulphur Springs Hotel
Elizabeth Letcher Pannill Stuart, mother of Civil War General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, noted in the 1850s from her home, Laurel Hill, upstream on the Ararat River from the site of the White Sulphur Springs Laurel Hill that people were coming to “take the waters.” The White Sulphur Springs Hotel became a major resort stop for people traveling to Mount Airy, North Carolina in the twentieth century, but its history begins many years before.
Hydrotherapy was a taken as a cure many ailments. One strong believer in the treatments was future Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. People came to the resort for picnics or month long stays to take the waters, which were considered good for ailments involving the kidney, bladder and indigestion. An advertisement for the resort read this way: “If you are suffering with indigestion, liver or kidney trouble, come and drink the White Sulphur Water. Cure any disease in two weeks including inflammation of the eyes or any trouble caused by impure blood. Will offer names of parties that have been restored.”
Originally known as “Gunpowder Springs” the spring comes from a wayward vein of the Ararat River flowing underground across a bed of yellowish green deposits of Sulphur on rocks giving the water the smell of rotten eggs. The use of Sulphur in the making of gunpowder gave it this early name. Local historian Ruth Minick believed the first hotel burned during the Civil War.
An 1875 advertisement in the Winston-Salem Union Republican reported a stage driver named Snider for $3.00 would carry visitors the forty miles to the “Spring in Mount Airy.” Many entrepreneurs attempted to operate a hotel at the White Sulphur Springs. In the 1890s, the Granite City Land and Improvement Company advertised a renovation of the hotel even hiring an architect from Lynchburg. A new road from Mount Airy was built to “revolutionize our trade” with Patrick County, Virginia. The Yadkin Valley News reported in 1895, “the spring itself is a limpid pool of water as crystal and pure as the dew of the morning. It is about two feet square two and a half feet deep and so clear that the bottom is seen as if reflected in a mirror.”
In the late nineteenth century, the Mount Airy and Eastern Railroad “the Dinky” came by the White Sulphur Springs Hotel along the Ararat River running from Mount Airy, North Carolina to Kibler Valley along the Dan River in Patrick County, Virginia. The gauge or width of the railroad was 36 inches and standard gauge is 4 feet 8 inches. The Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad connected Mount Airy to Wilmington, North Carolina. The railroad reached Mount Airy in 1888 with a spur built three years later to what is today is the world’s largest open face granite quarry.
Railroad service spurred a boom time for the “granite city” with the granite, furniture and tobacco industries. The large amount of Victorian architecture still in Mount Airy speaks to this time of growth. The “Dinky” chartered in 1899 was a spur from this line and ran until 1918. This rail service ran for 19.25 miles with only five of that being in North Carolina. The first 15.75 miles opened in early 1900 and extended to Kibler Valley nearly three years later.
The train brought the mail picking up and depositing packages along the tracks while carrying local people to the hotel for picnics, Sunday school groups, and courting couples sitting in chairs on flatcars along with out of town visitors to the resort. The railroad brought lumber from Virginia back to the furniture factories in Mount Airy. Stories of the train stopping so passengers could pick blackberries abound. The late historian, Ruth Minnick, use to love to tell the story, possibly apocryphal, of the Kibler Valley girl who fell in love with the engineer of the Dinky and ran off with him, got married, moved out west and lived happily ever after much to the chagrin of her father.
In the early 1900s, a newspaper reported a swinging bridge over the Ararat River connected a hotel that could host two hundred guests with electric lights, private baths, doors from each room opening onto a wide porch. There was a dancing pavilion, billiard room and bowling alley to go with the two fresh water springs and small summerhouses. Fire destroyed the hotel again during World War One.
Rebuilt before the Great Depression the White Sulphur Springs reached its zenith. The resort boasted 165 rooms, horse stable, 165 acres of lawns and woods for walking and riding trails, a 2000 foot latticed dancing pavilion with polished wood floors supplied with orchestra music. The hotel contained three main floors with the wings of four stories accommodating 250 guests. Guests traveled on excursions to Fancy Gap, the Devil’s Den or the Pinnacles of Dan. Fried chicken was the signature midday meal consumed by guests including Southern Governors, Europeans and people from South America. One story from this time involves the tragic death of a Brazilian lady at the hotel. Her room came to be “haunted” and no one would stay in her room for over a year.
The hotel closed in the 1940s and the building became a chicken coup that burned in 1955 killing over 28,000 animals. One newspaper reporter described this way: “It began as a gracious resort for the well to do in the 1880s and ended as the biggest chicken roast in the country.” Today only the rock supports for the hotel’s columns are still present along with access to the Sulphur smelling water.
Maps from the early 1900s make you appreciate how much our roads have improved, but it was the coming of the automobile culture along with the Great Depression and World War Two that doomed the hotel. The son of the last owner before the fire described the White Sulphur Springs “The past was bright, but the future is dim” until now as efforts to rebuild the resort that was once the show place of our region. Something seems lost especially for those who still are nostalgic for dancing with their sweetheart at the resort. The future is again bright for the White Sulphur Springs.
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