Summer is here and that means it is time to think about vacationing! While most visitors to our region today tour historically significant sites and enjoy the many recreational activities available in the Blue Ridge Mountains, over a hundred years ago, the most popular attractions in the area were mineral spring resorts. These large and beautiful campuses advertised themselves as ideal for those “desiring a change for the purpose of health, novelty, recreation, and to get rid of the wearing activities of business life.”
The Yellow Sulphur Springs resort, located between Blacksburg and Christiansburg, commenced operation as a health spa in 1810. Similarly, the Montgomery White Sulphur Springs resort, in Ellett Valley, was incorporated by a group of local businessmen in 1855. Benefiting from the popular belief in the restorative powers of mineral waters, both resorts catered to a new leisure class seeking healthy and entertaining distractions. Offering such amenities as ballrooms, billiards, bowling alleys, gazebos, and sports fields, the resorts attracted visitors from throughout the United States and several foreign countries and it was not uncommon for guests to stay for a month or more. Easy access to the nearby Virginia-Tennessee Railroad ensured the initial success of the springs.
The Montgomery White, encompassing several acres of land, boasted a three-story hotel with more than 200 rooms and more than 30 cottages on the grounds. In 1862 the resort was designated a Confederate general hospital, charged with caring for sick and wounded soldiers. By the end of the summer, the hospital was at capacity, with more than 400 patients. While there is no complete list of those who died in the hospital, the nearby cemetery is said to hold 265 graves. Although it was one of the smaller spas in the area, Yellow Sulphur Springs could house as many as 400 guests in its hotel and adjacent cottages. The hotel became a favorite place for students at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanics College after the college’s founding in 1872. It temporarily closed from 1863 to 1868, but following the war and much renovation, both resorts again opened to the public and became popular summertime destinations.
By the 1890s, however, the spring resorts of the New River Valley were slowly declining in popularity due to the advent of the automobile and scientific skepticism of the value of spring baths. The economic panic of 1893, together with instances of fire and flood, may have accelerated the resorts’ downfall. The Montgomery White property was sold by auction and the remaining structures dismantled in 1904. The Yellow Springs property was also sold by auction in 1929, however the original hotel and several other buildings remain standing today, having been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The buildings have been partially restored, and a guest house and healing arts studio now operate there.
The Yellow Sulphur Springs Hotel Account Book, which might more accurately be described as a guest register, includes the names of guests, their place of residence, the time of their arrival, and their room numbers. The register’s entries commence on August 26, 1887 and end on July 10, 1895. While the resort played host to guests from all areas of the United States, and a few from foreign countries, a number of guests were local residents. Each register page features advertisements for a variety of businesses in Lynchburg, Virginia. The Montgomery White Sulphur Springs Resort Register spans from June 30, 1886 to July 26, 1890 and includes the names of the resort’s guests, their place of residence and notes on their meals, rooms and porterage. Each alternate register page features an advertisement for either the Hexall Mills or the Southern Fertilizing Company, both of Richmond, Virginia.
For those interested in learning more about the leisure activities and the spring spas of the New River Valley, a good starting point would be to check out Montgomery White Sulphur Springs : a history of the resort, hospital, cemeteries, markers, and monument by Dorothy H. Bodell (1993) and The Springs of Virginia; Life, Love and Death at the Waters by Perceval Reniers (1941). Details about related materials, such as the ball invitations, photographs, broadside advertisements, military travel passes, and other resources shown here can be found by searching the Virginia Heritage Database or by visiting us in Special Collections. We wish all of our readers safe and relaxing travels this summer!