Tucked away in a Montgomery County mountain, there once existed a much-esteemed “watering place”, a natural spring in the limestone karst soil which drew folk from far away in the golden years of such places. Especially if they resided in the hot and humid Tidewater areas of Virginia, it was a treat to take the Virginia-Tennessee Railroad to the top of a mountain and then board a tram which rolled down to the Montgomery White Sulphur Spring Resort.
Lynn Reed, a land surveyor with a long and intense interest in history, told a full room at The Salem Museum about the long-gone resort when supporters of The Salem Historical Society held their March meeting.
Now this is not the famed Greenbrier Hotel and resort at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. which many know for its golf course, fancy meals and aura of old Southern charm. The “Old White” dates from the same mid-19th Century period as the spring further to the southeast across the state line. It has survived as a major economic as well as recreational center for the Mountain State.
All that’s left of the Montgomery County spa today, Reed related, is an open field with woods and mountains in its background. Private property, it is not open to the public; in fact, there’s little to see if one ventures to the country around Den Hill Road between Shawsville and Christiansburg.
But what a story the vacant field could tell of its busy days 160 years ago!
The German artist, Edward Beyer, about whom the history buffs heard several months ago, painted the Montgomery County property with its hotel that could accommodate 1,000 guests along with its lovely landscaped grounds containing 30 cottages and other necessary outbuildings, such as dining pavilions, ice houses and stables. Today Beyer’s painting is the nearest thing to seeing this relic of the past, Reed pointed out.
The resort came into its own during the Civil War when it was for four years used as a Confederate hospital. Staffed by Roman Catholic sisters based in Charleston, S.C., it was headed by Dr. James Lewis Woodville and had its own chaplain, a priest who traveled up to the mountains with the first nuns who got the hospital open in 1862.
Thereafter, for the next three years, the hospital had an ebb and flow of wounded and sick soldiers, mostly Confederates but a few from the Union forces when battles erupted in the area which in 1863 separated from Virginia over the issue of states’ rights and slavery.
It’s well known that in those times before 20th Century advances in the need for disinfection, the wounded often had little chance of recovery. Records show, said Reed, that there were minor attacks of diseases like smallpox. Infected limbs usually were amputated, and many bodies were buried on the premises.
Reed has followed current-day efforts to discover hidden graveyards; some bodies have been identified through military records.
After the war, the hotel and cottages were restored, and for another half century it was a choice place for military reunions. By 1890, however, advances in medicine debunked the idea that the saline springs cured illness, and such changes as automobiles brought gradually doomed Montgomery White Sulphur. In 1904 the resort was sold and eventually abandoned.
Unlike similar spots in the Appalachians, it was not bought by a church to be used as a conference center, and 20 years ago the buildings were torn down and the level field turned to pasture.
Reed is part of groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans, who have erected a small marker to remind of the many who lived and died there.