Landmarks of American Nature Writing

12. Landmarks IV: The Springs

"There are several Medicinal springs," according to Jefferson in his Notes, "some of which are indubitably efficacious, while others seem to owe their reputation as much to fancy, and change of regimen, as to their real virtues." Despite his early warning, nineteenth-century vacationers flocked to Virginia's springs just in case, hoping to cure their many ailments with a little magic H2O.


James Kirke Paulding. Letters from the South, Written During an Excursion in the Summer of 1816. Vol. 1 of 2 vols. New York: James Eastburn and Co., 1817. Barrett Library. Shown: "Letter XX."

An early account of Virginia's springs, James Kirke Paulding's Letters from the South (1817) can fruitfully be compared to Charles Dudley Warner's Their Pilgrimage (1887) to demonstrate the evolution of the springs from isolated sources of medicinal waters to prominent vacation destinations for high society. After making visits to all the major springs of Virginia, Paulding writes in Letter XX "that very few people visit these springs, remote and difficult of access as they are, except to avoid the autumnal season, which is unhealthy in the lowlands; or in the hope of arresting the progress of some dangerous malady. Few come there for pleasure--and even fewer to exhibit their fine clothes. Indeed the greater proportion of the company consists of invalids; and, of course, little amusement or gayety is to be found at these places."

Phillip Holbrook Nicklin (Peregrine Prolix, pseud.). Letters Descriptive of the Virginia Springs, the Roads Leading Thereto, and the Doings Thereat. Philadelphia: H. S. Tanner, 1835. Shown: Title page.

In his review of Letters Descriptive of the Virginia Springs in the August 1836 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe noted that

Every person about to pay a visit to our Springs, should read the book of course--and every person not about to pay them a visit, should most especially read it that he may have the pleasure of changing his mind. The volume is a very small one--a duodecimo of about 100 pages--but is replete with information of the most useful and enticing nature to the tourist.
A most alliterative author, Peregrine Prolix is also the author of A Pleasant Peregrination through the Prettiest Parts of Pennsylvania (1836).

Edgar Allan Poe. Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1838. Shown: Title page.

As his review of Letters Descriptive of the Virginia Springs suggests, Poe grew well acquainted with the springs of Virginia during the period he lived in the commonwealth, beginning with his visit to one of the smaller springs at age six. The streams of the imaginary island of Tsalal in Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, written while he worked as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond from 1835-37, may reflect his knowledge of the springs, so distinctive are the seemingly unnatural streams in color and consistency:

Although it flowed with rapidity in all declivities where common water would do so, yet never, except when falling in a cascade, had it the customary appearance of limpidity. It was, nevertheless, in point of fact, as perfectly limpid as any limestone water in existence, the difference being only in appearance. At first sight, and especially in cases where little declivity was found, it bore resemblance as regards consistency, to a thick infusion of gum Arabic in common water. But this was only the least remarkable of its extraordinary qualities. It was not colourless, nor was it of any one uniform colour--presenting to the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple, like the hues of a changeable silk.

Edward Beyer. Album of Virginia. Richmond: n.p., 1858. Shown: Plate 14, "Rockbridge Alum Spring, Rockbridge County, Va."

According to the Description of the Album of Virginia that accompanied Beyer's plates,

These Springs are in the County of Rockbridge, in a narrow but beautiful valley, between the North and Mill Mountains. The large and commodious Hotel fronts north, and the handsome Cottages and Cabins are built in a circle. At the base of the Mill Mountain are the Alum Wells, five in number, which graduate in strength. The fifth is rarely if ever used. The Virginia Central Rail Road runs within five miles of this place, and Stages are running to it, during the summer season, from every direction.

A Visitor. Six Weeks in Fauquier; Being the Substance of a Series of Familiar Letters, Illustrating the Scenery, Localities, Medicinal Virtues, and General Characteristics of the White Sulphur Springs, at Warrenton, Fauquier County, Virginia. Written in 1838, to a Gentleman in New England. New York: S. Colman, 1839. Shown: Frontispiece, "Fauquier Springs, Fauquier County, Va.," opposite title page.

Like many other visitors to the springs, this anonymous "visitor" to the Fauquier White Sulphur Springs discusses their medicinal qualities, offers testimonials to their effectiveness, and provides information on travel. For this visitor, however, the context of the springs is almost as fascinating as the springs themselves:

There are few scenes upon which I have gazed with so much delight and rapture, as that presented occasionally, at sunset, from the top of the Pavilion. Art indeed, has done but little for the enhancement of the prospect, but there Nature unfolds her beauties to the spectator, in many of her most fascinating and lovely forms. . . . How rapturous would have been the sensations of Claude, or Poussin . . . at seeing some of these autumnal sunsets!

Captain Frederick Marryat. A Diary in America, with Remarks on Its Institutions. New York: W. H. Colyer, 1839. Shown: Title page.

An officer in the British Navy and the author of several popular novels, Captain Frederick Marryat also had an eye for the humorous scene and an ear for the clever anecdote, as the following incident from his travels through the Virginia springs suggests:

We drank of every variety of water excepting pure water--sometimes iron, sometimes sulphur; and, indeed, every kind of chalybeate, for every rill was impregnated in some way or another. At last, it occurred to me that there were such things as chemical affinities, and that there was no saying what changes might take place by the admixture of such a variety of metals and gasses, so I drank no more. I did not like, however, to interfere with the happiness of others, so I did not communicate my ideas to my fellow-passengers, who continued drinking during the whole day; and as I afterwards found out, did not sleep very well that night; they were, moreover, very sparing in the use of them the next day.

Mary M. Hagner (Mark Pencil, pseud.). The White Sulphur Papers; or, Life at the Springs of Western Virginia. New York: Samuel Colman, 1839. Barrett Library. Shown: Chap. VIII: "Autumn in the Mountains."

Mary M. Hagner's White Sulphur Papers includes information about the Warm Springs and the White, Red, Gray, Blue, and Salt Sulphur Springs. It also features the "Journal of a Lady During a Season at the White Sulphur," the story of a deer hunt, and this unexpected description of the "sublime spectacle" of a forest fire:

The mountains in the neighborhood, and for some miles around, have been on fire for several days. It is a sublime spectacle to see them at night, their tops covered with sheets of living flame; the young pine trees filled with rosin, burn with a terrible cracking; and bursting, send up their red light to the black clouds, while the beholder is reminded of volcanoes in their rage.

Charles Daubeny. Journal of a Tour through the United States, and in Canada, Made During the Years 1837-38. Oxford: Printed by T. Combe, 1843. Signed by the author. McGregor Library. Shown: Title page.

Privately printed in an edition of only 100 copies, Charles Daubeny's Journal of a Tour differs from that of most tourists, since Daubeny was professor of chemistry and botany at Oxford and investigated the composition of the Virginia springs with particular care, as the following passage suggests:

I collected the gas which issues in bubbles from the swimming bath, the temperature of which I found to be 102 [degrees]. I could detect in it but little carbonic acid, probably not more than one per cent, taking the mean of three experiments which corresponded very nearly. Hence I set down the composition of the gas as being 6 oxygen, 94 nitrogen.

William Burke. The Mineral Springs of Western Virginia: With Remarks on Their Use, and the Diseases to Which They are Applicable. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846. Shown: "Map of Routes & Distances to the Mineral Springs of Western Virginia," opposite title page.

Owner of the Red Sulphur Springs, which he purchased in 1832, William Burke in The Mineral Springs of Western Virginia provides an analysis of the medicinal waters, testimonials about their effectiveness, and information on accommodations. "There may be in other states and nations mineral waters analogous to most of those in Western Virginia," Burke claims, "but . . . in no section of the civilized globe is there such a variety in the same space." Moreover, he notes, "[o]n no subject is there . . . greater ignorance, whether as regards the distinguishing characteristic of each Spring, its properties and proper use, or as regards the accommodations and other subjects of inquiry." The first edition of this book was published in 1842; this edition contains a review of a pamphlet published by John Jennings Moorman, whose Virginia Springs is also featured in this section.

John Jennings Moorman. The Virginia Springs. With Their Analysis; and Some Remarks on Their Character, Together with a Directory for the Use of the White Sulphur Water, and an Account of the Diseases to Which It is Applicable: to Which is Added, a Review of a Portion of Wm. Burke's Book on The Mineral Springs of Western Virginia, etc. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847. Shown: Title page.

After publishing A Directory for the Use of the White Sulphur Waters in 1839, John Jennings Moorman enlarged that pamphlet into The Virginia Springs, first published in 1846 and reprinted several times through 1873, each time in an expanded edition. The 1873 edition was called The Mineral Springs of North America. The volume on display contains a review of William Burke's Mineral Springs of Western Virginia, also in this section. Moorman was resident physician at the White Sulphur Springs.

J. Milton Mackie. From Cape Cod to Dixie and the Tropics. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1864. Shown: Chapter V: "The Warm Springs."

Written before the Civil War but published in 1864 "to serve as a memento of the happy days" before the war and to demonstrate that Northerners "neither hate nor despise" Southerners, From Cape Cod to Dixie and the Tropics shows its author to be especially sensitive to the sights and sounds of the landscape surrounding the Warm Springs. "Indeed, it is the charm of this scenery," Mackie writes, "that it is never seen twice the same. With every change of light and shade, in different positions of the sun, from various points of observation, in different states of the atmosphere, the aspects of this mountainous and wooded nature vary perpetually."

N. R. Smith. Legends of the South. Baltimore: William K. Boyle, 1869. Shown: Chapter I: "Legends of the White Sulphur."

"There is one thing that astonishes me," announces N. R. Smith in Legends of the South, "and that is the neglect, by poets and historians, of the wild and romantic legends which give interest to the hills, valleys and fountains of this wonderful region." Attempting to rectify this situation, Smith offers five legends of the South, four of which concern the springs of Virginia: two of the White Sulphur, one of the sweet Springs, one of the Hot Springs, and one of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Charles Dudley Warner. Their Pilgrimage. Illus. C. S. Reinhart. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1887. Presentation inscription from the author. Barrett Library. Shown: "Flirtation on the Lawn."

Examined in contrast with James Kirke Paulding's Letters from the South (1818), also in this section, Charles Dudley Warner's Their Pilgrimage (1887) suggests the degree to which the Virginia springs developed over the course of the nineteenth century. "The White Sulphur," writes Warner, "is the only watering-place remaining in the United States where there is what may be called an 'assembly,' such as might formerly be seen at Saratoga or at Ballston in Irving's young days. Everybody is in the drawing-room in the evening, and although, in the freedom of the place, full dress is not exacted, the habit of parade in full toilet prevails."


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