#TBT: The history of Hot Springs, North Carolina

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The Mountain Park Hotel circa 1883 | Photo from the NC Collection, Pack Memorial Library

From tuberculosis sanitariums to healing crystals, Asheville has had a long-running reputation as a mecca for the healing arts.That mountain air, right?? Well, it’s not just the air…it’s the water, too.

Today, we’re diving into (pun intended) another part of the healing arts history of Asheville area: Hot Springs, N.C. Hot Springs is in Madison County, just a hop, skip + jump away from Asheville (44 minutes, to be exact), and is named for the natural geothermal spring that is located within town limits. It might be a privately owned tourist destination at the moment, but the town + its famous springs have a colorful history.

💦 It is one of two natural hot springs on the East Coast.

Our springs run an average temperature of 100℉+. No man-made chemicals are added to the water, which is pumped in straight from the source and includes minerals like sulfate of magnesia (for muscles), sulphate of potassium (for your heart) + chloride of potassium (for the nervous system).

The other East Coast springs is Warm Springs in Georgia, which was frequently visited by FDR as therapy for his polio. The next closest natural spring to ours is Radium Springs in Georgia, but at just 68℉, it doesn’t quite count as a hot spring.

💦 The springs were a sacred Native American spot.

Although the Cherokee did not have a written language with which to keep records, they did leave pictographs that indicate that the springs were a ritual space for them. According to early explorers, the Cherokee held spiritual ceremonies both at the springs and at Paint Rock, an outcropping about five miles away from the springs.You can still see the pictographs on Paint Rock today.

White settlers wouldn’t discover the springs until the late 18th century, but once the word got out, it got out fast. By 1778, European tourists flocked to the springs for its supposed healing properties, and before long, a little town popped up.

💦 The town was originally called Warm Springs.

It was renamed in 1886, when a hotter springs was discovered.

💦 The Buncombe Turnpike made Warm Springs into a tourist destination proper.

Prior to the Turnpike, there was no easy way to access the springs. Remember, this was back when stagecoaches were a thing. But in 1828, construction on the Buncombe Turnpike was completed as a way for cattle drivers to move livestock from Greenville, T.N. to Greenville S.C., and accessing Warm Springs got a whole lot easier.

The following year in 1830, South Carolina Confederate officer +  governor Wade Hampton III built Hampton Cottage, marking the first incarnation of a hotel at Warm Springs.

(Fun fact: In the novel Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband serves in Hampton’s regiment.)

💦Ownership of the springs changed hands a lot over the years.

Governor Hampton only owned the cottage for a few years. In 1832, the Patton family (namesake of Patton Ave.) bought + renovated the cottage into a full-scale hotel called the Warm Springs Hotel (also called the Patton Hotel). The original design boasted 13 tall columns to represent the 13 original colonies.

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The Patton Hotel in Hot Springs circa 1880-84 | Image courtesy NC Collection, Pack Memorial Library

 

In 1839, the Patton Hotel burned down, and Colonel James Rumbough purchased the property and began work on the Mountain Park Hotel, which was, by all accounts, pretty awesome. The completed hotel had:

  • The first golf course in N.C.
  • 200 bedrooms lit by electricity + heated by steam from the springs
  • A bathhouse over the springs that boasted 16 marble pools that were up to six feet deep
  • A bunch of fun activities including a bowling alley, billiard room, tennis court, riding stable + a ballroom for nightly dances

The Mountain Park Hotel enjoyed immense popularity with the fashionable elite of the South, who summered in Hot Springs for the mountain air + curative properties of the water.

💦It was used as an internment camp during World War I.

In 1913, tourism died off with the beginning of World War I. The property’s owner, Colonel John Rumbough, leased it to the federal government, which decided that it would make a good spot for an internment camp. The hotel was used to house Germans + Italians who were in the country when the war broke out. Over 2500 men + women were moved to Hot Springs early on in the war. Some of them ended up staying there after.

Unfortunately, the Mountain Park Hotel burned down (again) in 1920.

💦Today, Hot Springs is still privately owned.

After the Mountain Park Hotel burned down, it sat vacant for four years. Then in 1924, Betsy Stafford built the Hot Springs Inn, which was briefly used as a Catholic retreat + rest home. In the 1970s, the Hot Springs Inn burned down (that’s the third fire, for those of you counting).

Eugene Hicks purchased the property in 1990, and built Hot Springs Resort + Spa, which still runs today. Luminaries such as Robert Redford, Lance Armstrong, and the Dalai Lama have stayed at the resort.

And here’s a fun fact: Hicks, a Madison County native, went to the Inn after coming home from the military but was told he couldn’t come in because he wasn’t a registered guest. When he bought the property years later, he vowed to keep it accessible for everyone. After finding the location of the hot springs, he decided to pump the water into modern hot tubs rather than renovating the bathhouses + marble tubs of the former era.

Hicks died in 2008, and the site is maintained by the Eugene G. Hicks Administrative Trust.  

Though the spa itself never returned to the architectural glory days of the Mountain Park Hotel, bed and breakfasts + quaint hotels, like the Iron Horse Station, are scattered throughout the area, and cabins are available to rent at the resort. There’s a campground right across the street, too.

See it for yourself.

💦 Visit: Hot Springs Resort + Spa |  📍 315 Bridge St. | 622-7676 | $25+ for springs, $30+ for campgrounds, $75+ for cabins

🌿 Hike: Paint Rock | 📍 Unmarked, directions via Google Maps or here

📖 Learn: A Fountain of Youth in the Southern Highlands: A History of Hot Springs is on display at Mars Hill University’s Rural Heritage Museum (80 Cascade St.) until Aug. 31. The exhibit is free, and the museum is open from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. every day except Mondays.

🎥 Watch: Songcatcher | This is for all you true history nerds out there: This 2001 fictional film follows the story of a female musicologist who researches + collects Appalachian music. The movie is partially set in Hot Springs, N.C. And it got a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. 🍅

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