Early tourist resorts in Tennessee were almost invariably close to mineral springs in mountainous East Tennessee. Reflecting a widespread belief in the efficacy of the ancient practice of hydrotherapy, or the “water cure,” visitors endured arduous journeys to highland spas to drink and bathe in “health restoring” springs. While some invalids visited mineral springs in East Tennessee as early as the 1790s, resort development formally began after 1830.
Tennessee's earliest spa, Montvale Springs, was located on the western slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains in Blount County. Although one legend holds that Sam Houston discovered the springs in the early 1800s, Native Americans were likely the first visitors to partake of the mysterious subterranean waters. In 1832 Daniel Foute built a rustic log hotel at Montvale Springs to cater to southern health seekers. Advertised in 1841 as a “fountain of youth and health,” visitors also came for hunting, social life, and scenery. In 1853 Asa Watson, a wealthy Mississippi Delta planter, bought the property and built the famed Seven Gables Hotel, a two-hundred-foot-long, three-story frame structure with 125 rooms. Touted as the “Saratoga of the South,” the hotel attracted a clientele of southern planters and urban elites who sought to escape the malarial lowlands during summer. Among the famous visitors were William G. Brownlow and Sidney Lanier.
While Montvale Springs evolved into a luxurious spa, other historic Tennessee resorts originated as exclusive cottage colonies. The most famous antebellum cottage resort was Beersheba Springs in present-day Grundy County. According to legend, Mrs. Beersheba Cain discovered the spring in 1833 while on a horseback journey with her husband. After the state authorized the construction of a first class road to the mountain in 1836, Beersheba Springs became much more accessible. Wealthy families from Tennessee and Louisiana erected cottages and made annual pilgrimages to the springs. In 1854 Colonel John Armfield, a planter and slave trader, purchased the springs, where his slaves constructed a lavish hotel and summer home. In the late 1850s the luxurious accommodations at Beersheba Springs attracted such wealthy patrons as Leonidas K. Polk and William Murfree, whose daughter, Mary Noailles Murfree, later wrote influential local color stories about mountain life that reflected her interactions with local residents at the resort.
The Civil War completely disrupted life at Tennessee's spas. During the war, some families sought refuge in their mountain retreats, but they were often harassed by pro-Union mountaineers. After Union forces swept through Beersheba Springs in July 1863, local mountain residents plundered the cottages and hotel. At Montvale Springs, Unionist sentiment in Blount County forced the Laniers, the pro-Confederate owners of the resort, to close the hotel in 1863 and flee to Georgia, never to return.
At the end of the war, Tennessee resorts faced very bleak circumstances. Most former patrons of the state's spas were either dead or financially ruined. With few patrons and a general lack of capital or credit in the South, highland resorts like Montvale Springs and Beersheba Springs fell into the hands of northern owners. Northern investors also financed the development of new resorts in late nineteenth-century Tennessee, including Allegheny Springs, Henderson Springs, and Cloudland Hotel, a large three-story hotel built in 1885 atop Roan Mountain by midwestern industrialist John T. Wilder.
Nicholson Springs, a spa on the banks of the Barren Fork River near McMinnville, represented a notable exception to the trend of northern capital investment in Tennessee resort development. In 1881 Dr. J. W. Ransom of Murfreesboro bought the property from the Crisp family and built Crisp Springs Hotel as a summer sanitarium that attracted a middle class clientele. Ransom served as owner and physician in residence until he sold the hotel to Mrs. Electa Nicholson of Nashville, who changed the name of the resort to Nicholson Springs. Nicholson and her heirs owned the hotel until it closed just before World War I.
With the rise of modern automobile tourism in the twentieth century, Tennessee's historic resorts struggled to adapt and generally fell into decline. Montvale Springs and Nicholson Springs were abandoned and destroyed by fire in the 1930s, but Beersheba Springs survives as a quaint retreat, though it never recaptured its antebellum glory. One exception is Red Boiling Springs in Macon County. Three historic hotels within a National Register-listed historic district still operate there, and many groups and companies hold conferences at Red Boiling Springs.
Forgotten by modern society, these historic nineteenth-century resorts provided the foundation for Tennessee's tourist industry, now one of the state's largest sources of income and revenue.
Margaret Brown Coppinger, Beersheba Springs, 1833-1983: A History and a Celebration (1983); Marie Summers, “Nicholson Springs Resort Hotel: A Nineteenth Century Spa,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 45 (1986): 244-55; Charles B. Thorne, “The Watering Spas of Middle Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 29 (1970-71): 321-59; Jennifer Bauer Wilson, Roan Mountain: Passage of Time (1991)