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News
Work to restore last, lonely remnant of 1834 mineral spa resort underway at Blue Sulphur Springs Pavilion

ALDERSON — For 186 years, the Blue Sulphur Springs Pavilion has protected the mineral water fount for which it is named.

Now, the last surviving remnant of a once-thriving resort is itself getting the protection it needs to continue its mission for the next two centuries.

Supported by 12 Doric columns, the roof of the open-sided structure towers 32 feet above a pasture once occupied by a 200-room hotel, an assortment of cottages, and outbuildings in which mineral water treatments and the nation’s first curative mud baths took place. All but the pavilion were destroyed in an accidental 1861 fire and an 1864 torching by Union Army troops.

Since early August, a crew from Waterford, Ohio-based Buckeye Construction and Restoration has been at work in and around the historic pavilion, located nine miles north of Alderson. So far, they have excavated and installed a drainage and sump system around the outer perimeter of the structure, and dug down four feet along the inner perimeter to expose the pavilion’s limestone foundation.

“After all these years, the limestone foundation is in wonderful shape,” said Jerry Bragg, project supervisor for the Ohio firm.

The same can’t be said for the five tiers of brick that topped the limestone slabs or the off-kilter angles assumed by some of the columns. No rods or pins were used to connect the columns to the roof or the foundation. Its builders, Bragg said, “depended on gravity to hold it together.”

Under a previous restoration project, the solid brick columns were re-pointed and snugly sealed in fabric wrap designed to stabilize structures during earthquakes. Cement blocks and thick wood braces were used to temporarily stabilize the pavilion.

The Buckeye Construction and Restoration crew is adding a much more durable fix. As a hoist lift braces the pavilion roof, the columns are jacked up to the appropriate elevation and steel I-beams are placed beneath them to take their weight and keep them in place.

The original bricks and brick debris from the areas between the pillars are being removed and replaced with concrete, poured into forms in which rebar has been placed. The old bricks will then be used as facing for the rebar-reinforced concrete walls.

In addition to the preservation work, the Buckeye Construction and Restoration crew has installed an electrical conduit to the pavilion for use once the project is complete.

Before the work began, archaeologists Steven and Kim McBride conducted a survey of the pavilion and the two-acre tract surrounding it. In terms of artifacts and features, “they found almost nothing,” said Margaret Hambrick, secretary of the Greenbrier Historical Society, which sponsors the restoration work through its Friends of the Blue committee.

Hambrick said she suspects that repeated flooding of nearby Kitchen Creek may have swept away and buried items associated with the early 19th century resort. “They did find a wooden floor inside the pavilion,” she said. “They took a sample of it and then covered up the rest of it.”

The restoration crew found a mother of pearl button, possibly used to fasten an article of clothing of a long-ago resort guest, while digging inside the pavilion. The McBrides sent it to a specialist in an effort to determine the period in which it was used. A more startling discovery was unearthed when the crew found a large black snake resting under a capstone.

The work is being financed through a $30,000 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office, plus private donations.

Crystal clear, 53-degree mineral water, accompanied by the eggy aroma of sulfur, continues to flow through a spring box in the center of the pavilion, the sides of which bear a pale blue tint from nearly two centuries of constant contact.

Built in 1834 in the Greek Revival style, the square pavilion building, its sides 33 feet, 10 inches long, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, and added to the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s Endangered Properties List in 2013. That year, the two-acre tract encompassing the structure was donated to the Greenbrier Historical Society by Rebecca Fleshman Lineberry, and the Friends of Blue began initial stabilization work.

Opened in 1834, by George Washington Buster, a former Kanawha County sheriff, the Blue Sulphur Springs resort was built on land on which a previous owner built cabins to accommodate visitors who flocked to the spring for its purported curative powers.

“The water was fabled to cure virtually everything,” said Hambrick.

An 1841 flyer promoting the resort described the water as “combining all the sanative qualities and ingredients peculiar to the White and other Sulphur Springs in Virginia,” generating “strong testimonials form highly respectable sources in Louisiana, Mississippi and other states.”

The hotel portion of the resort was described as a 200-foot-long brick structure “with a spacious dining room extending its entire length.”

Travel writer Philip Nicklin, under the pen name Peregrine Prolix, described arriving at the resort at 3 p.m., too late for the regular midday meal, only to have the staff whip up a snack of “beef, mutton, venison, fowls, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, various pastry, preserves, ice cream and Chinese ginger.”

As for accommodations, Nicklin wrote that in 1834, the Blue’s “chambers are furnished with good, thick hair mattresses not yet invaded by the fleas, and he that sleeps on one of them is non fleabit in the morning.”

Among Blue Sulphur Springs’ better-known guests were Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Jerome Bonaparte (youngest brother of French leader Napoleon), and Robert E. Lee, whose fabled horse, Traveler, was raised a few miles east of the resort.

Many of the resort’s guests were from the Deep South, willing to take on a lengthy journey by riverboat on the Mississippi, Ohio and Kanawha rivers, and stagecoach over the Midland Trail, to reach the cooler mountain climes of western Greenbrier County. Here, they spent their summers, often dividing their stays between Blue, Red and White Sulphur Springs.

Dr. Alexis Martin, a former surgeon in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial Army, was the resident physician at Blue Sulphur during its heyday, and administered cold baths, hot baths, vapor baths and mud baths, among other treatments.

In the 1850s, the nation entered an economic downturn, and Blue Sulphur Springs faced increased competition from similar spas that had sprung up nearby at Red Sulphur, Salt Sulphur and Sweet Springs, in addition to the resort at White Sulphur Springs.

In 1859, Buster sold the resort to a Baptist group, which began operating it as Allegheny College. It operated for only two years until being forced to close by a fire and the arrival of the Civil War.

During the war, both Union and Confederate troops camped at the resort. In 1863, a Confederate regiment from Georgia overwintering here lost nearly 100 men to exposure and disease. Many of them were buried on a hillside overlooking the resort, some occupying coffins made from furniture scavenged from Blue Sulphur’s cottages.

All that remained of the resort, except for the spring pavilion, was torched by Union troops who camped at the site in 1864.

Once the work now underway at Blue Sulphur is complete, the next phase of restoration will likely be replacement of its roof, according to Hambrick.

“We’re told not a board of it is worth saving,” she said.

“When the roof is done, we will need to re-stucco the columns,” Hambrick continued. “But before any of that happens, we will need to raise money to pay for the work.”

Once construction is complete, signage will be added for visitors wanting to self-tour the site and learn some of its history.

The pavilion itself could be rented out for reunions, weddings or other events to generate income for upkeep, Hambrick said.

Those interested in following the progress of the restoration may do so by visiting the Blue Sulphur Springs Facebook page. Contributions to the pavilion’s restoration fund may be sent to Friends of the Blue, Greenbrier Historical Society, 814 Washington Street W., Lewisburg, WV 24901.


News
Charleston tourism hit hard in 2020, but community remains optimistic

Hotel revenues in Charleston plunged by $17 million from March to July amid the coronavirus pandemic compared to the same period last year. The ripple effect spread further.

COVID-19 cancellations cleared streets of crowds ordinarily drawn to such events as Live on the Levee, Art Walk and FestivALL along with cook-offs, tournaments, conventions and festivals.

“If you’ve lost $17 million in hotel revenue,” said Tim Brady, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, “that’s a significant number of people not coming to the city, not walking down Capitol Street to eat at Adelphia [Sports Bar and Grille], get ice cream at Ellen’s [Homemade Ice Cream], buy something at Taylor Books [Cafe],” Brady said. “We’ve lost a lot of spending.”

The visitors bureau pivoted to focus on more localized marketing methods and local businesses, Brady said.

“What we recognized early in time is that we need those businesses to remain successful and be around after the pandemic, because those are the things people will want to be here in the future,” Brady said. “We’re going to continue that through the fall and winter because these locally owned businesses are struggling and we want to make sure we can help them get through in any way we can.”

This summer is the reverse of last year’s record revenue run at Adelphia, said owner Deno Stanley.

“All the things we do here in summertime have been fantastic in years past. The biggest boon last year was the soccer [tournaments at Shawnee Sports Complex]. We were slammed day after day, and usually July and August are a little slower, but last year we had our best summer ever,” Stanley said. “This year, well, this year had us rethinking everything.”

When the pandemic began shutting down businesses, Black Locust Woodshop on Lee Street had been open just 153 days after Casi Pourfarhadi and Dan Riffle opened in late November.

“When we were looking for locations for the storefront, we were in downtown and we thought this would be perfect, you know, we could bring in 30-40% of our business at Art Walks, those kind of events,” Pourfarhadi said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen, though.”

Featuring hundreds of artists and spanning 15 days in June, FestivALL is usually a sure draw. The nonprofit organization staging the event adapted a digital format and will do the same for its fall event, said Maria Belcher, the group’s executive director. Belcher said organizers learned lessons amid the shutdown that could improve the events when they resume in person.

“This actually gave us an opportunity to engage with audiences we haven’t before, without geographic barriers or catching people who happened to be in town for another event,” Belcher said.

Dance groups filmed how-to videos for different dance styles. Some artists presented online galleries. Others hosted workshops.

“Yes, there was a learning curve, definitely, but these are things we can use in the future, no matter how FestivALL is held,” Belcher said. “The internet isn’t going anywhere, and we’ve learned to get creative, learned new ways to reach more people with our art.”

Each year, Belcher said, events such as FestivALL — in-person or not — only happen because of community buy-in. She said that’s held true during the pandemic, but there is sometimes a feeling of loss.

“It was a bit bittersweet. We’re still finding that community online, but it made us, to a certain extent, yearn for that in-person participation anyway. It didn’t take that place or fill that cup fully,” Belcher said. “People were happy to have something to engage with. During this time, it’s so important to have creative outlets and places you can go to feel joy and human connection.”

Pourfarhadi said the pandemic has strengthened connections in the city’s art scene. Artists talk more and bounce ideas off each other. There’s a feeling that everyone is being hit with similar struggles.

Stanley said this is true across the city and beyond.

“This is not just a local or state situation. It’s national, it’s global, and we’re all in this together, we all understand what will get us through this. We’ll bounce back and do the things we need to do to get through it and get others through it,” Stanley said. “We have a lot of great places downtown, and we all band together. One of the things this did for us as a community is we’ve banded together. We’re stronger together, and we’ll survive it together.”


Kanawha_valley
CURA looking to form small public group to bring West Side plan into compliance

The Charleston Urban Renewal Authority plans to form a group of 10 to 12 people from the community to help rework a West Side renewal plan after a lawyer determined the original draft might break from state public health law.

The panel would discuss potential projects and how to bring the plan into compliance, said Ron Butlin, the authority’s executive director.

Released in 2019, the original plan has been held up since West Virginia University’s lead land use attorney, Jesse Richardson, analyzed the draft and wrote in a legal opinion to the city that “a court would be slightly more likely than not” to find the draft does not comply with urban renewal law.

Richardson said the draft lacks specificity. It doesn’t include detailed costs for proposed projects or investments, which is required by state public health code.

In the months before the draft plan was released, officials held public hearings. Butlin said the public likely will be brought in toward the end of the process when a more detailed plan takes shape.

“We’re trying to balance reopening this public process and not go back totally to square one ... We already have a lot of information that we gleaned from the months of public meetings we did the first time around,” Butlin said. “So we’re not trying to shut out the public, we’re just trying to leverage what we’ve already done as opposed to starting over.”

The Rev. Matthew Watts, a lead advocate pushing for more clarity in the West Side plan, said he expects the authority to offer a detailed plan now that nearly a year has passed since Richardson sent the city his legal opinion.

“Since they’ve been sitting on this for 10 months, I anticipate that they’re going to be coming forward with a plan to be submitted to the city for their approval — a plan that’s in compliance with the law,” Watts said. “That’s the expectations I have.”

Momentum on getting the West Side plan in compliance with state code was halted by COVID-19 in early March. In February, West Side residents and public health advocates asked the city and the renewal authority to take a more detailed look at the neighborhood’s struggles and come up with more concrete ways to achieve economic growth.

Frustration over the plan boiled over at a March 10 public meeting regarding proposed zoning changes to a number of West Side homes. City Councilwoman Tiffany Wesley Plear said during an authority meeting the following morning that residents don’t want to see the projects in the draft plan go unfinished. They just want to know the end goal.

“Without truly understanding what’s happening with the plan right now, the community doesn’t know, ‘OK, is this [zoning change] part of the plan? Is this instead of the plan?’ There’s not a clear understanding,” Plear said. “This is chapter one, but you’ve written the whole book. Can I read the whole book?”