Healing Waters

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 2, "Sick for Justice: Health Care and Unhealthy Conditions." Find more from that issue here.

I don’t put a lot of faith in doctors and medicines and hospitals. I don’t know many people who do. We all use them, but often it seems only as an absolute last resort, after all else fails. This is nothing new, of course, and may even be inevitable for a field whose professionals seem to bank on the ignorance of their patients. Rather than let a stranger handle our bodies, or stick strange instruments and chemicals in them, we do what we can, in our own ways. 

Except in emergencies, we count on various sure-fire home remedies that we’ve come across and found successful. I use hot teas and Vitamin C, rest and exercise, good Scotch, massage. I have a friend who fasts every time his temperature wiggles, and another who stuffs herself with a grand dinner at the first sign of illness. We all stand by our cures. It doesn’t seem to matter what one chooses; it’s the belief in a remedy that counts. 

I now add healing waters to my list of cures. I believe in waters. They have cured people for a couple hundred years in this country, and centuries before that around the world, and they can damn well cure me, too. 

Throughout the South, many people still depend on healing waters. In almost every state, artesian wells and mineral springs can be found that have been used for drinking and bathing illnesses away. In the mountains, thermal springs — bubbling up heated from underground, usually of volcanic origin — have drawn great attention for their medicinal qualities. In other areas, waters from unexpected sources — or transformed by unexpected forces — have become known for their curative powers, and have attracted health seekers from throughout the world. 

Wherever one finds the healing waters, testimonials abound. The waters have cured everything from diarrhea to cancer. People swear by them and bring their friends. They write glowing accounts of them, and judging by their claims, the waters work. But healing waters are like every other resource in America: when they become popular, people try to take them over and make a buck. The waters are bottled, promoted. They become the site of spas, hotels, medical centers, of railroad stations and airports. They are restricted to use by a very few, or they are polluted. The task of protecting and using healing waters then ceases to be just a folk health issue and becomes one of land use, of division and use of wealth. 


“A Healthful Drink” 

Charleston, South Carolina, where I live, was once filled with artesian wells. The wells provided about half the water for the city, the rest coming from cisterns. Every couple days, the people of the city gathered up their jugs and headed to their nearest or favorite well. There they met their friends, asked about each other’s health, and exchanged news and gossip. They were just being sociable, and got free water to boot. 

But there were other benefits as well. In the city yearbook for 1881, a Scientific Committee, established to report on the history of the city’s wells and the quality of the water, announced: 

“As a drink it is healthful. There is no deleterious ingredient in it. The habitual use of the water of the Wentworth Street well was known to be very beneficial in dyspepsia and kindred diseases .... 

“For culinary purposes it must be equally healthful .... 

“For bathing no water can be more delightful. For washing and cleansing clothes, it is far superior to the ordinary well water and even to cistern water.” 

Nearly everyone in the city counted on that water at some time. Business houses sent employees for water to offer their customers and clients. Doctors recommended it for illnesses. The only hesitation concerned its use for cooking rice, a staple of the Charleston diet. Artesian well water seemed to turn the rice a strange color, either “golden” or “dirty,” depending on whom one spoke to. 

The city’s fire station was eventually built by the Wentworth Street well. Today the well is one of only two left in the city, and it produces a steady flow of water, from both a faucet and a drinking spout. Many people come to use the water regularly, or bring plastic containers to take it home. 

One day when I stopped for a drink (a safeguard against some of those “kindred diseases”), I spoke with a woman preparing to visit her brother in North Carolina. She was filling about a half dozen five-gallon containers with water, as a present for him. “He’s been there three years now,” she said, “but he still don’t like the water. Any time somebody goes up to see him, we have to take as much water as we can manage.” She said she had come to the well for as long as she could remember, and her mother had, too. 

According to regular users, the water is good for most any ailment, including digestive problems, muscle pains, skin rashes. Even tooth decay. In Charleston, the wells are the only ways to get any fluoride for one’s teeth. In 1956, when the country was battling over the question of whether fluoride-treated water was a Communist plot, Charlestonians found a unique way to sneak around the issue. The Parker Laboratories analyzed the artesian well water and announced that included four times the amount of sodium fluoride recommended to fight cavities. That made the fluoride appear less threatening, but it also made it an unnecessary addition to the city’s tap water. A local newspaper proposed that residents who wished the benefits of fluoride might simply keep a jug of well water by their bathroom sink and mix it with three parts tap water when they brushed their teeth. 

The people of Charleston go to their artesian wells for many reasons, but more for the taste, the inexpensiveness and the feeling of gathering their own water, than for its curative powers. Just one hundred miles away, however, stands a spring whose popularity is based almost solely on its reputation for healthfulness: Healing Springs, just outside Blackville, South Carolina. 


Healing Springs of Blackville 

When white settlers first “discovered” the springs, they found the Indians there were already familiar with the special qualities of the water. Even then, it was called Healing Springs. According to legend, before whites arrived, it had rarely been used for casual drinking or bathing. It was a ceremonial pool, used only for religious purposes. During the Revolutionary War, a band of British soldiers stopped at the spring to reconnoiter for fresh water, and when they moved on, left several of their party there to recover from injuries. They are said to have regained their strength so quickly that they soon overtook the others. 

For centuries everyone in the area understood the spring to have healing qualities; it was their local health center, and they rarely questioned its powers. Occasionally some businessman would devise a scheme to develop the area, to capture the springs for personal use, or to take financial advantage of the waters. Around 1900 the spring kept a small bottling plant in operation. Lute Boylston, who inherited the land on which the spring was located, wrote of the entrepreneurs (including his ancestors) in his will when he noted: 

“It is historically true that the Indians who once possess the land and waters regarded it as a healing gift to them from the great Spirit, but I do not believe the white people who dispossessed the Indians ever appreciate the value . . . for several white people have tried to destroy the said well during the time I have owned it.” 

To make sure the waters remained in public use forever, Boylston willed “the most treasured piece of this earth that I have ever owned” to “Almighty God . . . for the public use, especially for the diseased or affected to the use of the precious healing waters that flows from this God-given source.” 

Boylston wrote his will in 1944 and died in 1953. Before long the area became a garbage dump. When Jeanniene Ross moved to town twenty-two years ago, the spring could not be seen from the road and was surrounded by “car radiators and washing machines and abandoned cars and dead dogs and people’s garbage.” She and another local woman, Ruth Browning, took responsibility for the springs’ improvement and, often alone, they cleaned up the area, built a parking lot, put the springs’ pipes in working order, and placed a picnic table, garbage cans, shrubs and lighting around it. They finished their work in 1970, in time for the state’s Tricentennial, and since then Healing Springs has been known to draw 1,000 people a day, making it a more popular attraction than many state parks. 

Among those who visit, explains Ross, is the family of an Atlanta woman; they arrive every month in a truck filled with plastic jugs. The woman, now in her eighties, was cured more than sixty years ago of a rare skin disease that doctors said was beyond relief. A Blackville physician, unable to help with his own medicines, suggested Healing Springs and after thrice daily bathings in the water, she recovered. She has drunk Healing Springs water ever since. Ross reports that a local man, who had been a preacher in the North for many years, returned home not long ago after developing severe cataracts. He was convinced that his vision was almost lost, and that his effectiveness in the church would soon end. After using the waters, his vision returned and he now serves as preacher at four area churches. People regularly come to Blackville from Charlotte, Charleston, Columbia, Atlanta and beyond. Says one local woman, “It’s the biggest thing that ever hit this town.” 

Throughout the South, this story is repeated. 

In Kentucky, for instance, the foothills are filled with mineral springs, where animals once licked salt, and hunters and farmers sought cures for all their ailments. Eventually these grew into eastern Kentucky’s large health resorts, including such spots as Olympia Springs in what is now Bath County, Swango Springs in Wolfe County, and Blue Lick Springs in Nicholas County. Hotels were established, facilities for entertainment provided. As the springs drew more and more people, and richer people, the focus became increasingly social, no loriger medical. Doctors who would recommend the water for most anything were still employed by the hotel proprietors, but bottled liquids became more popular than tubsful. The evening ball attracted more people than the morning bath. 

No mere mineral spings, however, could compare with the health claims of the South’s thermal springs, primarily found in Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, and Arkansas. Nor with the resorts that quickly took them over. 

Mineral springs and artesian wells were special pools of water. They smelled and tasted differently from most water, and people attributed great healing qualities to them. But thermal springs! Ah, now there is a wonder to behold. Imagine coming upon one in the wilderness a couple hundred years ago. Many smell strongly of sulphur. Not just so that when you stick your nose next to it you are aware of the aroma; they reek. For a hundred yards they reek. And they bubble. And steam. But when you see a thermal spring before you — a hot bath, a whirlpool, everything you need but a towel — you endure the smell (and sometimes it isn’t quite that bad; sometimes) and you relax all your sorrows away, as the water bubbles up around you and over you, wiping away pain, soothing tired muscles, providing some sexual stimulus. Before European settlers arrived, the thermal springs of the Southern mountains were already popular. The Indians used them regularly, establishing a pact that the pools and the good hunting grounds nearby would be a sanctuary for all tribes. 


Wilderness Whirlpools 

By the middle 1700s white settlers had discovered the thermal springs of Virginia. In 1750 a visitor to Hot Springs, Virginia, wrote, “We visited the hot spring and found six invalids there. The spring is very clear and warmer than new milk.” Five years later, a primitive hotel was built. It was one of the few hotels in the Virginia mountains and was soon crowded with travelers. In the surrounding miles, other hot springs were soon found with different qualities. They varied in their chemical makeup, in their temperatures (some as high as 100 , others less than 65 ), in their surroundings, and they gained their names from these differences: the Old Warm and Little Warm (later called the Hot) Springs, the Sweet Springs, the Red Sulphur, Salt Sulphur, Blue Sulphur, Gray Sulphur and Yellow Sulphur Springs, as well as the Montgomery White Sulphur, the Fauquiet White Sulphur and the Jordan White Sulphur Springs. 

As the number of persons healed increased, the fame of the waters spread. In 1778 the first white settler, Mrs. John Anderson, stayed for an extended visit at a spring to the southwest of many of the others, eventually called the White Sulphur Springs in what is now West Virginia. She was cured of her chronic rheumatism and other health seekers soon followed. One Philadelphia writer claimed, “the water has the pleasant flavor of a half-boiled, half-spoiled egg .... It is very beautiful and tempting and cures the following diseases, according to popular belief — Yellow Jaundice, White Swelling, Blue Devils and Black Plague; Scarlet Fever, Yellow Fever, Spotted Fever and the fevers of every kind and color; Hydrocephalas, Hydrothorax, Hydrocele and Hydrophobia, Hypochondria and Hypocrisy; Dyspepsia, Diarrhoea, Diabetes, and die-of-anything; Gout, Gormandising, and Grogging; Liver Complaint, Cholic, Stone, Gravel, and all other diseases and bad habits, except chewing, smoking, spitting and swearing.” 

The visitors came, and in 1811 ten cottages were built at White Sulphur Springs to house them all. These were quickly filled, and people had to be put up in local farmhouses. A springhouse was established in 1817. Soon a second was built, with eight tall pillars and a statue of Hygeia, the goddess of health, atop it. In 1817 Henry Clay, who traveled regularly between Kentucky and Washington, DC, stopped for his first visit, and the boom began. 

Where Clay went, other politicians and businessmen followed, discussing the major issues of the day with him, gossiping and jockeying for attention. They brought their wives and children, who established their own routines of socializing. 

In 1858 the Grand Central Hotel, called The White, opened in White Sulphur Springs, a remarkable sight in what was then still frontier land. It featured three floors and a basement, including 228 rooms. Newspapers claimed a guest capacity for The White of 1,000 to 1,500. At one time up to 5,000 people were said to have been crammed into the structure. It quickly became the leading vacation spot for the rich from miles around. From Tidewater Virginia and Maryland, Low Country Carolina, Alabama and up into Kentucky, once hot weather arrived, or an epidemic broke out, or a slave revolt seemed too threatening, the rich climbed into their carriages and took off for what often consisted of a many-month vacation. 

The various springs vied with each other for customers, but the White Sulphur Springs hotel, soon called the “Old” White, and nearby Hot Springs with its Homestead Hotel, outdrew the others and joined the lists of the leading east coast resorts. Wealthy visitors came from Philadelphia and Boston, from England. 

To draw these people, the Old White developed a number of activities. Every night, for instance, the hotel featured The Treadmill, a stately promenade reportedly first established when Henry Clay offered his arm to Mrs. John Preston after dinner and led her about the huge uncarpeted space of the parlor. John C. Calhoun followed Clay, taking the arm of a Mrs. Rhett, and the entire dinner gathering followed behind. Soon every evening’s meal was completed with this march about the premises. 

Old White bartenders sought to outdo each other with new drinks, and in 1858 the first mint julep was supposedly mixed there, containing French brandy, old-fashioned cut loaf sugar, limestone water, crushed ice, and young, home-grown mountain mint. 

The Virginia thermal springs quickly gained a reputation as prime breeding grounds for young belles and gentry, and many of the wealthy visited simply so their children could court in style. The Old White established a busy routine for them, with the token spring-drinking before breakfast, champagne-and-watermelon lawn parties at noon, and parties concerts and a ball later in the day. 

The balls themselves gained great fame for the new dances, or figures, that were popularized. “The most famous figures,” reports one historian, “were the Butterfly, in which the belles fluttered about the ballroom waving large wings of chiffon and pursued by beaux with long-handled butterfly nets, and the Coach-and Four, in which the beaux literally drove the belles around the ballroom harnessed four abreast and covered with jingling ornaments.” 

With such features, the White Sulphur Springs was clearly The Place To Be, though its popularity was contested by the Hot Springs Homestead Hotel, where local waiters balanced trays of food on their heads and then danced frantically to the cheers and applause of the diners. 

Still, reports of the springs were not always favorable. One guest wrote that the meals featured, “the cursing of bread, abominating the butter, detesting the coffee, disliking the tea, scolding the servants, then the galopping consumption of mutton, the clashing of knives and forks, the trotting of negroes, the forlorn looks of those neglected, and the self satisfied air of those who are provided with private dishes.” 

The Civil War, of course, was rather tough on the resorts (White Sulphur Springs and the Homestead were used as hospitals), and people began to fear for their future. In 1867, however, Gen. Robert E. Lee, mounted as always on Traveller, came riding to the rescue. His wife was ailing, and she had been advised to visit a thermal spring to improve her health. The Lees chose White Sulphur Springs, both for the quality of the waters and accomodations and, it is said, for its location. Lee supposedly felt that in the recently-established state of West Virginia he could do his share in mending the wounds of the war, by bringing together vacationers from both regions. Every summer until 1870 the Lees stayed at the springs, visiting — as hoped — with both Northerners and Southerners, and providing historians the opportunity to talk of the springs “healing the war-torn nation as it did the bodies of its visitors.” 

Eventually, though, even the life at the resorts had to change. In the 1890s the C&O Railroad, which controlled much of the transportation to the springs, bought White Sulphur Springs, and encouraged vacationers other than the very rich to sample the accomodations. Old-timers were shocked. During the Second World War, the government first used the White Sulphur’s hotel as a hospital and then as an internment camp for foreign diplomats and newspaper correspondents. In 1945 the C&O bought back the building, reconverted it to a spa, and opened it in 1948. With increasing numbers of families owning automobiles and possessing sufficient money to go away for trips, even more Americans visited these healing waters. 

The springs’ oldest and most loyal supporters groused about the low quality of vacationers. “In the old days,” remembers Colonel McKee Dunn in Cleveland Amory’s The Last Resorts, published in 1952, “we had everybody. We had Vanderbilts and Whitneys and we had Mr. Stuyvesant Fish and Governor Livingston Beeckman from Newport and we even had a Miss Postlethwaite from Boston — oodles of people like that. Now we don’t have anybody. Everything has gone to hell in the last twenty years. Roosevelt and Truman and all those people have given everybody the idea that they’re just as good as everybody else.” 

Now the White Sulphur Springs are part of a large health complex, where guests — paying up to $140 a day for double accomodations and two meals—can purchase an hour treatment that might include a mineral springs bath, sauna, massage, steam and scotch spray for $15. 

The springs, still used for medicinal purposes, are almost inseparable from the resort that took them over. They have become just another feature, listed in the same breath with the series of indoor-outdoor tennis courts or the championship golf course. 

One must travel elsewhere, to Warm Springs, Virginia, for instance, to find springs open to the public. There the springs are run in a way not dissimilar to practices of a century ago. Rubber and elastic bathing suits are forbidden (the minerals in the water destroy them), and male and female customers are strictly separated. Men sit in the nude on their side, water to their necks, holding onto ropes lest the tublike sensations put them to sleep and they drown. Women, dressed in Mother Hubbard romper suits, sit clinging to ropes in a nearby pool. 

I am told that some mountain thermal springs are still unspoiled and undeveloped; I would love to believe that. Somewhere up there is a bubbling pool, just waiting for you or me, staggering out of the forest, tired and depressed, and it will slowly and miraculously soothe our troubles away. I haven’t found it yet. 


Shallotte Inlet, NC 

For awhile I thought I had come across something similar—an undeveloped inlet of healing water on the coast of North Carolina, just north of the South Carolina border. Still relatively unknown! But when I went to investigate, I found that it too had reportedly been ruined. Not by moneyed interests who tried to make it excessively convenient and comfortable, like the thermal springs, but simply by pollution. 

Even Joseph Hufham, who first popularized the healing qualities of Shallotte Inlet, has grown silent about the waters. He first learned of the curative powers about thirty years ago, he says, after he jumped into the water off his shrimp boat and was relieved of his blinding headache. He started speaking to others about the waters. In 1965, a woman who went to the waters with a cancer on her neck was healed. A couple from Rieglewood, North Carolina, were cured of five skin cancers in five days. Others reported that the water eliminated poison ivy, cleared up an infected arm, an infected ear, cut down eye inflammation. Hufham wrote all of this up in 1965 in a series of articles for the local weekly paper, the Brunswick Beacon. He sent articles to papers far away. 

Hufham and a local physician, J.H. Dawson, investigated the source of the water’s powers and finally thought they had identified it as a local patch of marsh grass. According to their theory, the four-to-five foot grass is filled with a substance of breadlike consistency. In its natural evolution, the reed grows, expands and finally bursts. Incoming tides wash the substance into the inlet, which is turned a milky color. Dr. Dawson has been quoted in the Beacon as saying that he hoped the water’s “magical ingredient” might be something like penicillin and that it was certainly an “enemy to infection.” 

Hufham helped spread this theory, but he points to another source of the healing qualities. The 47th Chapter of Ezekiel in the Bible, he explains, describes a body of water not unlike Shallotte Inlet, “and wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live.” 

Whatever the source of its powers, the water found a great many people eager to believe in it. They still come, a couple every month. They bring yellowed clippings from occult tabloids, and from gossip sheets, with articles on the waters. They come on the basis of rumors. They come in station wagons filled with plastic gallon jugs for carrying the water back. They leave on the bus, sending along containers of water as their only luggage. They come with cancers and infections and muscle ailments. One man from New Brunswick, New Jersey, recently brought his son, who had lost the optic nerves in his right eye. The local people, who seem torn in their beliefs in the water, direct them to the inlet and to particular spots reported to have successfully healed others. 

Coleman Moore, who owns the only motel in town, sees most of them, and puts them up for the night. He sadly shakes his head when he remembers the two visitors from New Jersey, but just shrugs at most of the health seekers. “I figure they come down here and spend a couple days in a warm climate, relaxing, spending time in warm salt water and it can’t help but help, no matter what.” A local pharmacist is more direct: “They come down here wanting to believe. They’re halfway cured right there.” 

For awhile Hufham wrote to various medical groups and governmental agencies to verify the waters’ curative powers. But a few years ago, Hufham watched a barge dump a large supply of gasoline into the inlet, and he became wary of using it for his eyes. He stopped writing about it, and talks about it now only hesitantly. 

Hufham did not stop believing in the waters. Like thousands of others around the South who have seen their healing waters taken over by the rich or ruined by pollution, he stands firm on a few points. “God has presented us with medicinal waters,” he announces. “I wouldn’t be without them if I needed them.” He says that he has found a spot where the gasoline hasn’t spread, and that the healing waters of Shallotte Inlet — like scattered thermal springs and mineral springs of the region — remain effective. One has to search a little harder for them, that’s all.