The Roanoke Red: Natural Progression from Springs Resort to Institutional State Tuberculosis Hospital

by Leah Stearns

The three public tuberculosis facilities established by the Commonwealth of Virginia in the first part of the 20th century sprang from two distinct precedents. Cure facilities established in Saranac Lake by Dr. Trudeau (derived from European methods of treatment) and the phenomenon of springs resort culture were of seminal importance. The colloquialism “taking of the cure” speaks directly to the springs culture, and their associations with good health that were in existence in Virginia and West Virginia, as well as in other parts of the country. This springs culture phenomenon was not just particular to life in the new republic and in the post civil war area here in the states, but originated from European and earlier concepts of health spas in antiquity.

Thomas Jefferson notes the presence of what is now known to be a characteristic of “karst” topography in his Notes on the State of Virginia. The springs rise out of a bedrock of sedimentary limestone that has been perforated by groundwater and sinkholes. The most widely recognized of the spa resorts in our region today are the White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, and those in Bath County, Virginia. Catawba Hospital was established on the site of the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs, located seven miles from the town of Salem and southwest of the city of Roanoke.

The social institution of the famous ‘springs tours’ began as early as the late 18th century. The summering season typically lasted three months (usually July, August, and part of September.)1 In 1835, a British traveler who sought accommodation at a nearby West Virginia resort said, “it was packed.” He noted most of the springs folk as being ‘dirty, spitting, smoking, queer looking creatures.”2 Those who were ‘doing quarantine’ in the neighborhood, as the phrase was then…[were] sitting on the porch in front of the dining room like birds of ill omen…”3 So, even before the numbers of cases of consumption, or pulmonary phthisis, reached the crescendo it would in the 20th century, people sought the curative powers of the mineral and often sulphur laden waters of these springs.

It was a natural progression and an easy transition from springs resort to hospital for the ‘Roanoke Red’. In the post civil war economic boom, there was a slow rise of middle working class. The springs culture changed slightly to reflect this, and there was a blossoming of resort culture. As a general rule, what the upper classes do, the middle class will soon claw its way to follow, albeit on a smaller scale. “…Hotel living… provide[d] so much in the way of facilities, that many families…prefer[red] it to the bother of house keeping.”4

There was a gradual fall off in participation in the springs tours following the Civil War and an increase in the number of consumptive people. It became necessary for the Commonwealth to intervene and make provisions for the treatment of the overwhelming demographic contracting tuberculosis. The Catawba Hospital site was originally privately owned. Two separate individuals operated a resort hotel there until, as mentioned, “the vogue for spas died out in the late 19th century.”5 The 1200-acre site with the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs buildings fell into disuse and was then, as was common for other springs resorts across the country, purchased by the state governement.

A James McAfee, Sr., in the 1750s, owned the land on which the springs and the Catawba Hospital sit. This property apparently changed hands because records show that on September 17th, 1855, Absalom Smith and wife Martha sold to George M. Shanks, David P. Shanks, Mr. Green Board, Abraham Hupp, and William Walton, for the sum of $2,000 “a parcel of land lying on the waters of Catawba Creek in the County of Roanoke containing by survey 110 acres found as follows: [bordered by] Samuel Phillips’ land… [And]… all the appurtenances appertaining thereto.” The article Local Spas says these five originally purchased 700 acres and invested $50,000. On February 16, 1856, the Virginia General Assembly chartered the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs Company. Following this, Hupp and others had built the large hotel and cottages, and “by 1858 a hotel was ready.”6 It was leased to Josephus Flavius Chapman, who owned other Salem hotels, in 1860. The Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs were located ten miles from the Salem depot of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. It was in successful operation until 1861, when “on account of the outbreak of the war the furnishings all sold and buildings closed.”7

In February of 1864 in Salem, at a meeting of the Roanoke Red, the corporation was dissolved. There is also account of the conveyance of seven more acres which had been left out of the 1855 sale of property from Hupp to the Salem businessmen, also listed is the sale by Roanoke Red: “ and from Miss Eliza Era___ (indiscernible), 2.5 acres with a hotel and other improvements have been erected” as going to “Theodore Crawford and Caleb Bliss the whole of said property and all corporate rights and holdings, improvements, mineral springs, roads, privileges and appurtenances…” These details serve as testimony of the commonly accepted perception of the site as a hotel resort for leisure, despite its varying financial successes.

In 1876 Chapman and his son purchased the Red. In 1878 F.J. Chapman got permission to run a telegraph/phone line from Salem out to the Resort, by putting it in the trees along the road.8 Some thought that under Chapman’s management the springs resort would become the “Baden-Baden of America.”9 “A stage ran over the mountain every day, and the ride was an adventure…once at the Red, guests chose from still more activities: horseback riding, croquet, ten-pins, billiards and bowling, checker parties, the usual bands and dancing; trout fishing, hunting, hot and cold sulphur bath rooms, and walks and other excursions in the surrounding country.”10 A guest from Richmond wrote in the “summer of 1887… there were 300, most of whom were Southerners, and a more sociable homelike people cannot be found in America… [All] seem bent and determined that everybody shall have a good time at the Red… [In 1886 a New Orleans resident wrote] the guests are on friendlier and closer terms, than at most other places, and the season is more agreeable on that account.”11 “….More relaxed codes of conduct prevailed at resorts than at home.”12

“During [Roanoke] Red Sulphur’s hey-day, there was accommodation for 300 guests in the hotel proper and for others in cottages roundabout. The rates where modest enough: $40 a month, $12.50 a week, or $2.50 a day, with a special discount for families and half rates for children and servants. The price included varied entertainment, music by an Italian string band, and excellent food… The annual tournaments at Red Sulphur were social events no one wanted to miss.”13
It should here be noted that there is consistent confusion regarding the provenance of the springs known as Red Sulphur.14 Other Red Sulphur Springs existed in Monroe County, West Virginia. The Sweet Springs were also called the Red Sweet (also Chalybeate). The West Virginia Red where more published and had more vociferous proponents. This confusion is perpetuated by later publications that fail to distinguish between the two. For example, in a 1926 publication of Sunbeams, the Catawba Magazine, there is cited Ed Pollard’s commentary regarding the Red Sulphur Springs located near Indian Creek (in West Virginia.) This citation was relative to a visitor’s 1926 visit to the Catawba Hospital. All circuitous research and debate aside, it is clear that the West Virginia Red Sulphur Springs where most publicly written about and existed as a vested component of the springs tours. What is known about the West Virginia Springs can lend insight into the springs resort culture however. In 1916 it was noted by a chronicler of the history of Monroe County that the “Red Sulphur Springs is practically a closed resort. Since the contagious nature of consumption has become generally understood, the public has grown suspicious of buildings that have had every opportunity of becoming infested with the bacillus that causes the disease.”15

An 1892 announcement for the season at the Roanoke Red cites accommodations for 300 guests. It opened June 1, and touted billiards, bowling, saloons excellent band music, trout fishing, and good hunting, croquet, lawn tennis, 10 pins and “especially the absence of fashionable routine and dissipation… untrammeled by conventionalisms of society.” (What does this mean? Bacchanalian behavior, or did everyone shuffle around in their pajamas?) “Having been recently repaired” with hot and cold bath rooms and other improvements, well supplied with furniture, which though plain, is new and comfortable. It describes the cottages as having connecting rooms with fireplaces in each, thoroughly ventilated, and having 2,4,6,or 12 rooms.

“The spas enabled Roanoke County to pull itself out of the depression following the war…there, boys met girls, and young couples wandered together along lovers’ lanes that led through woodsy places beside clear-flowing streams.”16 Patronage had declined during the Civil war (there was a battle at Hanging Rock near Catawba in 1864 led by Confederate Brigadier General McCausland.) It was the 1870s before it really got going again.17 An important element in the chronicle of the site is the waning as such of the resort functions. This set the stage for the next manifestation of its role as a place of curative healing.

F. J. Chapman died in 1894. There is record of parcel of land sold by the Chapman children to the Commonwealth in 1901. George Shanks had been the president of the Roanoke Red Resort, and also a majority property owner. There are deeds of sale for land transactions between the other partners and Chapman and Shanks, and consequently from Shanks to Chapman. In 1908 the children of Flavius Josephus Chapman sold more of the property of the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the sum of $18,744. Approximately 1,200 acres: parcels #1(393.5 acres) and #2 (258 acres), and “described Fixtures.” “All fixtures now in the hotel, situate on the first herein above described tract of land, which are necessary to the proper and successful conduct, maintenance, and operation of said hotel.” “Wood pavilions were soon going up” in the old Catawba Creek Community .18 $40,000 dollars was appropriated in 1908 to establish this first tuberculosis facility in the state.19 By 1937 the old hotel was quartering the Catawba Sanatorium staff, and by 1942, there were 400 beds, half of which [were] free…”20

The phenomenon of the social institution of the ‘springs tours’ that began as early as the late 18th century bears further examination. “The springs season was… during July, August, and part of September.”21 Percival Reniers, in his book published in 1941, tells of a British traveler in 1835 who seeks accommodation in nearby WV at the packed resort. He relays a comical depiction of the mayor of White Sulphur springs, that whom people call the ‘grand vizier’ and ‘Metternich’ of the mountains. This is the same previously mentioned observer who noted the ‘dirty, spitting, smoking, queer looking creatures’ from page three. He speaks of the gentle folk who had already gone through the travails of securing accommodations. Those who were ‘doing quarantine’ in the neighborhood, as the phrase was then…sitting on the porch in front of the dining room like birds of ill omen…”23 This same Londoner also tells of people hounding the Metternich about fleas. In these early days, accommodations did not yet properly exist to handle the masses that sought to find good health and leisure at these springs. An 1832 account of another visitor’s stay at the White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia is as follows: “I rise at 6 and appropriate the time up to 8 to drinking the waters—lounge for half an hour after breakfast, when I mount my horse for an hour or then betake myself to my room, say to about 10 ½ o’clock—read—write and sleep a little till 2—dine—return to my room to read—at 6 ride either on Horseback or a Barouche—Sup at 8—and though we have a fine band, and dancing room, I leave it for my room…”24 Cindy Aron refers to this account and others in her book, Working at Play, as a “structured informality.”25

Life at the resort springs had been different. Rules of social conduct were relatively fast and loose there compared to mainstream society. This contributed to the unique sense community that coalesced at these early hospitals. There was among the patients at the hospital, a collective memory of life at the springs before the institutionalization of The Cure. Catawba Hospital found it necessary to publish rather detailed rules of conduct in order to address ideas that patients brought with them regarding their stay there.

The 1920 patient rulebook for the Catawba Sanatorium stipulated many things. There was to be no hiking or climbing. This was an attempt to quash any holdover ideas about climbing nearby McAfee’s knob from the resort days. This must have been in the regional collective memory. There are suggestions in the book for suitable daily activities and uproarious festivities are expressly forbidden. Exercise was stipulated as walking, and there were designated times for this: twice daily (8:30-11a, 4-5:45p). This rather closely parallels visitors’ accounts of activities at the White Sulphur, the Sweet, and many of the other early springs resorts. There is some indication of leisure ‘sports’. The playing of pool was allowed for those who were on thirty minutes ‘exercise’ or more. There was to be no exercise after dinner (supper was lunch). This meant no carrying on and intermingling, i.e. suitable gender interaction. Singing and loud talking were advised against. There were no specifically stipulated provisions for taking baths or taking of the waters of the springs. Apparently this was no longer a formalized component of effecting the cure. No association of patients of the opposite sex was permitted at any time, specifically in the following locations: the east path to the Sulphur springs (to the pavilion), the gully on the west side leading beyond the infirmary, the Stuart and the Swanson pavilions to the road, on the north edge of the woods, and not above the Baker pavilion or the sulphur spring…. Basically, nowhere out of sight. This indicates a precedent for such activities in these areas, thus requiring the instatement of this rule. Such visitations were only to happen in the Amusements Hall. (These mentioned buildings are pictured in the included 1914 Davis photographs.) The springs resort circuit had commonly come to be known as a place to make acquaintances and find romance. In many accounts, certain walking paths were to be known as Lovers’ Lane. There is more in the Rule Book regarding the springs ritual of promenading. At the Hospital, in the morning, women were to walk toward the Wells Store and the garden, and the men toward the barn and around the loop. After supper (lunch), everyone could only be on the boardwalks and in and around the Amusement Hall. This gender separation for promenading also hearkens back to other springs traditions. No guns, pets or gambling, or faro (a gambling card game that is talked about as a favorite pastime in almost every reference to springs activities.) The pursuit of abundant game was touted in early Roanoke Red advertisements as one of the activities to be found there. And this is the best: “When away on a visit, observe the[se] rules as far as possible.” Patients were urged to read the monthly publication Sunbeams. And, no home visits were allowed until the patient had been at the sanatorium for three months. Coincidentally or not, this echoes the springs season duration.

There was a definite transition for the habitant of this environment from served and accommodated to near incarceration by their illness and those attempting to exact a cure. Despite this fact, those within the institution, both well and sick, interacted and formed social bonds and distinct social groupings. There was a sense of community within these strictures that is clearly discernable. The architecture and the organization of the landscape rigidified as administrators attempted to formalize a regimen for provided care and a healthy environment. There was clear evolution of spatial dyamic.
At some point the site was re-graded, probably in successive campaigns. In the 1914 Davis photographs, which were taken in the fall, one can see new construction; it appears to be on newly graded surfaces. An image of the ‘new’ reservoir is also included in this collection. As you can see in the Beyer lithograph, and in some of the others, the site was transected by many small gullies, or rip raps, that carried run-off or springs waters across the site and among the buildings. The boardwalk promenades crisscrossed these. Pigs and cows can be seen roaming around in these photos. When contrasted with the rigidified landscape of the present hospital, with concrete drainage ditches for routing storm water and the springs runoff, the landscape represented in the Beyer lithograph is very different. Vestiges of its former days of glory are still visible at Catawba, despite this change in the facility scheme. The pavilion which caps the Red Sulphur spring is standing behind the main facility of the modern hospital complex.

Methods of treatment changed from seeking retreat out of doors to retreating from outdoors to an inside, controlled, sterile environment. This place was also one that existed outside of the societal parameters for freedoms and leisure. It was another kind of isolation that was controlled and ordered.