Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Black Rock Springs: A “Celebrated Watering Place”
by Phil James
A mountain resort that was once an enchanted destination fell silent nearly a century ago. Treasured experiences once filled the memory banks of those fortunate enough to sojourn there. But, slowly over time, the ones who knew its almost mystical delights slipped away from us. As its name came to be spoken less often, only the most diligent of searchers were left to wonder about its days of glory.
The mineral springs below the Black Rocks near the mountaintop intersection of Albemarle, Augusta and Rockingham Counties had been a warm-weather destination for thousands of years. Archaeological studies conducted around the “black terrace” in the 1970s turned up prehistoric stone artifacts likely used for hunting and butchering, and others used for shaping wood and bone.
A road connecting Albemarle and Augusta Counties was cut through the mountain gap just south of the Black Rock summit. Legend states that in 1781, Bernis Brown, a confidant of then-Governor Thomas Jefferson, hid the State Archives and Virginia’s Great Seal in a long-forgotten cave “up over the Black Rocks” southwest of his Brown’s Cove home, thus saving them from capture by the Redcoats.
When Augusta County’s Weyer’s Cave (now Grand Caverns) was opened to the public in 1806, the route through Black Rock Gap enabled many in Virginia’s Piedmont section to visit that underground wonder. By the mid-1830s, owing to the growing popularity of Virginia’s medicinal springs, an entrepreneur capitalized on the mineral springs a mile below and west of the gap. A hotel was constructed at the Black Rock Springs in Augusta County, and the place was promoted in newspapers far and wide.
Ownership of Black Rock Springs changed hands many times during its decades of operation. In the late 1850s, a partnership from New York purchased the property and performed necessary repairs and upgrades. Their decision to change its name, however, especially during the partisan political climate of that day, may have doomed its success.
The new proprietor, Jeremiah Peterfish of New Hope, advertised in 1860 that Union Chalybeate Springs was open for those wishing to “spend a pleasant season at this celebrated WATERING PLACE … Board $8 per week—children and servants $4.” Rattlesnake hunting was advertised as an amusement. However, within a few short years, new owners were found and the original name was restored.
The Black Rock Springs Improvement Company was organized in 1885 “to promote and develop the springs as a resort”. A new three-story hotel was erected, adjacent lots were sold to those from the local region, and private cottages were constructed. Popular amenities included an outdoor bandstand; the new three-lane ten-pin bowling alley was an instant hit. Those living in nearby localities were encouraged to visit for the day, and The Springs became a popular destination for picnics, marriage proposals and even baptisms.
Throughout the years, locals from both sides of the mountain found an outlet for their goods and services at Black Rock Springs. A seasonal post office was operated from 1889–1928. Physicians, such as Dr. Eagle in 1896, routinely visited guests who were sick or infirm. J. L. “Bose” Blackwell was qualified by the Augusta County Court as policeman to serve at BRS in 1899. Nearby pastors brought sermons to the guests on the mountain.
Paul “Doug” Harris and his siblings carried buckets of butter five miles from their home below Brown’s Gap to sell to the hotel kitchen. Sarah Jane Dorcus Jenkins performed domestic duties for $1.50/week. As a youngster, Ernest Via set up ten pins for ten to fifteen cents a night. Water boys toted buckets of spring water for cooking and baths.
Those boom days were wonderful, but nothing lasts forever. The latter years of the resort were rife with lawsuits. A competitor built a nearby establishment thought by some to attract the wrong crowd. Arguments over water rights escalated to vandalism and court cases.
In November 1909, a devastating blow came in the form of a massive fire, the third in the hotel’s history. When the smoke cleared, the venerable establishment along with its stables, outbuildings and 28 cottages had been reduced to ashes. The wide-ranging forest fire also destroyed the wooden bridges leading to the resort. Amazingly, the competitor’s building survived the fire and eventually assumed the name of its former rival.
By the time of the establishment of Shenandoah National Park in 1936, the remaining hotel and cottage buildings had been judicially condemned and completely demolished. So thorough was that removal that very little sign of its existence remains to be seen today in the hardwood forest that has returned to the property.
If one were to consider a present-day search for vestiges of the Black Rock mineral springs along Paine Run Trail below the Skyline Drive at MP 87.4, do be reminded that the aforementioned rattlesnakes still do not consider their pursuit as amusement.
Perhaps, instead, simply ponder some of the things that took place “once upon a time” in this not so far away place:
- Spear hunters honed their skills among the upper flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains while others in their party gathered nature’s bounty from trees, bushes and forest floor; the muffled sounds of their movements and voices carried across the hollows and floated down the spring-fed streams.
- Up, up, up by hack, buggy, stage or shank’s mare, travelers and vacationers arrived from east and west, near and far away. Taking the lure of newspaper ads or associate’s reports, they endured the rugged mountain roads to discover for themselves this place of seclusion and hoped-for leisure. They found a hotel with staff enough, and sumptuous, hearty meals of local foods served in a dining room. Their sleep was punctuated with dreams of the next day’s discoveries and adventures.
- Lithe young women in long skirts held hands and joined voices as they danced on a sun-dappled green lawn spread beneath the sheltering boughs of ancient trees. In the evening, costumed dance partners moved to the live rhythms of string and brass.
- Young men challenged one another in card games, croquet and ten pins, their cocky attitudes rising and falling with their fates.
- Youth of all ages tested their limits over jumbled, massive quartzite boulders, scuffing shoes, elbows and shins in order to scratch their initials alongside those of their predecessors’, and to enjoy a magnificent panorama of the Great Valley.
- The hopeful infirm partook of healing waters from mountain springs, and the once-weary reclined on vine-shaded porches and on hammocks strung between trees, napping, reading or chatting with others in this secluded seasonal community.
Breathe slowly and deeply, and listen for their voices.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2012 Phil James