“The Appalachian Mountains aren’t smaller than other ranges to the West – they’re older. Ancient, eroding under the weight of time, they’re older than oceans, older than dinosaurs, older than limestone, and older than bones.” – Carrie Cuinn
The story of the Sweet Springs Turnpike Trail begins long before recorded history. The “healing waters” were well known to migrating Trans-Allegheny Indigenous Peoples who used the warm waters of the area for medicinal and birthing purposes. They also strongly believed in the purity of the water for drinking. Legend has it that long before Europeans inhabited the area, an Indigenous man who was wounded was left to die in the swampy waters. The next day, he recovered so entirely from his wounds that he joined his comrades, who thought him risen from the dead. Another story tells of a severely arthritic elderly man who soaked in the waters, and emerged feeling so much better that he regularly visited the springs until he was healed.
In 1774, William Lewis, brother to well-known Lewisburg historical figure General Andrew Lewis, obtained about 8,000 acres of the Sweet Springs property through a land grant given by King George III. In 1784, he moved his family to the area and became known as “William of Sweet Springs.” Around 1792 William built the first inn, a log structure with a full front porch. William’s “hotel” saw several notable visitors such as future presidents of the United States. Due to the debts of Lewis’s father, John, some of the land and inn later changed hands, and became the site of a hotel eventually designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Sweet Springs was visited by at least eight of the first ten presidents of the United States, and even Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother) and Robert E. Lee stayed at the hotel. It became a resort renowned for the healing properties of the water. The warm water healing pools were known and in use before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Anne Royall, first noted United States woman journalist and editor, lived on the property with her husband, American Revolutionary War Major and Freemason William Royall, until his death.
The Sweet Springs Turnpike was built in the mid-1800s, designed and completed by French civil engineer Claudius Crozet, known as “The man who opened up the Blue Ridge.” The road was used by stagecoach travelers, those journeying on foot, and horseback riders. It featured toll booths, structures, and inns along the way, including stops at Sweet Springs Resort/Jefferson Hotel (as it was also known as at one time.) The Turnpike has been known by different names throughout history, such as The Fincastle- Sweet Springs Turnpike, and Price’s Mountain Sweet Springs Turnpike.
Over time, the Sweet Springs Resort was closed, or reopened for other purposes. Over the last century or so, it has been a hotel, tuberculosis sanitarium, elder care facility, and more. It was purchased by the State of West Virginia in the 1940s to become known as the Andrew S. Rowan Memorial Home until it was closed in the early 1990s. It was then purchased by several individuals to bottle the pure water that the property is known for, and then unfortunately closed again due to another new owner’s death. For a time, the future of the once grand hotel and grounds was uncertain. Now, thanks to a group of dedicated foundation members and volunteers, Sweet Springs Resort Park and Turnpike Trail is once again taking its place in the rich history of the land.
In 2015, Ashby Berkley, internationally famous chef and historic restoration expert, purchased the property and formed the non-profit/public park, the Sweet Springs Resort Park Foundation. I recently had the opportunity to chat with some vital folks in this foundation: Roseanna Sacco, Founder of the Sweet Springs Institute, Historic Researcher, and Vice President of the Sweet Springs Watershed Association; and Arietta DuPre, Executive Director of Operations, Sweet Springs Resort Park, Sweet Springs Turnpike Trail, and the Sweet Springs Watershed Association, about the new life being breathed into the property, and specifically, Phase 1 of the Sweet Springs Turnpike Trail (SSTT.)
Sweet Springs Turnpike Trail, designed by professional mountain biker and Project Coordinator Zen Clements, is in Phase 1, a 1.2 mile, no more than 5 degree grade, easy to moderate hiking trail that was once part of the historic Sweet Springs Turnpike. This part of the trail officially opened on October 15, 2023. The trail’s first hikers were Robert and Nancy Paciga, who are now known as the SSTT Honorary Hikers. Currently, the trail is seeing locals, and people from as far away as Florida taking part in the storied history and second-to-none recreational opportunities that exist in our area. Hikers will have so many reasons to visit this trail, including the history, the views, or both. Phase 1 of the trail has been described by those who have tried it as an easy to moderate hike that accommodates a wide range of abilities and ages.
Visitors can walk on part of the route that recorded historical figures rode/trod/visited, and walk in the footsteps of the ancients who lived in harmony with the land and the healing springs long before the therapeutic waters were broadly known. Along this trail, there is also an oak tree which is thought to be possibly the largest oak tree in West Virginia. The foundation is presently working on having that verified. There are also various old trees and interesting rock deposits to see along the trail, in addition to breathtaking scenery. When asked her favorite aspects of the trail in its entirety, one volunteer said she appreciates the “open fields, walking in-forest among the trees, the magnificent views, the rock formations.” This lady appreciates the geology of the area and finds that aspect of the trail of particular interest.
There is much more to come for explorers of the SSTT. Phase 2, another area of the trail, is currently being cleared. Phase 3 involves the trail meeting and connecting to the Allegheny Trail. Zen is also in the process of designing a mountain bike trail.
Zen is also working on something a little separate, but still connected to the Sweet Springs Turnpike Trail: The Three Sisters Trail. It’s a one-mile trail that connects to the SSTT. The two trails create one large loop that can be started at the trailhead. Hikers can turn left to hike Three Sisters, and right to walk the SSTT. No matter which way they turn, walkers can hike the full circle, because where one trail ends, the other begins.
In addition, plans exist for shelters and campsites to be erected and installed along the way. Arietta said, “The other thing this trail is really going to be good for is for youth groups: 4-H; FFA; Scouts…it’s something even now that they can start using. Part of what you have to learn in those groups is tree identification, plant identification, you’ve got to learn camping skills in a rustic area. You’ve got a lot of that. And it is free to use. It’s free to use for these students to earn their badges and to do their studies for their groups. The trail is completely FREE. There is no charge to hike the trail, no matter who you are. We encourage anyone from surrounding counties to use this trail. Use it for your youth groups. They can camp on that part of the trail now.” She emphasized that this trail is ideal for teaching youth safe camping skills. “It’s there for everybody. People who are walking for their health – it’s a slight incline – less than 5 percent. People who want to get off the roads for their morning walks – there you go. You got a trail. It’s usable for so many different things.”
Arietta mentioned another part of history that’s tied to the trail. When the hotel was a state facility for the elderly, more than two hundred individuals were laid to rest in unmarked graves on the premises. The foundation has a list of those interred. This spring they will erect a memorial along with a fence and cornerstones to honor the departed. Additionally, a trail connecting to the cemetery to the SSTT will be established, ensuring that this chapter of the resort’s history will also be part of the experience of hiking there.
Future endeavors include guided tours, brief stagecoach rides along a portion of the historic turnpike, and other events held on the grounds. Additionally, plans are underway to establish an extensive trail network to connect the SSTT with renowned national trails like the Allegheny Trail and Appalachian Trail.
To learn more about the Sweet Springs Resort Park Foundation, and the Sweet Springs Turnpike Trail, visit their website at: www.sweetspringsresortpark.org. You can also find them on Facebook: Sweet Springs Resort Park.