Musings in West Virginia: Southern Fringes

The finale in a five-part summer excursion includes a visit to several abandoned schools and the infamous Sweet Springs Resort!

Having legal access into an abandonment is pretty exciting, especially when it regards the mammoth Sweet Springs Resort in southeastern West Virginia.

Sweet Springs, first discovered in 1764, saw its first development in 1790 when log cabins were constructed to promote the area’s healthy attributes. Later, in 1839, an 110,000-square-foot hotel opened on the property, designed reportedly by Thomas Jefferson – but most likely one of his assistants, William B. Phillips from the University of Virginia.

The resort soon became a popular resort, beckoning presidents and regular citizens alike. Expansions over the years included guest cottages, a ballroom and bathhouse. Its popularity began to wane after the Civil War, and closed briefly around 1928 before being sold to the state of West Virginia in 1941 for use as a tuberculosis sanatorium. It later became a home for the elderly before shuttering in 1993.

Sweet Springs was in danger of becoming another derelict in a state dotted with the remains of many other spring resorts, such as Blue Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Springs and Green Sulphur Springs. A cottage collapsed in the late 1990’s, and the spring house partially collapsed in the 2000’s. Another residence showed obvious signs of brick bowing. Alarmed by this, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History listed Sweet Springs as an endangered historic resource.

In 2004, Warren Smith purchased Sweet Springs, announcing plans to construct a golf course, an amphitheater, skiing facilities, stables, gardens and orchards, with the long-range plan to restore the deteriorating Sweet Springs structures to serve as a showcase for historic preservation. The first project, Smith announced, was to restore the bathhouse. The original bricks were salvaged and will be reused in a future project. In addition, one resident cottage was restored and another stabilized.

The determination of Smith to restore the resort was the main reason why it was imperative that legal access be obtained. On a drive back from a conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, I made a point to stop at Sweet Springs to update my photography log of Sweet Springs and shoot some exterior images, and to note any changes from my first visit in 2003. I was not on the site for more than five minutes before a black Chevrolet Suburban pulled up and questioned my presence in a friendly demeanor.

It did not take long to be given permission to access the property with a week notice. I donated my batch of photographs of Sweet Springs from 2003 to his office, and had a goal of producing an extensive before-and-after photographic record of Sweet Springs during its restoration process. Before the start of the eastern Ohio and West Virginia trip, I confirmed a visit to Sweet Springs to photograph the interiors of every building through written communication, but something became amiss during the trip. During a phone conversation in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Smith declined our interior access because “the grounds were not manicured,” and then began to question why any photographs would be needed of such a derelict structure.

But after some tugging, he sighed and said it was okay to come down. So we left Clarksburg at dusk and drove five hours to Lewisburg through the middle of the night to hole up in a motel. But upon arriving on the site of Sweet Springs the next morning, we were met with flat out denial for interior access. The photographs we did manage to get — of the exterior, show that not much has changed from 2009.

With the troubles at Sweet Springs, we decided to depart and make the most of our day in southern West Virginia. The weather, while hot, was at least sunny. Traffic was light. And we were well rested after driving through the previous night from one end of the state to another. It did not take long to find our first find of the day, a four-room schoolhouse that resided on a farm!

Just down the state route was an abandoned church, which has not seen activity in most likely ten or more years. It was pretty bare and uninteresting, sans a vintage vending machine.

After a good lunch at the Fairview Diner in Union, we high-tailed it to Hinton and did a visual inspection of the Lincoln School. The modest three-story school, located on the aptly-named Hill Street, closed in 1962 due to integration and was later used for vocational classes. It is in remarkably good condition for a facility that is just used for storage.

Afterwards, we ventured to Bluefield to check out the former Beaver High School. The imposing four-story structure, set on a steep hillside near downtown, served as a high school until 1953. It continued to be used as a junior high school until a new facility opened.

We finished by driving along U.S. Route 52 through southwestern West Virginia. With light diminishing fast, we opted for the former Bluestone High School in Bramwell. Constructed in 1948, it served as an elementary and high school for African-Americans. Although it closed in 1963, it was later reused for a local business. In 2000, a restoration project for the abandoned school began under the direction of a formal Restoration Committee, and the roof was repaired. Other than that, it is derelict.

Tired, we departed our ways after exploring the Bluestone High School. It was a long and lengthy excursion through eastern Ohio and West Virginia, but well worth it! I hope you enjoyed the variety of updates, and be sure to check out the past entries from the summer excursion below!


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