A newspaper article which appeared in the Chattanooga Sunday Times in October of 1936, talks about the legend of Sulphur/Rhea Springs. This article was written by Sarah Ruth Frazier, and gives a detailed account of life in that settlement. According to this story, “Legend has it that in primeval days, a band of Cherokees, wandering through the valley was stricken with a terrible fever. One night the Great Spirit appeared to the warriors in the form of a beautiful Indian maiden and guided them to the spring. Some were carried, others crawled, and still others, too weak to stand, lay flat on the ground and lapped the water, but all remained to bless the flow that gave them strength once more. They camped nearby and all were cured. The site became popular with the Indians. Their wigwams dotted the hillsides, while the blue smoke from many a camp spiraled aloft. Here they hunted and fished and Piney creek saw many a dark face peer into its waters.” The article continues, stating that the Cherokees held their council at the spring and that during the summer, all the tribes assembled to drink the water and to bathe in it. It is also quoted in the article, that when Dr. Rhea acquired the property, he learned that the water possessed medicinal value. It was further noted that during the 1870’s, the mud baths at the springs became well known. Those baths were taken in a building which was constructed for that specific purpose, and the sediment through which the water trickled to the bath house was supposed to be a remedy for rheumatism.
According to other research, the springs were said to be sulfuric in composition, with other “healing” salts found in the water analysis. One advertisement stated that the Rhea Springs mineral water was good for the liver, stomach and kidneys; it was also said to be the great blood purifier, and poison eliminator for all diseases. In addition, it was supposed to be the “fountain of health and Mother Nature’s Remedy.”
Physicians who practiced in Rhea Springs included the following: Dr. J.C. Abernathy (1870’s,1880’s, 1890’s), Dr. Young Abernathy (1870’s, 1880’s), Dr. J.C. Wasson (1880’s, 1890’s), Dr. Andrew Anderson (1880’s, 1890’s), and Dr. Robert F. Cook (1870’s). From Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee we find that Dr. J.C. Wasson returned to Sulphur Springs after the War Between the States and became involved in merchandising until 1875. Wasson then took up his medical studies, attending lectures in 1878, and graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1890, practicing medicine afterward. Dr. J.C. Abernathy is also highlighted in the Goodspeed book. He attended school at Morganton, Blount County, Tennessee (where he was born), and afterward at Maryville College. Then he studied medicine under Dr. E. Collins of Pinhook Landing in Meigs County, Tennessee. Abernathy graduated from the medical department of the University of Nashville, and practiced in Rhea Springs.
During 1878, there was a widespread epidemic of yellow fever in the Mississippi River Valley due to an unusually large amount of rain, which led to increased mosquito population. (Yellow fever is caused by the yellow fever virus, and is spread by the bite of the female mosquito.) According to research, Chattanooga and its surrounding areas also suffered from the epidemic. Approximately one hundred and forty people came by steamboat from Chattanooga to Rhea Springs to escape this epidemic. Dr. J.C. Wasson was the hotel owner during that time, and it is said that he welcomed all of those people into the hotel. All other places were quarantined, and the “refugees” from Chattanooga were not allowed to stay anywhere else. History states that no cases of yellow fever developed at Rhea Springs.
Sulphur/Rhea Springs certainly had a very romantic and legendary beginning, but it was said to be a beautiful and significant resort town for those living there permanently and for those visiting temporarily. The doctors of that day made “house calls,” and really cared about their patients. Even now, as our country is facing a return of some of the childhood diseases which were thought to have been eradicated, we just might learn something from the yellow fever chapter of Rhea Springs: it is necessary to quarantine people who have been exposed to any communicable disease. Naturally, the population during that time did not have the numbers we have today, and travel was certainly not the same. However, there is no substitute for good, common sense! And we need to learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.
Pat Guffey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org