When thinking about going on a vacation, or “getting away from it all” a person in today’s world considers a camping trip or a stay at a nice motel in a region where there are places of interest. However, in the past, one of the finest places for a vacation was Rhea Springs, which was located in the north eastern section of Rhea County. It is now under Watts Bar Lake, east of the town of Spring City.
In its beginning, the settlement was called Sulphur Springs, and this named the site from approximately 1807 until 1878. (This is according to the “History of Rhea County.”) The area had more than one thousand acres of flat land which was surrounded by hillsides, and was located on the waters of Piney (Creek) River. Also, in that time, roads from all directions intersected at Sulphur Springs. These included the Old State Road from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans; and the old Pinhook Road leading to the Tennessee River (the Pinhook Ferry crossed the river into Meigs County). There was also a stock road (arterial road) to the west, which crossed the mountain and continued north into Kentucky.
According to a small booklet published by the Rhea County News (no date), entitled “Historic Sketch of Rhea Springs,” the Cherokee Indians used the mineral water at the springs as a medicine long before other settlers established their homes there. This booklet states that the “Medicine Men” of the Cherokees discovered the medical value of the springs in treating diseases, and even gave it a name, which has now been lost. It further stated that these Indian tribes would assemble during the summer to drink the water and bathe in it; the Indians also made long hollow gum troughs for this purpose. According to Dr. J.C. Wasson, these troughs were preserved for a long time, because he saw them when he was a young boy. Later, the white man came to the area, and eventually the Indians were pushed out for settlers to inhabit the region.
From the “History of Rhea County,” we learn that there were actually two sulphur springs. One was called the black sulphur spring, and was approximately halfway between the church on the hill and the hotel. This spring was walled with concrete, had very little runoff, and contained more minerals. The main spring was on the hotel property, and was concrete-walled and had a springhouse. During a flood, the springhouse washed away and a two-story pagoda-type springhouse was built at a later date. Its upper story served as a bandstand for the many band concerts which were held there.
One of the earliest descriptions of the famous springs and resort can be found in an article from the July 11, 1856 Athens Post newspaper (Athens, Tennessee), with the title, “Rhea County Sulphur Springs.” This article states, “The public will be gratified to learn that these Springs are now being improved in a comfortable and substantial manner, for the accommodation of the public. These waters are well tested by living subjects, as well as by analysts. Many of the oldest inhabitants of the country have derived material advantage from them, and many very astonishing cures have been effected by the free use of these waters.” Information is also given which tells the reader that the waters act as a powerful diuretic (increases secretion and flow of urine), cathartic (laxative), and alterative (gradually restoring to health). The article lists W.S. Horr, M.D. as Proprietor of the springs at that time.
As we look back in time and recall many events, people, and places of historical value in Rhea County, we will be able to see that Rhea Springs was not only a resort with “healing waters”, but a prominent Rhea County settlement. This is why we need to learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.