By Rebecca Denton
Years ago, a steady stream of travelers flowed to the town of Red Boiling Springs in search of miracles.
This scenic valley – about 75 miles northeast of Nashville, in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains – became famous for its natural mineral waters, which were said to cure everything from rheumatism to diabetes.
In its 1920s heyday, Red Boiling Springs was home to numerous boarding houses and 11 majestic hotels with bath houses, pools, bowling alleys and dance halls. Many hotels added annexes and cottages to accommodate the growing influx of guests who came in search of the healing waters.
“They had a casino, a lake, an amusement park and big bands – even Tommy Dorsey came here,” says Debra Emery, co-owner of Armour’s Red Boiling Springs Hotel. “It was almost like a small Las Vegas.”
Red Boiling Springs’ bustling resort era evaporated in the 1940s after World War II, when modern medicine, transportation and recreational activities ushered folks in different directions. The town of about 1,000 people is much quieter these days, but the three remaining historic hotels – Thomas House Bed & Breakfast, Armour’s and The Donoho Hotel – offer a peaceful glimpse of the town’s resort history.
One hotel still offers mineral baths, while the others regularly feature live entertainment. Antique stores, a pottery shop, a motorcycle museum, the public library and covered bridges are within walking distance, and other attractions – including two hot spots for smoked barbecue – are just a short drive away.
Thomas House Bed & Breakfast
Built in 1890 and renovated in the 1920s, the 22,000-square-foot Thomas House Bed & Breakfast (formerly the Cloyd Hotel) is the town’s oldest. With Victorian architecture and furnishings, and wraparound porches with rocking chairs, it’s a popular place for weddings, rehearsal dinners and other gatherings.
But the hotel’s main attraction is its dinner theater, which presents shows two weekends a month throughout the year (except January).
“It’s been very successful for us, and our prices are reasonable – $25 for dinner and a play,” owner Evelyn Thomas Cole says.
The Thomas House is also known for its ghosts.
Since being featured on the A&E television show Paranormal State, curious travelers from across the country and abroad, including Japan, Switzerland, Scotland and England, have traveled here to catch a glimpse of a ghost.
“We’ve all seen things here,” says Cole, who bought the hotel in 1993 with her late husband, Roy Cole, and now runs it with her family. “We didn’t tell it for years, because you never know how people will react to things like that. But people started telling us what they were seeing.”
The Thomas House’s hearty Southern meals, served family-style, are another popular attraction. A lunch buffet is served on Sundays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., with no reservations required.
The Donoho Hotel
Built in 1914, The Donoho Hotel is a plantation-style Southern estate that has evolved into a full-service bed-and-breakfast. Steeped in history, this elegant home with turn-of-the-century architecture offers wraparound porches on two stories, rocking chairs, slow-turning fans and an abundance of antiques. Woodrow Wilson spent the night here in 1916 on his way to Washington, D.C., from Clarksville, where his parents once lived, Robert Stroop says, who owns the hotel with his wife, Pauline.
A bonus for history buffs: The original registry with Woodrow’s signature is on-site and can be seen by request.
The Donoho is home to a modern entertainment center that hosts live music every Saturday night and can accommodate up to 400 people. With its stately front porch, gazebo and pristine grounds – and the option of a horse-drawn carriage – the hotel has hosted a growing number of outdoor weddings and receptions in addition to church groups, tour groups, corporate conferences and other special events.
Family-style country meals, the friendly nature of people in town and old-fashioned solitude keep visitors coming back, Stroop says.
“We’ve had several doctors who like to get away for two or three days and just read,” he says. “It’s beautiful on the porch, or under the 100-year-old shade trees. People are the world’s best around here, and you have the ability to almost hibernate – to get out of the fast pace for awhile, with this beautiful scenery around you.”
Armour’s Red Boiling Springs Hotel
Built in 1924, Armour’s Red Boiling Springs Hotel offers the only mineral bathhouse in Red Boiling Springs – and it’s also the only mineral bathhouse known to be operating in Tennessee. The bathhouse features two claw-foot bathtubs, a steam room and massages with a certified massage therapist by appointment.
The 26-bedroom historic hotel (14 of which are open to guests) includes a dining room that seats up to 80 people. Owned and operated by Dennis and Debra Emery, with help from Debra’s family, the home offers plenty of diversions aimed at slowing down: large porches with porch swings and rocking chairs, a small library full of books, a letter-writing table with pens and stationary, a hammock, a fire pit, board games, and classic games such as horseshoes and badminton.
“We usually have a puzzle going in the dining room, and everyone comes along and works on it,” says Debra Emery. “I want everyone to feel like they’re at home – except they don’t have to wash dishes.”
Visitors will also find hearty, homemade, family-style meals here, along with some modern touches such as wireless Internet access.
How It All Started
Red Boiling Springs (originally called Salt Lick Creek) first became famous in the 1800s for its mineral waters. An early settler named Shepherd Kirby claimed the water cured his infected eyes, and talk of his miraculous healing in the sulfur water spread fast. Before long, travelers began to arrive seeking cures for all sorts of ailments.
Settlers soon noticed the water sometimes had a red tint, and it looked as if it were boiling. So in 1847, the town was named Red Boiling Springs. The springs were never hot, however. “Boiling” refers to the water’s appearance.
Five kinds of mineral water – each with different concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas, including one with no mineral traces at all – can be found in Red Boiling Springs. These five kinds of mineral waters are said to be found collectively like this only in Red Boiling Springs and a small village in Germany.
The water table has dropped through the years, and mineral water doesn’t flow in the open creek. But visitors can still sample mineral water from some private wells, including two wells on the property of The Donoho Hotel.
Nestle Waters North America Inc. began bottling the mineral-free water from Red Boiling Springs in 2004.
Source: Robert Stroop, owner of The Donoho Hotel, and Where the Healing Waters Flow, a DVD produced by Navigation Advertising.
If You Go:
The Thomas House
www.thomashousehotel.com, (615) 699-3006
The Donoho Hotel
www.thedonohohotel.com, (800) 799-1705
Armour’s Red Boiling Springs Hotel
www.armourshotel.com, (615) 699-2180