White Cliff Springs
White Cliff Springs.

The Southern Bivouac, Vol. II, July, 1886, No. 2, Southern Summer Resorts

That observing traveler, Lady Mary Montague, records the remark that "Scenery hunters should not waste their time on Mount Blancs any more than on Russian steppes, but look about in the regions where lowlands and highlands join." She writes from the Southern Balklands, where, even a hundred years ago, vegetation contributed but little to the charm of the landscape; but her verdict is not less strikingly confirmed on many a foot-hill range of our Southern Alleghanies. If we had to match some mountain prospect of our own continent against the famous panoramas of the Alps, I should not invite the committee of connoiseurs to the top of Mount Shasta, nor the summit of Black Mountain, but to White Cliff Springs, on a promontory of the Chilhowees, a Tennessee foot-hill chain of rather moderate elevation. For nearly a hundred miles that chain runs parallel to the main range of the Western Alleghanies till the "Great Smokies" make a sharp bend to the east, thus concentrating their drainage in a stream of sufficient force to break the barrier of the foot-hills. In the summit cliffs, overlooking the southwestern escarpment of that gap, stands the hotel, accessible from the foot of the ridge by a well-graded road of hardly two English miles. I have crossed the Swiss Alps and the Mexican Sierras in all directions, and I venture the assertion that among the prospect points of their grandest scenery, the promontory of the lowly Chilhowees has but a single rival, the plateau of Riffelberg, near Zermatt, in the canton of Wallis, where the panorama of the Southern highlands range from the precipice of the Gornergrat to the seven summits of Monte Rosa and the airy peaks of the Lepontine Alps.

If the structure of the entire mountain system of Tennessee and Western North Carolina had been contrived for the special purpose of contributing to the charms of a single view, the effect could not be more striking. The chief characteristic of the Appalachians is the softness of their general outline, the long-stretched unbroken ridges of their principal chains. But to the spectator, from the piazza of the Cliff House, the summits of some thirty different mountain groups seem to culminate in peaks; by some unexplained, and probably unparalleled coincidence, the sharper profiles of some hundred different escarpments north, east, and southeast, appearing to face toward a common center. And the marvels of that prospect are offset by the effects of the contrast. Looking in the opposite direction the outline of Walden's Ridge and Sand Mountain, the southern branches of the Cumberlands can be traced for hundreds of miles, looming like an unbroken Cyclopean wall through the mists of the western horizon. In the interspace the terrace of lands of the Tennessee Valley rise from the shores of the great river that winds its glittering bends from the hills of Loudon to the defiles of the Chattanooga mountain walls. Nearer by the Hiawassee foams in the gorges of the Southern Chilhowees, where here and there the blue summits of its birthland gleam through a mountain-gap like memories of childhood through the gates of the past. The impressions of the scene change with the shadows of every floating cloud, blending the mountain ranges with the haze of the sky, or darting sunbeams revealing the glitter of a distant waterfall. The prospect from a supreme summit like Mount Mitchell may be more extensive, but the bird's-eye view flattens the landscape, and for sight-seeing purposes one might as well try to study the architecture of a palace by straddling the roof-ridge.

And while the ascent of the Riffelberg can be achieved only by trained mountaineers, the plateau of White Cliff Springs may be reached by easy stages from half a dozen stations of the East Tennessee Railroad. Travelers generally leave the cars at the depot of Athens, the county seat of McMinn County, where passengers arriving by late trains can pass the night at the Bridges House. The road to the Springs leads through the "knobs," a strange aggregation of rounded hillocks, some four hundred of them, all of the same shape and nearly exactly the same height, about three hundred and fifty feet above the valley of the Connasauga. After crossing that stream the up-grades become gradually steeper, and at the foot of the mountains proper the traveler stands already some one thousand four hundred feet above the level of the Tennessee at Chattanooga. Half way up the hill, at Weyer's Bend, the marvel of the eastern panorama bursts suddenly in view, but the road winds back to a point where a mineral spring has been housed in a little pavilion, often visited by health-seekers of the lowlands. But the hotel itself is still several hundred feet higher, and the traveler emerging from the shade of the mountain glens into the sunshine of the open plateau may be surprised at finding that change to involve a decrease of temperature. At White Cliff Springs the summers are indeed considerably cooler than those of many a famed health resort, not only of the higher latitudes, but of a greater elevation under the same parallel, the latter paradox being explained by the narrowness of the plateau, tapering to a promontory of hardly eighty feet across, and the consequent exposed situation of the hotel. The mean annual temperature is a little less 52 F. In 1875 the mercury only once reached 78, and during the subsequent decade it has never risen above 82, while in Montreal, Canada, 98, and even 100, is nothing abnormal. Summer visitors run, therefore, no thermal risks, and the only break in the series of atmospheric holidays is an occasional mountain rain, generally exceeding the duration of the valley showers by eight or ten hours.

But the architect of the hotel has planned its structure with allowance for that very kind of emergencies; galleries above galleries front the long row of rooms on all sides, the aggregate of the entire building thus affording not less than one thousand three hundred feet of roofed, open-air promenades. There is a large ball-room in the basement, and bowling-alleys, billiard-table, and reading-rooms make it easy enough to while away the leisure of a few in-door days. A telegraph line connects the plateau with the wires of the Western Union, and letters or express packages can be sent directly from the hotel office. There are bath-houses and livery-stables, and a number of sequestered cottages for those who prefer privacy of domestic comfort.

There are in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel not less than three different kinds of mineral springs, but the great specific of the health resort is its bracing atmosphere. For eight months in the year the air is neither too warm nor too cold to be decidely pleasant, and the plateau is just high enough to be above the dew-point. On mornings when the grass of the lower slopes looked as wet as after a heavy shower, I have found the herbage of the plateau as dry as an Alpine pasture on a sunny September day. Gnats do not thrive on such pastures, and as a refuge from the insect plague of the lower latitudes White Cliff Springs ranks with the parks of the Colorado Sierras. That inviting cleanliness of soil and vegetation is, indeed, a distinctive charm of our Southern highland forests. The woodlands of Canada, Western New York, New England, and even of Pennsylvania, are as luxuriant as ours, but low and high, summer and winter, they are festering in a grievous excess of moisture. Ascend the fine highlands north of Collingwood, on Georgian Bay: ferns, rank grass, boggy soil, mildew, and swarms of mosquitoes. Try the Adirondacs, the forest hills of the Upper Susquehanna, the Jersey picnic groves, the uplands of Maine, the mountains feeding the twin sources of the Ohio: ferns, boggy soil, and omnipresent mosquitoes. The grievance begins to mend in the Cumberlands of Eastern Kentucky, but only south of the thirty-seventh parallel do the woodlands get a decided claim to the praise of a "park-like appearance," open glades, without ferns or tangle of underbrush, dry gravel, natural lawns of short, dry grass, butterflies superseding gnats and gadflies, aromatic herbs and huckleberries instead of festering reeds.

In the winter of 1879, Surgeon Rengger, of the United States Army, found a dying Indian in the sand-hills of the Upper Red River, and desired his attendants to cover him with a saddle-blanket and turn his face to the evening sun. "Thanks, Senor, I am a hunter and feel no cold," said the old Cherokee, "but let me look to the east; on clear evenings I sometimes think I might get a glimpse of the Alleghanies." That hunter had probably passed his youth in the forests of the Chilhowees. From no other region of their lost Eden the poor exiles passed with heavier hearts. I know an old farmer who remembers the parting scene at the rendezvous of Cleveland, Tennessee, where old squaws kissed the dusty earth a sobbing farewell, while their sons sustained their stoicism only by a rivalry of blasphemies and cynical jokes. The Chilhowees, or deer-hills, as they called their favorite hunting-grounds, still preserve their memory in manifold relics, stone axes, scraping knives, and arrow heads of all shapes and sizes, which the explorers of the plateau continue to find, year after year, especially on the southwestern ranges, where the Chilhowees unite with the spurs of the Unakas.

The table-lands abound with points of scenic interest; Bullet Creek Falls can vie with the charms of Minnehaha; "White Cliff" and "Black Cliff" command a complete panorama of the eastern highlands, and the plateau has a Stonehenge of its own, the "City of Rocks," where a number of curious obelisk-like bowlders stand erect among the forest trees. Geologists may visit the cliffs of "North Point" and ponder on the eons dividing our present age from the time when the Chilhowees and the Southern Cumberlands (Walden's Ridge) formed a single plateau, now intersected by the vast trough of the Tenneseee Valley. For athwart a distance of forty-five miles the prospect from the cliffs of the Chilhowees reveals a parallel range, an anti-Taurus, copying its Taurus in all its blends and salient points, mainly the same general direction and the same average height, the same even plateau and the same geological formations. Barring the greater marvel of an accidental analogy, the only explanation would be Dean Kirchner's theory that rivers have made their own valleys, and that here, in the course of ages, the former contents of that vast trough have acturally been transported from the slopes of the Unakas to the delta of the Mississippi. Sportsmen can visit the fishing grounds of the Tellico, or the mountain labyrinth at the head of that stream, an unbroken wilderness of some sixty square miles of rocks, spruce pines, and laurel thickets, still haboring a variety of carnivorous tenants. Amateur trappers may pursue their sport on the Hiawassee, where beaver skins still form a regular article of export. At Hiawassee Gap, some fourteen miles southwest of the springs, the lover of the romantic can find a precipice that would have put the pluck of Sam Patch to a steep test; a sheer mountain-wall of fourteen hundred feet overlooking, and frequently overhanging, the waters of the eddying river forcing its way through the last mountain barrier of its lower valley. In the summit cliffs of that precipice there is a cavern which an Indian tradition makes the scene of a bloody vendetta, the massacre of an entire tribe, which, for some reason or other, had been outlawed by its neighbors and sought refuge in the rocky fastnesses of Stars Mountains. The cave now harbors only bats, which frequently leave their dormitory before dark and cruise up and down the shadows of the deep gorge. Excursion parties may visit the still wider gorge of the Ocoee River, some seven miles farther south, or the "Land of the Sky," the blue highlands bordering the eastern horizon for hundreds of miles.

The season at White Cliff Springs opens on the 1st of June, and travelers leaving Louisville at 6 o'clock P. M. can reach the hotel before sunset of the following day.

Felix L. Oswald

NOTE: Research herein found was done by Sandra N. Ratledge for this website only. Primary sources like the above are the most accurate, reliable, and interesting historical accounts available. Such sources, for example, may include deeds, advertisements, letters, and articles penned by White Cliff Hotel guests and visitors with real-life, first-hand experiences. The article was typed into html by Sandra N. Ratledge for this website only.

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