Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Brandywine Chalybeate Springs Hotel

As we've seen in a few earlier posts, there were, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of hotels, taverns, and inns in Mill Creek Hundred. There was, however, only one true resort hotel -- Brandywine Springs. When constructed in the 1820's, the Brandywine Chalybeate Springs Hotel was probably the largest building in the hundred, and certainly the most lavish. In fact, it may have been the largest non-industrial building in MCH until well into the 20th Century. And though it never operated as successfully as its backers had hoped and eventually came to an untimely end, it left a mark on the area felt to this day.

The land on which the hotel sat, at the corner of Newport Gap Pike and Faulkland Road, was owned in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries by the Yarnall family, who operated there an inn known as the Conestoga Wagon. By the early 1800's, Holton Yarnall was deeply in debt, and he unsuccessfully tried to sell his property several times. In 1827, the land was finally sold at a sheriff's sale, purchased not by a local innkeeper or farmer, but by a group of Quaker businessmen from Wilmington. These investors didn't buy the Yarnall property just because it was a beautiful, bucolic lot -- they bought it because of the foul-tasting, reddish water seeping from the ground at the base of a hill behind the old tavern. The water in question was a chalybeate (iron-bearing salt) spring, and the Quakers were sure it was going to make them all rich (or richer, in most cases).

During the previous few decades, large (read: "very profitable") resort hotels had sprung up in several places, all located near natural springs, which were thought to have curative properties. The spring had been known to the natives long before the Europeans' arrival, but the teamsters and waggoners lodging at Yarnall's tavern were far more interested in imbibing what was in his bottles, not his backyard. However, the group of investors, after seeing the money being made by hotels in Virginia and New York (like Saratoga Springs), decided that they could do the same thing near the little spring in eastern Mill Creek Hundred. So, after some possibly shady dealings in buying the property, construction finally began on the resort in the fall of 1826.

As mentioned previously in the post on the Justis family, the lead contractor for the hotel was local builder Justa Justis. The hotel that he built on the high ground above the spring (more or less between the parking lot and picnic pavilions today, for anyone who knows Brandywine Springs Park), was a magnificent, gleaming white building with a grand colonnade and wide piazzas. Construction continued through the winter, and by June 1827 the hotel was open for business. Although the consortium was originally known as the "New Castle County Chalybeate Spring Company", the name was quickly changed to "Brandywine", probably to capitalize on the fame the name had due to its connection with the 1777 Revolutionary War battle.

The Brandywine Chalybeate Springs Hotel was nothing like the small inns that dotted the landscape -- this was a true resort. Guests stayed not for a night or two on their way to their destination -- this was their destination. Primarily geared towards wealthy Southerners and city-dwellers, guests would enjoy the resort's hospitality for several weeks or months at a time, often for the entire summer season. There were cotillions, balls, and concerts by world-renowned musicians. A real French chef prepared what were undoubtedly the most sumptuous meals in the hundred, if not the state. In the mornings and evenings, guests strolled around the grounds, and mingled and "were seen" on the wide, airy piazzas. While socializing was certainly important to many (it was said that many engagements were announced following seasons at The Springs), for the older and infirm guests, the focus was on the spring itself.

The chalybeate spring was (and still is) located at the base of a steep hill, near Hyde Run. Stone steps led down to the spring, which had a circular stone tower built over it. Patrons would walk down to the spring several times a day to drink its waters. This was an important part of the therapy -- the waters needed to be drunk at the source, never up the hill at the hotel. This of course leads to the question of what exactly helped them to feel better -- the chalybeate waters or the numerous walks out in the fresh country air. Either way, for a time this fad helped the resort acheive a bit of notariety, as we'll see in the next post. Sadly, though, circumstances beyond its control would result in a relatively short and, in the end, financially unsuccessful life for the Brandywine Chalybeate Springs Hotel.

1 comment:

  1. Today it's hard for me to picture such a grand operation sitting on what is now a parking lot.

    Your article did answer one question that has been bothering me for quite a while- why is Brandywine Springs located so far away from the Brandywine Creek and Brandywine Hundred? I guess if it weren't the marketing savvy of these entrepreneurs, my kids would have attended Chalybeate Springs School.