At one time, Raleigh Springs was more than just a shopping mall. In the early 1900's, a cluster of natural springs in a wooded ravine north of Memphis lured people from all over the region to an astonishing resort — one of the fanciest places ever seen in Shelby County.
It was called, quite simply, the Raleigh Inn.
The springs, you see, acquired a reputation for curing people of all sorts of ailments. Sometime in the early 1800's, a family traveling along the old stagecoach road (now James Road) stopped overnight because their baby had fallen ill. They found several natural springs in the woods, bathed the
child in the cool water, and the next day — so the story goes — the child was cured. That’s the legend behind Raleigh’s most famous spring, appropriately called the Baby Spring, and the Raleigh Springs soon became a mecca for Memphis society, who journeyed out into the country to “take the waters.” After all, whether it cured you or not, it had to taste better than Memphis water, which — in the days before we stumbled onto our artesian water supply — came from cisterns and muddy wells.
As early as 1842, a Raleigh businessman named David Coleman built a hotel near the springs, and in 1866 another hotel owner persuaded (meaning: paid) a St. Louis doctor to testify that the water did indeed have medicinal value: “The compounding of so many valuable minerals in such a happy combination guarantees to the invalid that the Great Apothecary, the God of Nature, has designed them for the healing of these creatures who, by violating His laws of health, have rendered medical aid necessary.” Or so he said.
In other words, drinking clean water was good for you.
Events changed dramatically in 1892, when the tobacco-rich Duke family of North Carolina decided to erect a grand hotel in the ravine just north of James Road. Costing more than $100,000 — an astonishing sum at the time — the Raleigh Inn was a rambling wooden structure, four stories tall, with turrets and balconies and verandas and all sorts of things to make visitors ooh and aah and proclaim it the most beautiful thing they had ever seen.
The springs themselves were enhanced with graceful gazebos, all linked to the hotel with stone paths that wound through the deep woods. Orchestras played here on weekends, dancers flocked to the Raleigh Inn’s grand ballroom, and Raleigh became the place to be.
Then it all came to an end. The water table dropped, and the springs dried up. And Memphians found their own source of clean water, so they didn’t have to make the long trek to Raleigh anymore. Sitting on the veranda of the Raleigh Inn wasn’t really much fun compared to the thrilling roller-coaster rides at the new East End Park, or the amazing “moving pictures” they were beginning to show on Main Street.
The old hotel closed and was converted into the Maddox Seminary for Young Ladies, and a few years later turned into the James Sanitarium. On the night of May 14, 1912, a patient smoking in bed set the place on fire, and the hotel burned to the ground. That was ironic, considering that one of the goals of treatment at the sanitarium was to battle addiction to tobacco. And even more ironic considering the building was constructed in the first place by a family who made millions from tobacco.
The hotel/school/sanitarium site was abandoned, and the old springhouses tumbled down. Many years ago, the landowner showed me around the property, and if you knew where to look, you could kick through the underbrush and find piles of charcoal where the inn had once stood. And you could also find the ruins of an old gazebo, all vine-covered and creepy (shown above), along with the bullet-riddled tin roof of the Umbrella Spring.
Little else remains of the Raleigh Inn except for memories.
By: Vance Lauderdale
Photograph Courtesy Benjamin Hooks Central Library