Changes: From the Civil War to the Gilded Age
The late 1850s and early 1860s were traumatic years for America. In April 1861, the political, economic, and social strains of the nation reached a crisis level, and a clear-cut division between North and South sparked one of the deadliest periods in American history.
On April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the Civil War officially began. Over the next four years, approximately 620,000 American soldiers died from a variety of causes including disease, artillery fire, injuries from combat, starvation, and a range of other unknown causes.
During this tumultuous period, Americans, particularly Southerners, suffered from professional and personal economic slumps. Leisurely activities such as parties, dances, and long-distance travel for vacations became unnecessary financial splurges. However, this economic downturn does not mean that there were absolutely no entertainment activities or travel to resort communities during this time. It is important to note that although there was a severe decrease in numbers to destinations such as the Virginia Springs, there was still travel, and certain hotels and resort facilities remained open for business. Those in the North, including Newport, continued a relatively normal pace.
So what happened to these famed watering holes of the South during the Civil War? Most of them closed for business, while others, which were strategically positioned near turnpikes and popular roadways, were commandeered and served as hospitals or sick wards treating both Confederate and Union soldiers. White Sulphur Springs and Blue Sulphur Springs (which had already closed its doors as a resort and was operating as a school) were two popular Southern watering holes which had been transformed during the war years.
Blue Sulphur Springs was "...used by both sides in the Civil War as a military camp and hospital. In 1864, the Union Army burned the resort to prevent the Confederate Army from utilizing them; only the Pavilion survived the fire." -Blue Sulphur Springs Pavilion, West Virginia Department of Culture and History. January 2011.
White Sulphur Springs, which had only a few years prior to the start of the Civil War, erected its large and fashionable hotel, was open for business at the start of the War. In fact, it was in full operation when it was taken over by Confederate troops. "For two years, until the summer of 1863, the resort served both as a military headquarters and as a hospital for the Confederacy. The great hotel became the hospital, accommodating as many as 1,600 patients; its grand parlor and enormous dining room were filled with rows of cots bearing the wounded." -The History of the Greenbrier, America's Resort, Robert Conte
During the Civil War changes were also happening in the Northern resort community of Newport, Rhode Island. In September 1861, the second largest hotel on the Island, the Atlantic House became the new, temporary home of the United States Naval Academy. Moving from Annapolis, Maryland, a location close to Confederate troop lines, to Newport, Rhode Island, a northern port-city, meant that this seaside community became a well-known Union hub during the War.
Additionally, a former hotel in Portsmouth Grove, north of town, became Lovell General Hospital. The hospital treated hundreds of Union soldiers during the four year conflict. Similar to the Springs region of Virginia, Newport, and its surrounding communities had other large establishments and facilities re-purposed for wartime efforts.
When the war ended in April 1865, the country began a period of reconstruction. Border areas of the North had been damaged; however, the destruction was minimal in comparison to the Southern states. As cities and towns began to recover and repair, hotel and resort communities began to reopen for business, leading to a resurgence of long distance travel and tourism.
Although it did not happen instantaneously, the changes brought on by the War had affected the tourism industry, both negatively and positively. Although the industry lost money and clientele during the early-to-mid 1860s, the reconstruction period introduced a new class of businessmen and even businesswomen ready to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities for financial growth and personal establishment.
Newport's Gilded Age
Throughout the 1850 and 1860s private timber-framed summer homes, also known as cottages, began to appear on suburban lots on the periphery of Colonial Newport. These estates were mostly second or third homes, and served primarily as seasonal residences for families from the North and South.
Although they had gained popularity during the mid-1850s, the cottage era, did not fully blossom until Newport's Gilded Age, which arrived in the early 1870s. Economic changes from the reconstruction era, and the beginning of the second industrial revolution enabled a new class of wealthy citizens, eager to travel, the means to establish themselves in a multitude of fashionable cities across Europe and America, including New York, Paris, and Newport.
The Newport cottages became world-renowned architectural feats and celebrities in their own right. With the design and architectural aesthetics of Richard Upjohn, Richard Morris Hunt, H.H. Richardson, and the firm of McKim, Mead, & White, designing cottages for high-profile families including the Vanderbilt's' and Astor's, became an en vogue pastime in Newport.
It is important to note that hotels during this period still existed in Newport; a select few were able to remain somewhat relevant, including the Ocean House; however, Newport's viable and thriving hotel colony of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s had significantly dissipated, and by the turn of the century, it had officially vanished.
During the later decades of the nineteenth century, a building surge overtook Newport, and each season bigger, better, and bolder cottages began to appear. The city's architectural footprint began to change drastically. Luxurious private houses easily trumped the cramped accommodations of Newport's hotels, and by the late 1890s, hotels had begun to migrate to other seaside communities in Rhode Island.
Although it is easy to get caught up in the glamour of the Gilded Age, it is important to remember that Newport had a viable history of resort and tourism culture that started many decades before the monumental cottages lined the length of Bellevue Avenue. In fact, the hotel colony of Newport should serve as a reminder to us all that the City by the Sea has other pasts, other stories to be told, they are just waiting for someone to uncover them.