Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Sweetwater Park Hotel: Gaining Some Focus

The website WikiAnswers advises that we spend approximately six months of our entire lifetime waiting at traffic lights. 

Sitting – waiting – bored – even though there are several things you can do to pass the time.  You can return a phone call, check your e-mail, send a text, check your list of things to do, or my personal favorite…..I just sit and think.

More often than not I sit and think about my surroundings and contemplate how those places have changed over time.  It seems natural that you would try to visualize certain areas regarding how they looked fifty to one hundred years ago, and I do try and do that. I guess it’s just a symptom of researching and writing about the history of certain areas.

Some locations are fairly simple.   As I head up Broad Street from Fairburn Road towards the Old Courthouse Museum I can easily visualize the look of the town in 1940 or even back to 1900.   The buildings are basically the same, and several landmarks such as the railroad are still there.  It’s actually very easy to visualize the spires of the once grand courthouse that stood up on the ridge rising up above the various businesses along Broad Street.

Photographs of certain areas help me to visualize as well, but some areas are more difficult.   Some locations are just impossible.

Take this image of Lithia Springs…..

Sweetwater Park Hotel, Lithia Springs, Georgia
This is a well-published image of the Sweetwater Park Hotel that was located in downtown Lithia Springs at the turn of the century.    When  I sit at the red light at Veterans Memorial (Bankhead) and S. Sweetwater Road I try to visualize the hotel and how my surroundings looked back then.  

I try.   It’s hard.   The Sweetwater Park Hotel was located just southwest of the intersection of Veterans Memorial and S. Sweetwater covering many acres where there are now residential areas.   It’s amazing to think such a complex of buildings and beautiful grounds were ever located there, but it did exist.

The Sweetwater Park Hotel was trendy for the times.   It was the place to be and be seen.   Mark Twain, members of the Vanderbilt family, and Presidents Cleveland, Taft, McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt all enjoyed the many amenities of the resort which included rooms with electricity and individuals baths, wide verandahs, excellent meals with European wines, and a train schedule that allowed guests to visit Atlanta for shopping or matinees and be back at the hotel by bedtime.

While the pictures aren’t helpful to me I have found some written descriptions that do lend assistance in allowing me to appreciate the beauty of this long departed landmark for Lithia Springs.   I happened upon a few letters written by Madison J. Cawein while he stayed at the hotel during May, 1902.

Madison J. Cawein was from Louisville, Kentucky.   During his career he published 36 books and wrote over 1500 poems.  His efforts earned him the nickname “the Keats of Kentucky.”   He is touted as having a lyrical way of describing nature and after reading his descriptions of the hotel grounds and surrounding areas I would have to agree.

Madison J. Cawein at his desk
Cawein, like many visitors to the Sweetwater Park Hotel, was in poor health and was hoping the famous Lithia waters would cure him.  Cawein wasn’t alone.   During the late 1800s and into the turn of the century hundreds of people visited the hotel for health reasons as well as for recreation.  

On May 8, 1902 Cawein described the hotel and surrounds in a letter to his friend, Lucien V. Rule.  Rule was an author and Presbyterian minister.   Cawein wrote:

…It is very picturesque and romantic around Lithia Springs, whose waters are doing me a great deal of good, I think.  I am also taking the baths…..

The woods here are overgrown with wild flowers; wild honeysuckle, wild phlox and calcanthus; and ferns! – in masses, sometimes above your waist.

The brook bubbles over beds of crystal, honestly and virtually speaking, - not figuratively, - for everywhere , in the fields, on the roads, in the woods and scattered boulders and pebbles and pieces of sparkling white spar, which is crystal of some sort.  I have seen lots of it and the creeks ripple and babble musically over it.

Near the [Sweetwater Park Hotel] is a place going absolutely to ruin now; in its time it was the Chautauqua, where revivals were held, meetings of all sort, for pleasure, religion and politics.  Vast buildings, built in a forest, ….and of fantastic yet beautiful architecture of the Moorish order, with towers and turrets and loggias; also a large amphitheater capable of seating thousands are slowly moulding to decay here.   What was once an artificial lake, covering several acres, is now merely a frog-pond filled with mud and weeds in whose center an old boat is slowing rotting.

Piedmont Chatauqua Grounds, Lithia Springs, Georgia
….in one spot there is a mound some twenty to thirty feet high up [which all around winds a road].  The road is scarcely discernible now, for the entire mound is overgrown with tame honey-suckle vines, commencing to bloom, and forms a fragrant tombstone for the dead-body of the old place lying mouldering there.  I love to climb to the top of this green and fragrant monument and stand there and watch the sunset in the west, and listen to the wind in the pines that seems mourning something lost and never to be found again – Never! Never!

It is a lovely place, altogether, this hotel, with its charming people and its beautiful grounds filled with flowers and trees, the holly, the roses and fountains, syringe bushes and mountain laurel in full bloom and over it all the blue sky of Georgia vibrating with the melody of birds, the mocking bird and the thrush, whose note is the sweetest I ever heard.

The grand Piedmont Chatauqua was held in 1888, and I wrote about it here.  I find it rather sad that just a few years later the buildings were abandoned as Mr. Cawein reports in his letter.

The next day Cawein wrote Miss Jenny Loring Robbins.  Ms. Robins lived in Louisville at one point she was the guiding force behind Louisville, Kentucky’s Speed Art Museum, a museum begun by her aunt.

Mr. Cawein wrote:

…I am falling more and more in love with the hotel, its grounds, and the people in and around them, to say nothing of the woods and the waters, the latter of which  I am drinking with much gusto and, I hope, benefit.

I have found a number of old mills here – all dilapidated or going to ruin; one a total ruin.   One on Austell Run is supposed to be still in operation, but I have been there twice and neither time have I seen a soul.  On the Sweetwater Creek, six miles from here, I found an old grist-mill, below a rushing and roaring dam.  It is a great gaunt thing of frame, weather-beaten and old, but still in operation.

A half-mile below it, under a wild hill-side, on which the dogwood was blooming in profusion, together with the wild honey-suckle, the other mill, built of rock and brick, towers five stories high.  It was burned by General Sherman during the war and stands a sad relic of that time.  It was a cotton mill, and the workers in it lived on the hillside in their cottages, but their homes were burned also and not a vestige of them is left.

Only the ruin – here is a wilderness of trees, great trees, grown up in its gaunt interior, crowding its crumbling walls, and the wild vines and creepers trailing over and covering its rocks and bricks – stands pathetically looking out upon the tumbling waters beneath and the projecting pines around.

The creek, wooded on both sides, foams and roars past it, over huge rocks and boulders, upon which it stares with its one mighty arch of stone, in which the mill-wheel once rushed and sounded and its empty windows like hollow eyes in the face of death.

An apt description of the New Manchester Mill ruins, don’t you think?

On May 11, 1902 in a letter to James Whitcomb Riley Cawein wrote:

Your note did me lots of good, coming just in the nick of time when Mr. [Robert W.] Geiger was visiting me at Sweetwater.  He and the rest of the literary clan, Harris and Stanton [Evelyn Harris and Frank L Stanton who called on Cawein] want you to come down here.
Well, here I am and delighted am I with the hotel and everybody in it.  But I can’t say that am getting well rapidly….I am not much better for all the water I drink and all the baths I take.  And so, about Friday or Saturday next will find me wending my weary way home again to commence the nauseating round of medicine taking once more.  I don’t know where it’s going to end.  Nothing seems to benefit me.  Things that benefit, that cure, other people don’t have any effect on me.

…will  probably see Joel Harris Wednesday.  He is still ailing, but sends me word he wants to see me.

At this point I think it’s necessary to identify the folks Cawein mentions.   I’m almost certain Geiger is a railroad executive who happened to live in Atlanta at the time.   Evelyn Harris is the son of Joel Chandler Harris who we remember as “Uncle Remus”, and Frank L. Stanton was a columnist for the Atlanta Constitution and was a famous American lyricist. During the 1920s he would serve as Georgia’s poet laureate.

James Whitcomb Riley, who the letter was addressed to, was also a very famous writer and poet and was very popular with children.

James Whitcomb Riley and Joel Chandler Harris
Eight days later on May 19, 1902 Cawein writes again to James Whitcomb Riley saying:

I saw Uncle Remus [in Atlanta] last week and enjoyed an hour-or-so talk with him at his beautiful home in the West End.   Stanton was with me, also Evelyn Harris [son of Joel Chandler Harris].   Joel Chandler Harris looks poorly.  He is still a very sick man.  I am sorry to say.   Mr. Geiger and Stanton were out to see me last Saturday, stayed to supper and we had quite a walk and considerable talk.  I am returning home today.   Shall go to Atlanta as the guest of Mr. Geiger for a day or so, then home once more.
My condition is about the same as it was when I came here.  However, I have enjoyed myself greatly wandering around the country and setting on the verandah or under the trees meeting people or watching the roses bloom.

My English volume of “Kentucky Poems”, with an introduction by Edmund Grosse, will be out sometime next month, I think, so look out for a copy; I am going to fire one at your kindly countenance.

Joel Chandler Harris’s “beautiful home in the West End of Atlanta” is of course The Wren's Nest.

Though Madison J. Cawein earned about $100 a month from his writing, a comfortable sum at the turn of the century, poor investments and the Stock Market downturn in 1912 led to most of his savings simply evaporating away.

Over the next five years Cowein’s health worsened, and he died on December 8, 1914.
At the time of his death in 1914, Cawein had been placed on the relief list with the Authors Club of New York City.

I’m grateful his letters survive giving us a little insight into how wonderful the Sweetwater Park Hotel was for folks to visit!

I found Cowein’s letters published in a biography published after his death by Otto Arthur Rothert titled  The Story of Madison Cawein:  His Intimate Life as Revealed by His Letters…found here.


  1. Interesting story. I grew up in Mableton/Austell area and had never heard of this place. It's amazing what is lost to history.

  2. Interesting story. I grew up in Mableton/Austell area and had never heard of this place. It's amazing what is lost to history.


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