WERNERSVILLE, Pa. — In the mid-19th century, Wernersville, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, was a sleepy little village along the Berks and Dauphin Turnpike. But that was about to change. Three factors would shortly coincide to bring the world to Wernersville — plentiful spring water in the mountains south of town, a German physician named Frederick Leisenring and the arrival in Wernersville of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway.
The area’s pure spring water attracted the interest of Leisenring, as he sought to build a health resort where he could perform water treatments on his patients. According to information from author Chet Hagan’s 1989 historical memoir about South Heidelberg Township (a 75th anniversary publication), Leisenring founded his Berks County Cold Springs facility in 1847 on 52 acres of mountain land. In 1856, the opening of the railroad line through Wernersville brought the opportunity to bring patrons to the area from afar.
Leisenring’s establishment would change ownership several times after his death. And, the facility’s name would change to The Mountain Home and later to Hygiean Home. In 1879, the property came into the hands of local doctors Reuben Wenrich and James Deppen. They renamed their purchase Grand View House, then Grand View Sanitorium and finally, just Grand View.
By 1876, Grand View had been joined by another sanitorium in the South Mountain area, when doctor Robert Walter built an imposing castle-like edifice there featuring multiple turrets. The five-story structure sprawled across the mountainside to a length of 300 feet. He called his property Walter’s Park. In the 1920s it would become South Mountain Manor.
As Grand View and Walter’s Park met with success and expanded, other entrepreneurs were attracted to the locale. Soon the two original sanitoriums were joined by six other facilities with similar purposes: Sunset House (1876), Preston’s Sunnyside (1880), Bynden Wood (1889), The Highland House (1890), Belle Alto (1894) and The Hillside (1896). All these facilities offered promises of restored health through clean air, fresh locally grown food, the calming effects of nature and various water-based treatments.
These establishments provided a wide range of amenities. Electric lights and hydraulic elevators were state of the art for those times. Guests also enjoyed stylishly appointed accommodations, recreational facilities such as a golf course, bowling alleys and billiards rooms and healthful opportunities to swim in pools or horseback ride on the many mountain trails. There were observatories with panoramic views, lovely gardens and porches on which to relax. And, in the days before air conditioning, shaded seats, hammocks under the trees and refreshing mountain breezes were also appealing features.
The sizes of these facilities located in the South Mountain area ranged from the 16 rooms of Bynden Wood up to 300 rooms at Galen Hall, which in 1911 became the successor to Preston’s Sunnyside. Annexes at Grand View and Galen Hall’s sizeable “bungalows” brought the total accommodations to well over 700 rooms. Some facilities operated only during the summer months, while others were in use year-round.
Today’s collection of artifacts at the Heidelberg Heritage Society in Wernersville also provides insight into the South Mountain resorts.
Guests arrived at the Wernersville railroad station, where carriages were waiting to transport them and their luggage to the hotel of their choice at the cost of 25 cents per passenger. Travelers headed for the South Mountain hostelries arrived by the hundreds each week. Some stayed for an entire summer, while others rented rooms by the day or week. Grand View’s circa-1910 brochure proclaimed daily rates of $2 to $4.50 per person and $12 to $30 weekly rates per person. The brochure indicates, “slightly reduced rates for winter.”
Initially, those seeking a cure for their ills came from locations near Reading and Berks County. As the South Mountain sanitoriums grew in number and their reputations increased, so did the radius from which their clientele was drawn. Grand View advertised guests registering from places like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston and Michigan. Their guest records also include Antonio Sans, who listed his hometown as Havana, Cuba.
Through the years, many notable persons came to the South Mountain hotels. Among the earliest were the widow of Stonewall Jackson, as well as orator and presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryant. Later on, Fred Astaire and his sister Adele golfed on the Galen Hall course. Connie Mack took golfing lessons there.
Like its competitors, Galen Hall offered three meals per day, often served on special china bearing the hotel’s monogram. A 1914 menu noted the hours for meal service as 8 to 9:30 a.m. for breakfast, 1 to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, and 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. for serving dinner. Printed menus reflect dishes prepared with locally sourced ingredients, but not necessarily the healthy foods one might expect to find today at an establishment catering to those with physical ills.
As times changed and medical research brought new treatment philosophies, these eight Berks County sanitoriums found it necessary to reinvent themselves, emphasizing their resort aspects for those wanting a pleasant respite from the stresses of daily life. Nevertheless, one by one, Wernersville’s grand South Mountain hotels became victims of a new era. World War I and the Great Depression all took their toll on business, but more so, it was the increasing popularity of automobiles that sounded the death knell for these establishments. Families no longer traveled to resort areas by train and stayed for weeks, or even a whole summer — greater mobility offered more options.
Judy Clemens, a museum committee member at the Heidelberg Heritage Society noted the adverse economic impact on the area as the South Mountain resorts faded from the scene.
“Half the town” worked at these resorts, Clemens said, recalling that her grandparents had met when her grandmother worked as a maid and her grandfather served as a carpenter at Grand View. Not only did the resorts provide employment to the locals, but area merchants thrived on the income from supplies sold to these hostelries.
None of the South Mountain resorts remain in operation for those historic uses. Grand View and Walters Park were both razed after being abandoned and vandalized. Grand View’s former dairy farm is currently owned by the Schaeffer family and the Grand View Chapel is now a private residence. In 1962, the Walter’s Park property became the watershed for Wernersville Borough.
Mountain Sunset House was initially sold in 1943 and became Villa Maria, a home for retired members of Catholic religious orders. It was later purchased by the Caron Foundation for expanding their addiction treatment program. Caron Foundation, originally known as Chit-Chat Farms, had previously bought Highland House in 1959 to begin its operations.
Belle Alto, which had been known for prosperous dairy operations, dispersed its herd in 1946 and eventually became a private residence.
The Hillside became a home for the aged, but is currently an apartment building.
Around 1950, Bynden Wood was turned into Camp Conrad Weiser, now operated by the South Mountain YMCA.
Galen Hall remained a resort until it went up in flames in April 1963. Its bungalows are now private homes, while its golf course operates under different ownership.
The Heidelberg Heritage Society, 182 West Penn Avenue, Wernersville, maintains numerous artifacts from the South Mountain resorts. See www.heidelberg-heritage.org for contact information.