Originally created 07/06/97

Healing power



SHARON, Ga. -- Ian Macfie can still find the ruins.

"Other than logging, it hasn't changed much out here since I was a boy," the Taliaferro County man said, hiking along a steep hillside.

Just ahead, shrouded in foliage -- and nearly invisible behind a dark screen of Virginia creeper -- lay the moss-encrusted foundation of one of Georgia's most unusual attractions: the Electric Health Resort.

"The floor was up there," Mr. Macfie said, pointing out crumbling stone walls jutting from the hill. "They'd lower the customers down into this subterranean chamber for the therapy."

The "therapy" was exposure to the bedrock. Its magical, healing powers, made possible by the flow of natural electricity from deep within the earth, could -- supposedly -- cure just about anything.

Or at least, that's what thousands of patrons who flocked to the site in the 1880s and 1890s hoped would happen.

"In its heyday, what people believed was that they'd get shocked and it would cure what ailed them," said Andy Anderson, the site's present-day owner. "But I've been out there numerous times. And I never felt a shock."

Once a town in its own right, the Electric Health Resort included a 40-room hotel, lake, telegraph and post office, all to support the sick and ailing.

Customers sat in chairs in the rock chambers, soaking their feet in ankle-deep water while touching steel pipes protruding from the walls - ostensibly to conduct the electricity.

Ads claimed the electric rocks could cure "overtaxed mental faculties, nervous prostration and diseases peculiar to women." More traditional illnesses, such as kidney disease and baldness, also were said to be curable.

According to a tourist brochure published in January 1888, Andrew L. Hillman, who initially owned the site, discovered the so-called "electric rocks" while prospecting for gold.

After a few days, his rheumatism vanished. And the resort was born.

"The reputation of the place spread so rapidly, and the need for increased accommodations grew so great, that what was but an eight-foot hole in the ground now reaches dimensions of 50 feet long, 12 feet wide and from eight to 14 feet deep," the brochure said.

"This space has been divided into three compartments and is designated by the distinctive name of `The Electric Rooms,' for the curative power that pervades them has been ascertained to be electricity."

Perhaps aiding in the resort's rapid rise to fame was an advertising campaign launched by one of the resort's owners -- Henry W. Grady, a famous Atlanta newspaper editor.

"Electrical science is making wonderful progress," he wrote in one of his numerous columns about the resort, which attracted patrons from New York and other major cities. "But no one has ever been able to tell just what electricity is, nor have its remarkable manifestations been explained."

Perhaps bordering on quackery, or perhaps only relying upon the naivete of the era, the resort relied heavily on accounts from the major newspapers of the day to spread its fame.

"These rocks produce shocks similar to a battery, and give the same tingling sensations," one newspaper article, published in Richmond, Va., reported. "Patients who receive these shocks by sitting or standing by the rock frequently tremble from head to foot as if they had no control of themselves. And from these shocks, many miraculous cures are made."

Fifteen years after its ascension to fame, the hotel burned one winter night, leaving behind only rubble -- and memories. An article in The Augusta Chronicle detailed the aftermath:

"All that is left now of the big hotel which crowned the commanding eminence at Hillman, are six massive chimneys - lone sentinels to keep watch over the place where thousands of people gathered for health and pleasure."