Romance at the Springs
By Jeanne Mozier
George Washington and his friends got a head start on the travel industry in 1776 when they established America’s first spa at Bath, Virginia — so called in hopes that the town around the famous warm springs would become the premier spa that its English namesake was. There are still no Roman ruins in Bath — now part of West Virginia and known by its Post Office name of Berkeley Springs — but there are Roman baths, and a history of romance that can be experienced by today’s travelers.
Throughout its long reign as a fashionable resort, visitors came to the warm springs with romance in their hearts. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, mothers brought marriageable daughters to summer at Bath in hopes of meeting socially prominent mates for them. A favorite outing for those visiting the springs was Cacapon Rock, now known as Panorama Overlook. Today, it can be visited by driving a few miles west of Berkeley Springs along Rt.9. It still offers the same breathtaking view of mountains, farmland and the juncture of the wild Cacapon and stately Potomac rivers that made it a historical favorite.
In 1820, after 23 years of married bliss, Laurence Augustine Washington, wrote of his fateful visit to Cacapon Rock. A nephew of George Washington, Laurence was a dashing young bachelor with “matrimony the great object of my most ardent wishes,” in the summer of 1796 when he visited the celebrated watering place at Bath. Soon after his arrival, friends told him that young ladies of the place were to visit Cacapon Rock the next morning. Washington prepared to take the same ride. Upon arriving at the scenic overlook, Washington reported, “We found it crowded with the young, the gay, and the thoughtless of both sexes.” He described a brief glance at the beautiful prospect from the rock, “before my attention was arrested and my vision irresistibly directed to a particular object that seized on and enchanted my whole admiration.”
The object was Miss Mary Wood, a 15-year-old beauty from nearby Winchester who was accompanied by her beau, Adam Douglas. Washington was smitten with love at first sight. Though they were not formally introduced, Washington managed to supplant Miss Wood’s beau and rode back to Bath at her side. He courted Mary at Bath through the round of teas, house parties and the daily assemblage at the springs where young ladies gathered to drink the waters and show themselves to admiring young men. The courtship progressed and his passionate attachment to Mary’s virtues and beauty continued to grow. They were married in November 1797: a lovematch begun at Cacapon Rock and enduring like the view.
Nearly a century later, another wealthy man smitten by his young bride built an enduring monument to that love — a scaled down replica of a British castle that sits overlooking the spa town of Berkeley Springs today.
Colonel Samuel Taylor Suit was a prominent Maryland businessman when he married Martha Rosa Pelham, daughter of an Alabama Congressman, in 1883. Two years later, Suit began construction of a summer cottage for his beloved Rosa at the fashionable Victorian spa of Berkeley Springs. Suit died in 1888, his castle still incomplete. The rich young widow spent her summers in the unfinished but livable castle, finally completing the building in 1892. Rosa’s gala entertainments were the highlight of Berkeley Springs’ resort society in the 1890s and contributed to the depletion of her late husband’s fortune.
By the early part of the 20th century, ownership of the Castle became embroiled in legal complications that dragged on for decades during which time Rosa sporadically lived there accompanied only by memories of her famous parties. Finally evicted from her Castle, Rosa lived in impoverished conditions in the countryside around Berkeley Springs before moving west to live with one of her sons, never to be heard of again.
[Note: Berkeley Castle is no longer open to the public for tours].