Berkeley Springs History

​The Story of Berkeley Springs

A fountainhead of warm mineral waters frequented by Native Americans long before Europeans arrived in the New World are at the heart of the mountain spa community of Berkeley Springs in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. First noted as Medicine Springs in 1747 on a map drawn by Thomas Jefferson’s father, the waters for many centuries have drawn visitors seeking health and relief from the stress of everyday life.

George Washington first visited in 1748 and made the area his favorite getaway through the 1760s. In 1776, Washington’s family and friends drew up a plat of 134 lots, named the streets, and incorporated The Town of Bath, invoking the muses of the renowned English spa. Yet the magic of the springs prevailed, and the town and surrounding area are known around the world by their name — Berkeley Springs.

The waters flow at a constant 74°F from the base of Warm Springs Ridge. You may still drink freely and fill your jugs at the public tap guaranteed by the Virginia law establishing the town in 1776. You can wade in the ancient stone pools in one of the country’s smallest state parks. The town has endured cycles of notoriety, fashion, war, and modern progress, but remains today the Country’s First Spa, a noted art town and friendly haven surrounded by West Virginia’s splendid outdoors.

Museum of the Berkeley Springs

“Taking the Waters” : Historic Roman Baths and contemporary spas

Bath Historic District

The Washington Heritage Trail in Morgan County

Treasure Tour of Berkeley Springs State Park

Berkeley Springs State Park

Berkeley Castle

George Washington Archives on Berkeley Springs

Historical and Geneological Society – at the Berkeley Springs Library

The Early Days of Bath

by Jeanne Mozier

The warm mineral waters of Berkeley Springs were already known throughout the colonies for their curative value when 16-year-old George Washington came in 1748 to survey the frontier region for Lord Fairfax. In those early years, visitors like Washington found conditions primitive at the most ancient watering place in the Valley of Virginia. A large hollow scooped in the sand, lined with stones and surrounded by a screen of woven brush, was the only bathing-house. There were a few private cottages and small boarding houses for visitors, but most encamped on nearby hills bringing their own servants and provision in covered wagons. Local mountain settlers provided milk, butter, eggs, fowl and wild game.

During the final half of the 18th century, the settlement around the springs grew from a little bush village to a fashionable watering spot with such riotous amusements that it was branded a seat of sin. In 1776, George Washington and his family and friends established the town of Bath and set their sights on making it the country’s first spa. That same year, America’s first Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury, was horrified by Bath’s “overflowing tide of immorality.

In addition to “taking the waters” several times a day — by cup and in baths — regular visitors for the summer season gambled at cards, raced horses in the streets and danced at twice weekly balls. Bathing facilities in these early years were used by both men and women but at separate times.

In 1784, stone pools in natural terrain were replaced by the first formal bath house. Newspapers and travelers of the time recorded three separate buildings located in Bath Square. There were five bathing-houses with dressing rooms, a large bath for swimming and a bath for poor people. Three years later, a New England man counted 172 houses, several taverns, and an assembly and tea room.

The nine-room brick Roman Bath House, built in 1815 on the same spot as the original individual bathing-house, has been modified and replumbed, offering modern visitors the opportunity to reenact history each time they bathe. Open daily, year-round, the Roman baths are operated today as part of Berkeley Springs State Park.

A detailed sketch of life 200 years ago at the spa was provided by French traveler, Ferdinand Bayard, who came to take the waters in the summer of 1791. After enduring four days of “abominable roads,” poor taverns and primitive meals of eggs, ham, chicken and potatoes, the 23-year-old Bayard arrived in Bath from Paris via Baltimore.

“Bath has two public buildings,” he wrote, “the theater and the bath house.” He described the bath house as “a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”

Although Bayard reported the water tasted tepid and insipid, he praised its effects. “I saw several suffering with rheumatism who, carried at first to the baths and to the spring, walked there alone at the end of three weeks, with the aid of crutches,” he wrote.

The park area around the springs also drew comment from Bayard who identified a “grotto with benches for those who love to chat.” He noted a variety of summer amusements including young women from Virginia racing horses, boats heading downriver to Georgetown loaded with grain, gambling at faro, strolling Irish players and market-day fights with a Bruiser as referee.

Bayard lodged for the summer season with Mrs. Thorgmorton, a relative of George Washington and partner in the inn with James Rumsey seven years earlier. In 1791, Bayard was among 40 who were staying at the inn; he reported that they were “fed well” by Mrs. Throgmorton.

One of Bayard’s most entrancing vignettes centered on the social practice of five o’clock tea parties while at the springs. He described the circle of ladies, decked out in their finest, pouring from silver pots. There were “round slices of buttered bread and slices of smoked-cured meats presented to each person.” Although tea-time was silent, it was followed by entertainment. Bayard reported on the performance of a “wag, a Mr. West, who gagged rather well,” and the singing of “Miss Lee, the virtuoso of Bath.” The young songstress so impressed Bayard that he recorded the words for all four verses of her favorite song, “The Kiss.”

By the close of the 18th century, Bath was reputedly America’s premier spa, prescribed by noted physicians and visited by rich Virginia planters and merchants. Cure seekers in the mountain town were often outnumbered by gamblers, confidence men, troupes of actors, mothers seeking to marry off daughters and bachelors looking over the prospects. The powdered hair and linen shirt society may have come each summer to take the waters, but it was the partying in an unrestrained frontier spa that made their season at Bath.

Today’s visitors may “take the waters” in a full-service spa or historic Roman Baths at Berkeley Springs State Park in the heart of the tiny spa town. Also in the park are George Washington’s bathtub and spring water free for the taking from a pump. There are other full-service spas within a block of the park and springs offering a variety of treatments from massage and aromatherapy to mud-wraps and facials.

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].

Where is the Bath?

Up until a few years ago, Berkeley Springs had as many stoplights as it had names. Now there are three stoplights but still only two names.

When George Washington and his colonial cronies established a town around the warm springs in 1776, they called it Bath. They had visions of a health and social center like the famed Bath, England. In 1801, the post office was established at Bath and it was called Berkeley Springs since there already was a Bath further south along the Blue Ridge. Up until the Civil War both names were used. Since then, the world has come to know the town around the warm springs as Berkeley Springs although Bath remains the official municipal name.

A road sign south of town states that Bath was formed by an act of the Virginia legislature on October 17, 1776. In fact, the official birthday of Bath is a couple months later.

On November 6, 1776 the legislature received a petition from local citizens and made a recommendation to set off 50 acres around the warm springs for a town named Bath. Over the next month, the Virginia House and Senate amended and re-amended the bill which was finally passed by both on December 6, 1776. According to the act, Bath was born for the express purpose of “encouraging the purchasers to build convenient houses for accommodating numbers of infirm persons, who frequent those springs yearly for the recovery of their health.” Bath was an early economic development project aimed at supporting tourism.