Treasure Tour of Berkeley Springs State Park
From frontier time to the present the springs have been known by various names including Hot Springs, Healing Springs, Warm Springs, Frederick Springs, and Medicinal Springs. For more than two centuries, the town—officially known as Bath—thrived as a health spa and vacation resort. Today, it ranks among the most noted and popular spa destinations and is known to the world by the name of its waters, and its postal address—Berkeley Springs.
Drink and bath cures were prescribed using the warm mineral waters; baths were taken at cool and artificially heated temperatures. Ills ranging from rheumatism and skin afflictions to digestive and nervous disorders were said to benefit. In spite of medical claims, “taking the waters” most often provided an excuse for social gatherings. In 1769, George Washington spent five weeks at the springs and recorded more than 25 dinners, social rides, and teas.
Victorian times saw the construction of elaborate summer cottages including Berkeley Castle and a season schedule that included splendid balls and band concerts in the park.
The yellow brick Main Bathhouse at the south end of the park was built in 1929 on land added to the park after the Berkeley Hotel burned in 1898. The bathhouse has operated since then as the primary spa facility. While excavating for an addition in 1948 a new spring was found. Massages have been given here since at least 1932.
Currently, sauna, massage, and bath treatments are available at bargain prices daily, year-round from 10am-5pm. Reservations are recommended with scores of people turned away on busy weekends. There is a men’s section and a women’s section in the spa building. Baths, both in whirlpool tubs and Roman baths, use the natural spring water heated to 102°F. Claims for the waters in 18th and 19th-century literature ranged from treatments for gout and arthritis to epilepsy and stomach problems. Contemporary praise focuses on the soothing, healing properties of the water in cases of stress. There is a small gift shop in this building. The Main Bathhouse underwent a major renovation in 2011.
The Ladies Spring next to the main bathhouse and currently enclosed was described in 1816 as “fine, bursting forth from rock in the form of a cone.” By 1853 it was covered by an elaborate pagoda used as a bandstand. The pagoda was torn down in 1918. Today the spring is the prime source for the town water supply.
Taking the Waters
Through cycles of fashion, notoriety, war and different notions of progress, the healing magic of Berkeley Springs and its warm mineral waters has prevailed. One of the most famous of all Blue Ridge spas, the springs were the prime destination of noted colonial and post-Revolutionary War visitors including George Washington. Illustrious visitors continued through several Golden Ages including the 1840s through ‘60 and the Victorian era. Although there were no great Civil War battles fought in the area, Berkeley Springs was a southern resort and suffered a serious decline in business during the war and the following decade.
Gambling, horseracing and high living were prominent sports during the late 18th century prompting Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury to proclaim the town “that seat of sin.” Gambler Robert Bailey operated most of the town’s hotels in the opening decades of the 19th century.
With the arrival of the railroad in the 1840s, Berkeley Springs flourished as a popular summer resort with guests from Virginia and Baltimore. Colonel John Strother built the 500-room Berkeley Hotel on the south end of the park; the Fairfax Hotel dominated the street along the north side. More than 800 people would visit during the summer season. Both hotels were destroyed by fire at the turn of the 20th century.
Drink and bath cures were prescribed using the warm mineral waters; baths were taken at cool and artifically heated temperatures. Ills ranging from rheumatism, and skin afflictions to digestive and nervous disorders were said to benefit. In spite of medical claims, “taking the waters” most often provided an excuse for social gathering. In 1769, George Washington spent five weeks at the springs and recorded more than 25 dinners, social rides and teas.
John Pendleton Kennedy, a noted resident of Baltimore with generations of family ties to Berkeley Springs, wrote often of his summer visits. In 1853, he brought his friend Washington Irving who loved the major sport of the day — bowling in the park. Like Washington a century earlier, Kennedy’s days at the springs were filled with rides in the countryside, dips n the pools, dinners and teas.
Victorian times saw the construction of elaborate summer cottages including Berkeley Castle and a season chedule that included splendid balls and band concerts in the park.
Berkeley Springs State Park
Today’s 4.5 acre Berkeley Springs State Park has always been public ground. Native tribes were known to use the springs but none called it home. Colonial owner Thomas Lord Fairfax allowed its public use.
In 1776 the Virginia Legislature established the 50-acre town of Bath for the purpose of housing those who came to take the waters for their health. Bath Square, the area directly around the springs, was retained for public use and administered by the Bath Trustees.
During the 19th century, the public area was called the Grove thanks to an abundance of large oaks that framed the Promenade where visitors strolled along the springs. Placed under direct control of the state of West Virginia in the early 20th century, it was called Berkeley Springs Sanitarium. In 1970, it was integrated into the state park system. Berkeley Springs State Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a site on the Washington Heritage Trail.
Information on park history was developed by Jeanne Mozier through a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The buildings and monuments of today’s Berkeley Springs State Park reflect both the eternal purpose of the area — “taking the waters” — and the changing fashion of meeting that purpose over the past 250 years.
We begin our tour just south of the Berkeley Springs State Park and historic springs, on the west side of Washington Street (Rt. 522) as it travels north through town.