Berkeley Springs

Posted by Ellen

In 1748, George Washington was a 16-year-old kid hired to help out with a surveying party in the mountain wilderness that is now eastern West Virginia. The surveyors stopped to rest in a narrow valley known now as Berkeley Springs. Young Washington described the valley as unpleasantly narrow, scarcely touched by the sun, but after spending a few days soaking in warm springs that bubbled up out of the ground there, he decided he liked the place.

Two years later, when Lord Fairfax, who had commissioned the survey, finally got around to paying the survey party, Washington took his pay in the form of land grants in and around Berkeley Springs. Those grants of 250 acres were the first of numerous grants and purchases over the years that expanded his holdings throughout Virginia, especially western Virginia, till at his death the father of our country personally owned more than 60,000 acres of our country.

The "bathtub" at Berkeley Springs is a modern recreation of the rock-lined pools built in the center of town for the crowds of spa-goers in mid-eighteenth-century America who sought the curative powers attributed to warm (78.4 degrees F), mineralized spring waters. Until 1784, when the first bathhouse was completed, the spa was entirely out of doors, in rock pools screened for privacy by piles of brush and woven branches. Separate hours were designated for male and female bathers.

Washington was part of the crowd; he visited repeatedly, at first with his half-brother Lawrence, who was ill with tuberculosis. When the baths did not help, George took Lawrence on an ocean voyage to Barbados, in hopes that tropical air might prove curative. In Barbados, George Washington contracted smallpox but recovered; Lawrence Washington continued to do poorly and returned to Virginia to die at home in 1752.

George Washington returned again and again to the baths at Berkeley Springs, which had become something of a social scene for colonials of his class. The town grew rapidly to wine and dine the bathers, and George Washington bought up several building lots. A house was built for him on one of his lots, but the Revolutionary War was diverting his attention at that time, and it is believed he only visited the house once.

In mid-winter, the water in Washington's bathtub looks disgusting; the spring is warm enough that there's little or no ice in the pool around the spring but plenty of algae and moss, and nobody has cleaned fallen leaves out of the tub. But straight from the springs, Berkeley Springs water is clear and fresh-tasting. The town hosts an annual water-tasting competition, at which its own municipal water usually fares well.

And there's another annual event in town: George Washington's Bath Tub Weekend, celebrated each year around March 18, the day Washington first showed up for a bath in 1748. The weekend "highlights history-related activities," according to its promoters, "and retail sales."

Posted by Ellen

Ted lines up the decking for the new deck he's building behind his house high on the mountain near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. "There is a big hickory and a skinny maple growing through the deck," he notes. "I still haven't done the railing. Sigh."