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Washington's Bath Draws People to Berkeley Springs

By JESSICA WIANT ∙ For The State Journal

It's an age-old story: A previously undiscovered shop, restaurant or other tourist destination gets visited by a celebrity. Word gets out. Business booms.

There's perhaps no older example in West Virginia than in the Eastern Panhandle's Morgan County, where an entire community was built around and stakes its reputation on being home to George Washington's bathtub.

In Berkeley Springs, the namesake mineral spring still flows just as it did hundreds of years ago into the heart of town — a town, it should be noted, officially incorporated as Bath. 

Even before the 74-degree water drew in the likes of George Washington and friends, it attracted American Indians from up and down the East Coast. Europeans who arrived in the 1700s were quick to become fans.

The water contains minerals including sodium chloride, sodium sulphate, magnesium carbonate, silica and more that it picks up on its passage through the silica sandstone of Warm Springs Ridge, and it emerges, somewhat mysteriously, only in the 100 yards of the ridge in today's Berkeley Springs State Park, according to the park's website.

"The water is wonderful," said Beth Curtin, executive director of the Berkeley Springs Chamber of Commerce. "It's certainly very important to the community here. It's why the town exists in the spot where it does."

When he was just 16 years old, George Washington visited the springs, then part of Lord Fairfax's land holdings, for the first time and noted in his diary, "March 18th, 1748, We this day called to see Ye Fam'd Warm Springs," according to information from the park.

He returned many times and eventually owned land there. In fact, it was friends and family of Washington who officially incorporated Bath in 1776.

It's somewhat hard to imagine that an activity like "taking in the waters" was so important to these early iconic figures in American history. In fact, local author, business owner and Berkeley Springs promoter Jeanne Mozier jokes that she can envision a whole play based on Lord Fairfax and George Washington sitting around together in a bathtub.

"It was what they did instead of golf," she said.

Of course, it's still just as popular today.

In what is a testament to the importance the state places on the springs, it is the site of an unusual state park. For one, the park is the nation's smallest state park. 

Beyond, that, according to park supervisor Mike Didawick, West Virginia is one of few states in the nation with massage therapists on the payroll.

Today, services like Jacuzzi and Roman baths and massages are offered onsite, all using water from the springs. A public tap allows visitors to bottle spring water for themselves — for free.

Even the public swimming pool — and the town's water, to boot — comes from the spring, though it is treated, according to Didawick.

As for the "bathtub," there actually is a small stone structure identified as such at the park. According to information provided by Mozier, the monument, a popular photo opportunity for tourists, is actually a modern reconstruction of the conditions for bathers prior to the 1780s, when bathhouses were built to enclose the springs.

"People love the bathtub," Mozier said.

The small resort community remaining today takes full advantage of the springs for more than just its water.

Every March, the town holds a George Washington's Bathtub Celebration. In February an international water tasting festival and competition draws in visitors and contenders from around the world, including, no doubt, West Virginia Spring House, which bottles and sells water from the springs.

Between the springs-based events and other annual festivals, a museum and a lively arts and culture scene, Berkeley Springs has never lost touch of its roots as a vacation destination. 

Spas, shops, restaurants, bed & breakfasts and rental cabins thrive on the visitors the springs bring, according to Curtin. Many visitors love the place so much they own vacation homes or retire to Berkeley Springs, she said, the little town with a bathtub at its heart.

"Every day is a reenactment," Mozier said. "And they've been doing it for almost 300 years."