As I was planning a recent visit to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, I was intrigued by what I found online about George Washington visiting the area when he was 16 and returning over and over to bathe in the mineral waters. I wanted to visit America’s first spa town and learn more!
George Washington first visited the area in 1748 when he came to survey for Lord Fairfax. The warm mineral waters were considered to have a curative value and became famous throughout the colonies. People drank the mineral waters and delighted in soaking in them. Back then, there were no bathing houses, just holes in the sand, lined with stones and surrounded by brush for privacy.
As the years passed, George and some of his wealthy friends saw the waters’ benefits and worked to establish the town of Bath, Virginia, and make it the country’s first spa in 1776. Who knew tourist promotion was a thing back then?
A bathhouse replaced the stone pools in the ground in 1784. George continued to visit throughout his life and often brought his family and friends to the town of Bath to relax and enjoy the warm mineral waters.
In 1815, a nine-room brick Roman Bath House was built on the same spot as the original. As the 18th century came to a close, physicians were prescribing visits to Bath, and wealthy planters and merchants flocked to America’s premier spa.
The Old Roman Bathhouse still stands today. It has been modified and replumbed, allowing visitors the chance to see and feel a bit of history when they bathe. The Baths operate as part of Berkeley Springs State Park.
Name And Address Change
The formal name was changed from Bath to Berkeley Springs in 1801 when they established a post office, and the postal service already listed a town of Bath farther south. The funny thing is, Bath remains the official municipal name, and as you stroll the streets, you still see the word Bath in places. After the Civil War and West Virginia broke off from Virginia, Berkeley Springs was in the new state.
Small Town Appeal
Berkeley Springs is a small mountain town. Metro Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are less than two hours away. Berkeley Springs State Park sits right in the middle of the town. The park is about the size of a street block and is the smallest state park in West Virginia. Within the park are several springs, bathhouses, a pool, a gazebo, and, of course, George Washington’s Bathtub.
Just Like The Photos
George Washington’s Bathtub is exactly like the pictures on the various websites. It is a hole in the ground lined with stones, with a spring-fed stream running through it. Above the “tub” is a sign indicating it is George Washington’s Bathtub. The tub was ranked one of the world’s six most breathtaking baths in 2016 by Smithsonian magazine.
Warm, Not Hot
The water feeding George’s tub is 74 degrees year-round. That is cooler than most swimming pools and ocean water in the summer. I can’t imagine sitting in it for any time would have been comfortable. But supposedly, the therapeutic effect was worth the discomfort. According to legend, many people who arrived in wheelchairs were able to walk after several days of soaking in the waters.
What surprised me most was that there was no fence around it for protection. You could walk right up to it, or even crawl in if you desired. I didn’t attempt it since it was about 30 degrees outside when I visited.
Only One Foot Deep
I thought the tub would be deeper, but it appeared to be about a foot deep, maybe a foot and a half at most. It was about two feet wide and about five feet in length.
George’s tub is surrounded by other springs, including Lord Fairfax Spring. During the summer months, people enjoy dipping in the springs.
America’s first spa town showcases the nation’s only outdoor monument to presidential bathing with the George Washington’s Bathtub Celebration every year on the weekend nearest March 18, the anniversary of Washington’s first visit. The weekend event is devoted to live theater, local history, and dollar sales.
If you visit Berkeley Springs, take a few minutes to walk through West Virginia’s smallest state park and inspect George’s tub. It is an interesting piece of history and makes you wonder what life was like back then.
I recommend a summer or early fall visit when the temperatures are warmer so you can dip your toe into the water if you wish. There are flat paved paths for walking, but there is a short walk on a grass-covered area if you want to get close to the tub.
While you are in town, bring or buy a jug to fill from the public spring and take some of the free mineral water home with you. Also, plan a visit to the Bathhouse or one of the other full-service state-of-the-art spas within a block of the park. The Bathhouse has Roman Baths and whirlpool baths with 102-degree water.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about visiting Berkeley Springs here.