Berkeley Springs looks, no doubt, almost nothing like it looked back when George Washington visited. (Visit our George Washington’s Steps at Bow Tie Tours, and ask us about our one week George Washington Trip.) While it is not exactly a thriving metropolis, it is one of the Stars Hollow kinds of places where I can never quite decide if living there would be paradise or hell. When Washington was here it was even more quiet than it is now, and definitely more desolate. There were no coffee shops or restaurants, and even the ubiquitous health food vegetarian/holistic medicine place that these towns always have would not be here. There was not the little place that gave me the absolutely best tomato soup I have ever had in my life. What would be here is still kind of the center of the place, which is to say, the springs. The water.
The Founders were America’s first self-help gurus, and they all seemed to have their own personal pathways to health and happiness. Thomas Jefferson believed that starting your day by plunging your feet into ice water insured health. For Benjamin Franklin, the key was “day baths,” by which he essentially meant spending at least an hour walking around naked. John Adams began his day with a glass of hard cider.
Washington’s belief was less original. Like many others of his time, he believed that springs such as the one at this town held a secret cure for many diseases. People still believe it. The town has water dispensers throughout, and I watched several people approach them to fill large containers. They did so with a certain gravitas, as if the action was far more meaningful than if they were pouring it out of a spout or purchasing it from the 7-11. And I believe that it was more meaningful. You purchase spring water from a store, you don’t even think about it. But here, you do; it’s as simple as that. You think about the partnership between yourself and the planet. As I drank the spring water that I had poured into my bottle, I did so with a far greater level of appreciation than I usually feel. The water tasted no different from any other water, but here it was, it had just come down that mountain right there, the earth was giving me succor and all I had to do was let it. Pretty cool, actually.
Washington first came across these springs on March 18, 1748. (The date is celebrated every year here at Berkely Sperings with food, drink, and relevant readings form Washington’s diary.) Contrary to Washingtonian mythology, he did not “discover” the springs, but came to them on a much traveled route during his first surveying expedition. People had been coming to the springs for years to obtain the water’s alleged healing powers. In fact, Washington alluded to the place in his diary as “ye Fam’d Warm Springs.”
Years later, when Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence developed tuberculosis, Washington took him to the spring in a desperate attempt to reverse the course of the disease. However, Lawrence found the climate damp and cold, and George took him to Barbados instead, where he hoped to find the warmth enough to cure him. When this failed as well, Lawrence returned home to Virginia where he died.
Still, Washington came back to the place on several occasions when he felt ill. He often felt better after several days here, and why not? Even if the water held no curative powers, it is a gorgeous place away from his daily trials.
The most visited spot is “George Washington’s bathtub,” where Washington actually took his baths in the healing spring water. Well, not really, turns out it’s just a tourist trap but, whatever, he took baths somewhere around here in tubs that may have looked something like this. Anyway, what are you complaining about, the water’s healthy and free here, what else do you want?