Berkeley Springs, West Virginia:
America’s First Spa
by Elena Bittinger
Start your new year right and treat yourself to an affordable mini vacation at Berkeley Springs State Park spa in West Virginia, where you can escape the nasty, cold weather for a few days while you take a break and boost your health.
Berkeley Springs was America’s first spa. In the center of the town sits a warm mineral spring heated to 74.3 degrees, year-round. It produces 1,000 to 1,500 gallons of water per minute and is known for its healing powers. Many people visit not only for relaxation but also to ease various ailments.
In addition to its notable spring, Berkeley Springs is steeped in American history. So if you’re interested in history, health, and beauty, then head on down to this West Virginia treasure.
Native Americans were the first to enjoy the benefits of Berkeley Springs. And when Europeans arrived in the area, they too discovered the spring. In the mid-1700s, Thomas Lord Fairfax owned the land.
Fairfax allowed any and all who wished to use the spring free access, including friends such George Washington, who began his frequent visits at age 16 in 1748.
Soon, however, Fairfax discovered a small town developing on his property, which he openly discouraged. As more people visited the spring, though, it seemed to be a losing battle. Fairfax eventually sold the land to Virginia (of which present-day West Virginia was a part), but with stipulations: The spring was to remain free and accessible to those who lived in and visited the town.
“The springs have always been considered neutral ground, even by Native American tribes,” says Peace Blossom Judge, state park museum associate, which is why, when Fairfax owned the land, anyone passing through was granted access.
Peyton Whetsel, state park associate, says that “Native Americans referred to the spring as healing water,” which was synonymous with one of the many names the spring was given in the past — Healing Springs. Other names the spring has gone by include Warm Springs, Frederick Springs and Medicinal Springs.
Judge says, “Over the time, they thought it would cure everything. When George Washington brought Martha and her kids here, her daughter, Patsy, had epilepsy. And they brought her here to try to cure her with the water.” It didn’t cure her disorder, but “maybe it made her more comfortable.”
Jamie Foltz, state park manager says, “The minerals in our water are well known for their medicinal benefits and aiding in digestion, skin disorders, stress relief, joint pain, and muscle strain.”
The spring, Judge says, “is really high in magnesium.” She notes that it can also help with depression and skin problems.
Her son, for example, had dermatitis when they first moved to Berkeley Springs. “We couldn’t get rid of it,” she says, but after two weeks of being in the spring every day, “it was gone. Never came back. Like done.”
The spring also has a high silica content, which is good for joints, Judge says. “If you have rheumatoid arthritis and you drink the water and soak in the water, it can act as a lubricant for your joints.”
When it comes to beauty, there is nothing more beautiful than nature, which Berkeley Springs Spa provides with its natural spa treatments.
The spa includes historic bathhouses, spring pools, a public swimming pool, greenery, public fountains and a museum.
The main spa treatment is offered in the Roman Bath House, where “guests can relax and enjoy the medicinal and soothing benefits of the mineral water for 30-minute increments. They can soak coed, families, or individually,” Foltz says.
The Roman Bath House has the longest history in Berkeley Springs. The structure was built in the early 1800s, and was itself a replacement of the old Gentlemen’s Bath House, built in 1784. Previously, the bathhouse held five private bathing chambers, but since its renovation, Foltz says, it currently contains eight bathing chambers, all containing 700-750 gallons of water heated to 102 degrees.
Other spa treatments are held in the Main Bath House, built in 1929, where traditional and Swedish massages, gender-segregated steams, and traditional Roman baths are offered.
Berkeley Springs Spa is an all-natural, historic spa that treats both health and beauty. The spa is professionally staffed and is open daily, year-round. On weekends, appointments are recommended. Check museum schedule beforehand at www.berkeleysprings.com.
Outside Berkeley Springs Spa, other spas with differing treatments are available. But all use the spring water from inside the state park, which is drawn primarily from the Ladies Spring and is the town’s main water source.
So for an affordable, soothing and healthful getaway, visit Berkeley Springs and rejuvenate yourself.