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Berkeley Springs

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Long before Morgan County was established, the town that would become its seat was a mecca. Many came for a cure, more to see and be seen, most simply to have fun. One of America's oldest resorts, Berkeley Springs contains the majority of the county's buildings of architectural interest. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, however, it has depended as much on light industry and commerce as it has on the springs.

Bath, Bath Town, Berkeley Springs, Warm Springs, Frederick Springs: all refer to the same place. The settlement that grew up here in the mid-eighteenth century was first known as Warm Springs, but the Virginia General Assembly officially established it as Bath in 1776, naming it for the famous English spa. Bath remains its official name, although practically everyone, including the U.S. Postal Service, calls it Berkeley Springs. Adding to the confusion, the town, although known by the name of the county in which it was established, has not been in Berkeley County since 1820, when Morgan County was created.

Indians valued the springs that issued from the base of Warm Spring Ridge, and colonials followed suit. In March 1748, while on a surveying trip for Lord Fairfax, sixteen-year-old George Washington “called to see y. Fam'd Warm Springs.” That first visit was only a day's duration, but Washington returned a number of times for longer visits in the next two decades. The springs were within Lord Fairfax's extensive Northern Neck Proprietary, and although tradition maintains that he granted them to the colony with the stipulation that they be kept free and open “to the publick for the welfare of suffering humanity,” no verifying documentation has ever surfaced.

In the early days, according to John J. Moorman, in his Guide to the Virginia Springs, humanity suffered from the crude accommodations: “A large hollow scooped in the sand, surrounded by a screen of pine brush, was the only bathing-house; and this was used alternately by ladies and gentlemen.… The whole scene is said to have resembled a camp-meeting in appearance, but only in appearance.” Washington, who was there, accompanied by Martha and her children, in August 1761, informed a friend that there were “of both sexes about 200 people at this place, full of … diseases and complaints.”

By 1776, the first year of the Commonwealth of Virginia, settlement had grown to the extent that more than 200 petitioners requested the General Assembly to establish a town. The act called for a 50-acre townsite to be “laid out into lots of one quarter of an acre each, with convenient streets.” In specifying quarter-acre lots, instead of the half acre almost always called for in such legislation, lawmakers acknowledged that Bath would develop as a community of “second houses,” not year-round houses requiring space for subsidiary buildings. Purchasers had to build within a year “a dwelling house twelve feet square at least,” the dimensions being among the smallest required by any Virginia town act.

Several other clauses in the act were also unusual, if not unique. Funds that would accrue from repossession and resale of unimproved lots would be applied “towards accommodating such infirm persons as may resort to the said springs, and should be so poor as to be unable to accommodate themselves.” The legislature exempted from sale any lots “whereon any house or houses already built by … Thomas Lord Fairfax may happen to be,” but anyone else who had built before the town was platted had “to remove or otherwise dispose of the said houses” within six months. As for the springs, except for “one large and convenient spring suitable for a bath” (Fairfax's private bath), the act vested a four-acre square surrounding them in the hands of trustees, “in trust, to and for the public use and benefit, and for no other purpose whatsoever.”

Soon after the lots were platted, Washington bought two at the southeast corner of Fairfax and Mercer streets, several blocks from the springs. Needless to say, Washington had precious little time to devote to building in Bath in the late 1770s and early 1780s, but other property owners did. Charles Yates, of Fredericksburg, sent specifications to his agent at “Bath Town” in September 1778, inadvertently providing future generations a wealth of information about early log building practices. His correspondence, which even directed the type of log notching to be used, is quoted in the introduction to this volume. At last, in September 1784, Washington was ready and able to build. On a visit to Bath that month, he obtained a town plat, “ascertained the situation of [his] lots therein,” and sketched plans for a “dwelling house, Kitchen and Stable.” He also contracted with James Rumsey, a jack of all trades, to build them. Washington obviously intended something far more elegant than the required twelvefoot-square dwelling. His lengthy and detailed specifications, which he transcribed in his diary on September 6, 1784, called for a house “36 feet by 24, with a gallery of 7 feet on each side.” For his part, Rumsey promised to have the work “finished by the 10th of next July.”

Unfortunately, a fire destroyed Rumsey's sawmill, burning the timbers he had prepared and making it impossible to meet the July 10, 1785, deadline. He eventually completed his part of the bargain, but apparently his work was less than satisfactory. Washington, of course, had little or no time to enjoy his vacation home during the remainder of his busy career. In 1796, while visiting Mount Vernon, Benjamin Henry Latrobe recorded in his journal that the president “has himself a house [at Berkeley Springs], which he supposes must be going to ruin.” Latrobe also wrote that Washington was no longer inclined to go to Bath, as “the encreased dissipation and frequency of visitors would be an objection … unless the health of himself or family should render it necessary.” In the schedule of property appended to his will Washington noted that his two lots were “well situated and had buildings to the amt of £150” but admitted that he had no idea “whether property there has [increased] or decreased in its value.”

In addition to private construction, public improvements were made. In 1786 the trustees contracted with James Rumsey to build separate pools and baths for men and women, which he completed the next year. Whether any of Rumsey's work remains is uncertain, although claims have been made that the oldest structures now standing are his.

Early in the nineteenth century, a fever struck during the height of the season, and for several decades Bath was virtually deserted. Uria Brown, who visited in 1816, gave a vivid depiction of the resort's decline in his journal. He counted “40 or fifty 1½ & 2 story Log houses that is abandoned Haunted and frequented with Cows, Sheep & Hogs, the Doors & Windows all carried away.” Brown, a lawyer, was in Bath attempting to obtain title to several houses for Baltimore merchant John Trimble. Although he noted that one of the buildings had originally been “finished in Stile,” it now had “a hole in each Side of the Roof big enough to Let Cate through.” As Cate was Uria's horse, the size of the holes can well be imagined.

There was, however, hope for the future. Brown observed that “the people here are in high spirits of Having the County Divided & then Berkeley Springs becomes a CountyTown.” That happened in 1820 when Morgan County was established. In addition to helping the town prosper, the presence of the justices helped disperse some of its famed dissipation. During the next decade, things calmed down even more. In the 1830s, other Virginia spas far to the southwest began to rival and then surpass Berkeley Springs as the fashionable places to be. In addition, their waters were warmer and said to be more efficacious. The arrival of the B&O at nearby Hancock, Maryland, in 1843 brought new infusions of northerners, but Berkeley Springs could offer little competition with Saratoga or Cape May for their trade. Adding to the town's woes, an 1844 fire destroyed a number of buildings, including the courthouse and several boardinghouses.

At least one entrepreneur was undaunted. Colonel John Strother, who had operated one of the burned boardinghouses, “made immediate preparation for the erection of a hotel.” He completed a wing in time for the 1845 season, and by 1848 the entire U-shaped structure adjoining the springs and public square was open for business. Accommodating as many as four hundred guests, the Berkeley Springs Hotel, or the Pavilion, as Strother called it, was the largest building ever erected at the resort. John J. Moorman described it 1851:

It is built of wood, on three sides of a quadrangle, 168 feet front by 197. The front building is four stories high, has a portico 130 feet long by 16 wide, a dining and ball-room 106 feet by 30, three large public parlours, and a bar-room. The wings are respectively two and three stories high. A basement of stone, fire proof, roomy, and well ventilated, contains the kitchen department and wine cellar. The court yard, about 100 feet square, is tastefully ornamented with trees, flowers, and shrubbery.

Woodcuts and photographs indicate that it was indeed as impressive as it sounds. The only flaw, according to an 1851 visitor, P. V. Daniel, was that “the single rooms are too small.” Daniel also offered an explanation why there were so few customers: “It seems that by a company of speculators in Baltimore & Winchester, great efforts have been made to puff into importance as a place of fashion, the Cacapon or Capon Springs; and the crowd tends very much to that point. This has taken off many of the usual visitors at this place.” The hotel at Capon Springs ( HM9) in neighboring Hampshire County, completed a year after the Pavilion, was almost a carbon copy of it. More than likely a Baltimore architect or architects designed both, although no attributions have been made.

Berkeley Springs did not suffer unduly during the Civil War, as it had little in the way of manufacturers or commerce that either side considered valuable. After the war, a Baltimore company purchased the Pavilion, refurbished it, and equipped it with gas for the town's 1876 centennial celebration. Former Union General David Hunter Strother, son of Colonel John Strother, gave the centennial address. He observed that “since 1865 Berkeley has been gradually but hopefully recovering from the waste and decay of that unhappy period.… Dilapidated and unsightly buildings have disappeared to be replaced by ornate cottages, exhibiting architectural taste with charming rural surroundings.” Although some facilities at the springs are older, the sort of post–Civil War cottages that Strother applauded, built when the town was enjoying a mild resurgence as a summer resort, contribute most to its present-day architectural character.

The Pavilion continued in operation until the last week of March 1898, when it burned to the ground. Significantly, a late-nineteenthcentury lithograph of Berkeley Springs from Warm Spring Ridge, although made before the fire, barely showed the hotel. Instead it focused on new commercial and industrial enterprises, among them glass factories and textile mills. As the twentieth century progressed, these, along with sand “mines” that opened nearby to furnish this essential ingredient for glass, came to play an important role in the local economy.

Numerous plans for a hotel to replace the Pavilion were discussed and drawn up over the years, as notices in Manufacturers Recordand other journals attest. Although several Baltimore architects prepared plans, none got beyond the drawing boards. In 1925 the Washington, D.C., firm of Milburn, Heister and Company had only slightly better luck. Their proposed $1 million hotel, a huge building with Spanish overtones that would have been more at home in Palm Springs than Berkeley Springs, would have accommodated 500 guests. Ground was broken in 1926, but the project was never completed. After the Depression, a far more modest hotel, now the Country Inn ( MR2), was built on part of the site.

In the 1940s, trustees transferred title to the springs and public square to the West Virginia Commissioner of Public Institutions. In 1970 title was vested in the state's Department of Natural Resources, and the reservation is now the Berkeley Springs State Park. In 1976, 200 years after the town was established, the area encompassed by the state park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a fitting testament and tribute to its long history.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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