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Berkley Springs

People have been enjoying the thermal waters at Berkeley Springs for over 8,500 years. Mary Bemis paid a visit to this bastion of the US thermal bathing tradition

The town became a popular spa resort in the 1770s photo: Healing Waters Spa at Cacapon Resort
photo: Berkeley Springs State Park
A replica of George Washinton’s bath sits in Berkeley Springs State park photo: shutterstock/Malachi Jacobs
The new Healing Waters Spa opened in May 2021 photo: Healing Waters Spa at Cacapon Resort
Mary Bemis (centre) with Kelly Smith and Scott Fortney from Cacapon Resort & Berkeley Springs State Parks photo: BerkeleySpringsMuseum
The spa offers four treatment rooms, nail bar and lounge photo: Healing Waters Spa at Cacapon Resort

The birthplace of North America’s first spa, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, is a quaint historic spa town, 90 minutes drive from Washington DC.

Life here has always been about the warm mineral spring water that flows at a constant 74.3°F (23.5°C) and at a rate of more than 1,000 gallons (4,546 litres) per minute.

The source rises in Berkeley Springs State Park in the heart of the town and locals and visitors have used the mineral waters for soothing and rehabilitation purposes for over 8,500 years, since Native Americans first stepped foot in the springs, leaving their traces in local archaeology.

By the 1720s, colonial travellers began visiting Berkeley Springs to take the waters, but it wasn’t until the 1770s that the town (first established as ‘Bath’) became a popular health resort.

America’s founding father, George Washington, first visited the town in 1748, as a 16-year-old apprentice surveyor, and wrote of the “warm springs” on the frontier land that was owned at the time by Washington’s mentor, British aristocrat Lord Thomas Fairfax.

At that time, visitors simply pitched a tent and took the waters in stone-lined pools, and today you can find a replica of George Washington’s rustic stone tub in Berkeley Springs State Park, while displayed on the wall of the Museum of Berkeley Springs is an endorsement from Washington himself: “I think myself benefited from the water and am now not without hope of their making a cure for me – a little time will show now”.

When the tents made way for the establishment of a 50-acre town in 1776, the Virginia legislature deemed it was “for the purpose of housing those who came to take the waters for their health”, while the springs – thanks to a decree by Fairfax – were designated “for the public use and benefit”.

Author and historian Jeanne Mozier once wrote: “Berkeley Springs may be the only town in America established for the express purpose of caring for, feeding, and housing those who came to take the waters for their health.”

Where past meets present
Since the town was established, it’s survived fires in 1844, 1898 and 1974 and a war in 1860. Today, the springs act as the town’s municipal water source and are still popular with bathers. Commercial bottling of the water also began in 1903 with the establishment of the Berkeley Springs Bottling Works and in 1925, Berkeley Springs was turned over to the state of West Virginia and is now its smallest state park.

In more recent times, a well-loved chapter of the American spa experience was born at Coolfont Resort. Situated at the base of Cacapon Mountain, five miles from Berkeley Springs, Coolfont is where pioneer Martha Ashelman – one of the original founders of the International Spa Association (ISPA) – opened a spa with mineral springs and wellness treatments, as well as local nature activities.

In more recent times, Coolfont has come under the stewardship of Larry Omps and his family, longtime Berkeley Springs’ residents who lovingly renovated the iconic property that had been vacant since 2006. Coolfont Resort reopened in 2019 and Omps continues to evolve the property and its treatment menu (www.coolfont.com).

For the past 32 years, Berkeley Springs has extended its national fame by hosting the annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting event, which is held at the Country Inn – home to the Renaissance Spa. I was invited to be a judge at this year’s event and – along with seven other judges – spent hours tasting waters sourced from 18 countries, 16 American states, and three Canadian provinces.

After the water-tasting festivities, I toured the town with Scott Fortney, superintendent of Cacapon Resort and Berkeley Springs State Park and Jamie Foltz, Berkeley Springs/Cacapon Resort State Park spa manager and took time out to enjoy the waters at the Old Roman Bathhouse, where I luxuriated in the privacy of a 705-gallon walk-in-bath with steaming magnesium-rich spring water for the grand sum of US$27 (€26, £22).

Massage services, saunas, and showers are also available to round out the spa menu (www.spabusiness.com/bathhouse).

Historic inspiration
Foltz has worked in the spa and wellness industry for 27 years and has been manager of the West Virginia State Parks for the past four. She oversees the main bathhouse, as well as the new Healing Waters Spa, which is located within the lodge at Cacapon Resort State Park, just 10 miles from Berkeley Springs State Park.

The Healing Waters Spa, which opened in May of 2021, is the second spa in the state park system and derives its name from Cacapon which, she explains, is a term of Native American origin meaning ‘medicine waters’.

The 2,200sq ft (204sq m) facility offers four treatment rooms, a nail bar, a relaxation area, locker rooms and a patio lounge. Professional product lines used and retailed include Pevonia and Farmhouse Fresh.

A third wellness facility, Mountain Serenity Spa, has also opened at Pipestem Resort State Park earlier this year (www.pipestemspa.com).

Commenting on the historic relevance of the location, Foltz says: “Our guests, who come from all over the world, look to increase their feeling of wellbeing, relax in a beautiful state park setting, and embrace and honour the local history that helped to put healing waters on the American map.”

Originally published in Spa Business 2022 issue 3
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