In the days before it was known as snail mail, many a vacation was punctuated by sending a postcard or two.
This trip began with one.
In late winter or early spring, a former newsroom colleague displayed on her office cork board an intriguing postcard: an artist’s rendering of George Washington reclining in a bathtub, floating an anachronistic rubber ducky.
In Washington County, any wrinkle about the namesake can potentially turn into a story, and rub-a-dub-there, there’s George in a tub?
She said the card was from her stopover in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., the geothermal feature that pre-dates what’s officially been known as the “Town of Bath, W.Va.,” since 1776.
The flipside of the card calls George Washington’s Bathtub “the world’s only monument to outdoor bathing.”
Berkeley Springs was a water park before the term was coined. It has long had a swimming pool or pools. In a stream and little canal-like channels, children and adults play and wade among minnows, whom wriggle above sandy, pebbly bottoms.
The museum with its Roman bath basement has been closed this season due to renovation, but a spring water spout nearby is still active and in use.
And although there’s a stone-lined pit with a the sign “George Washington’s Bathtub,” a brochure notes it’s “a modern reconstruction of primitive bathing conditions prior to 1784” that began going by that moniker in 1930. George was an early landowner there.
In discussing this very tidy town’s claim to fame, it’s important to note that for recent arrivals to the colonies, cleanliness was not next to godliness.
Natives apparently knew these folks were approaching because of their distinct aroma, with the emphasis on “stinc.”
Edwards Park in an article written for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, noted “a good, soaking bath was a luxury of only the well served, and few of them tackled the job more than a couple of times a year.
“Everyone knew that too much bathing would destroy your natural oils and leave you wide open to the ravages of various diseases.”
But Berkeley Springs and its year-round water temperature just a tad above 74 degrees made ablutions easier because one would not have to haul gallons in frigid weather and heat them over a roaring fire.
Park called Washington “an enlightened soldier, certain that troops needed washing whenever the chance for it came. “While you halt,” he wrote in orders to a colonel under his command, “you will take every measure for refreshing your Men and rendering them as comfortable as you can. Bathing themselves moderately and washing their Cloathes are of infinite Service.”
Berkeley Springs, just south of the Interstate 70 and Interstate 68 junction along Route 522, was a water park before the term was coined. It’s about a 166-mile drive from Washington County.
This place of “taking the waters” has long had a swimming pool or pools. In the bath house, for a fee, one can sign up for a soak or mineral whirlpool. Massages have been offered since at least 1932, and the yellow brick main bathhouse was built in 1929.
The water contains 17 different substances listed on a bulletin board. Among them: salt, carbonates and sulphates.
“Today, most bathers use the waters for stress relief and muscle strain,” according to a history display at the park, but both locals and tourists arrive at its fountain with jugs to fill.
Water from the Berkeley Springs has always been free to the public, a right enshrined by the Virginia legislature in the 1776 law establishing a town at the springs. Gallon jugs are available at the main bath house for a $1 donation benefiting the Berkeley Springs State Park Foundation.
The 4.5-acre state park was created in 1970.
Berkeley Springs State Park isn’t alone as a state park with a spa. Saratoga Springs State Park boasts similar amenities. On a prominently-placed sign, Berkeley Springs calls itself “America’s First Spa.” Along with the public baths and sauna, there also private spas.
Events are scheduled throughout the year. The town hosts an annual Apple Butter festival that coincides with the Columbus Day holiday weekend. There’s an international water tasting in February, and George Washington’s Bathtub Celebration is held the weekend nearest to March 18, the anniversary of the future president’s first visit in 1748.