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Springs let patrons soak up some history

Lots of places claim that George Washington slept here, but which can boast he bathed here?

Or, for that matter, claim that James Madison, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, James Polk and Franklin Roosevelt did, too?

That place is Berkeley Springs, which also claims to be the oldest spa in the United States. Once a resort for the upper crust, it's now a public park where healing waters are available to everyone.

The warm mineral waters that spring from the base of a ridge in this narrow Appalachian valley were known by American Indians centuries ago for their healing properties. In fact, tribes from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Carolinas gathered here and, though often at war with one another, declared the springs a peace zone.

By the mid-18th century, the tribes had been pushed out by European settlement. A British aristocrat, Lord Fairfax, owned the land.

Perhaps foreseeing future development, he decreed that access to the springs should remain free. And so it has.

Today the healing waters run freely in Berkeley Springs State Park. Channeled in open cement troughs, they fill a swimming pool in summer and run to two bath houses, where the public can enjoy spa services at proletarian prices.

Picnickers can have a leisurely meal on the shady grass and listen to music from an old-fashioned gazebo, while kids swim in the pool or splash in the shallow troughs.

Bathers may even squeeze into the narrow stone sink said to have been used by George Washington, or play in the small pool next to it.

Besides playing in the water _ which emerges from the ground at 74.3 degrees _ people still come to "take the cure."

Part of the water's healing power was traditionally believed to come from drinking it. An 1885 manual declares that in drinking, "Care was taken to catch the air bubbles that continually rise from the fountain, as much of the virtue of the water was supposed to reside in the subtle gases it contains."

Today there is a tap where people still fill their jugs with free mineral water.

Meanwhile, for a modest fee, the Old Roman Bath House, which has been in continuous use since 1815, offers family-style immersion in walk-in ceramic tile tubs heated to up to 102 degrees.

The bathing cure, according to the old manual, was good for chronic rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, bronchitis, dyspepsia and nervous debility, and for those suffering from "a long residence in low, warm and damp climates" or from "a class of diseases peculiar to females."

Folks with modern variations of these old afflictions _ headaches, arthritis, muscle tension, cramps or "the blues" _ still like the bathing cure.

The fortunes of Berkeley Springs have gone up and down since 1748, when Lord Fairfax sent a party out to survey the western edge of his domain.

On March 18, his 16-year-old assistant, George Washington, wrote in his diary: "We this day called to see Ye Fam'd Warm Springs."

When parcels of land were sold to become a Revolutionary War-era resort _ with Washington one of the landowners _ the town was named Bath. Later it was called Berkeley Springs.

Fashionable people made their way by horseback or carriage to "take the waters." Hessian prisoners of war were brought for safekeeping. Inns and "ordinaries" began springing up, and gambling became so prevalent that in 1776 Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury denounced the area as a "seat of sin."

By the Civil War, Bath had long been part of the social season for aristocratic Virginians. That era ended in 1862 when Stonewall Jackson's troops occupied the town, destroying part of it.

After the war, Yankees began arriving, and the resort revived in Victorian splendor.

Most of the grand old structures succumbed to fire, but the town retains a quaint charm and still lures visitors from afar with its "Fam'd Warm Springs."

At the yellow brick Main Bath House, built circa 1928, a full range of water, steam and massage treatment is offered.

In addition to Roman baths, where patrons can stretch out, float, exercise or even read, there are showers and soaks in footed, Victorian bathtubs outfitted with footrests or pillows.

For heat treatment, there are heat lamps and hot packs, or 10 minutes in a vintage steam cabinet followed by a Victorian tub soak.

There are massages, too. Massage therapists, many of them trained at the park, use Swedish technique and a rubdown lotion of olive oil and rubbing alcohol. Masseuses serve women patrons, while masseurs serve men.

According to park superintendent Bob Ebert, about 10 percent of the patrons are over 60 _ some in walkers or wheelchairs.

"Most (seniors) come for the low cost," he said, or because they have a history here and just enjoy the park. For some with arthritis, the baths and massage just make them feel a whole lot better."

If you go:

Berkeley Springs is on U.S. Route 522, 103 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., and 6 miles from where Interstates 70 (if you're driving west) or 68 (driving east) meet at Hancock, Md. It's easily accessible from all directions.

While the grand old hostelries of bygone eras no longer stand, the stately, colonial-style Country Inn, built in 1932, is right next to Berkeley Springs State Park. There are lounges, dining rooms and banquet facilities. Room prices run from $37 for a double with a shared bath to suites in the $100 range. Call (800) 822-6630.

Other accommodations include several in-town bed and breakfasts in Berkeley Springs and cabins, rental houses and camping sites, as well as dining at the nearby Coolfont resort and conference center. There's also camping at Cacapon Resort State Park.

The grounds at Berkeley Springs State Park, in the center of downtown, are free and open to the public. Reservations are needed, especially on weekends and during the summer, for spa services.

Facilities are open year-round; hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Friday hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. from April through October.

Prices are cut-rate: $8 for a mineral shower and infrared heat, $10 for a half-hour Roman bath; $18 for heat cabinet, bath and shower; $30 ($27 for seniors) for the works _ heat cabinet, bath, shower and massage.

To get tourist information about Berkeley Springs or to make spa reservations, phone (800) CALL-WVA.

_ Joanna Biggar

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