Berkeley Springs Town History
During the 1740s, the eastern edge of the Appalachians including the area of present-day Morgan County was frontier. Native tribes navigated the Potomac River and traveled the main north/south valley but they had no large settlements. They did know about the warm mineral springs and passed that information on to early travelers, mostly missionaries. Permanent settlers were limited to an occasional rough cabin along Sleepy Creek. All the land in the region belonged to Thomas Lord Fairfax who was disinclined to sell it. As early as 1747, Fairfax was concerned about squatters on his land but indicated a willingness to set up a town around the springs to serve those who came to take the waters. Although nothing official happened for nearly 30 years, a town of sorts organized itself around the springs by 1750. Notably early visitors like Charles Carroll and Horatio Gates were squatters, building summer cabins on land they did not own. George Washington stayed in houses during his houses during his later visits in the 1760s, and spent time socializing with Lord Fairfax and his nephews who had cottages at the springs. There are historic reports of racetracks, gambling and houses of ill repute.
In 1776, the Virginia Legislature responded to a petition from more than 200 individuals who wanted a town around the springs. They established Bath, still the official name of the municipality which has been known to the world since the 1780s by the name of its waters — Berkeley Springs. To this day, Berkeley Springs is not an official entity other than a postal address and a state of mind.
In the summer of 1777, more than 100 lots were laid out and sold at auction, the revenue going to Lord Fairfax who kept a spring and a few lots for himself and his nephews. George Washington purchased two lots and other colonial notables were sprinkled among the more than 70 original landowners. The dimensions of lots in the town have varied only slightly since that initial land sale. Several blocks around the springs and park have served as the commercial and official center of the area for more than two centuries.
From the 1740s to the early twentieth century, Berkeley Springs was a popular summer resort with a small permanent population and mostly wood structures. Several times through the centuries, the smell of smoke and charred wood changed the course of commerce and compelled downtown redevelopment.
The first destructive fire was in 1844 destroying many 18th century buildings. The construction that followed included the 500-room Berkeley Springs Hotel, the second Courthouse and first Methodist Church, both on their current sites. In 1898, another major fire destroyed the Berkeley Springs Hotel and three years later fire took the Fairfax Inn on the block facing the park. The tanneries which dominated downtown in the Victorian era — and were in major conflict with the tourism industry of the time — also burned or were razed by the turn of the 20th century. A major fire in 1974 destroyed all the the east Fairfax St. block including the Washington Hotel, last of the grand resort hotels.
By 1890, many of the original town lots held summer cottages which were razed throughout the 20th century to construct modern residences, businesses and churches. Although Fairfax and Washington streets have long been commercial areas, most of the current structures date to a building boom in the early 20th century.
The walking tour highlights historic locations, original lot numbers and architecturally significant or unusual buildings. Begin anywhere, but the sites are numbered from south to north.
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