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  • Writer's pictureOld Bone

Preservation Alarm - Warm Springs Pools

Updated: Jul 6, 2019

Update: It appears that these historic structures will be saved and preserved. See more recent news here.

This is one of the saddest (and infuriating) stories I've followed in a long time in regards to preservation efforts. I'm not going to re-invent the wheel here, just copy and paste the jest of this deplorable and shameful situation from Preservation Bath.

It has been over a year since we asked Omni to take action to protect and stabilize the bath houses at the Warm Springs Pools---action that was needed while they worked on the long-term plan for restoration. Our post is copied below. Sadly, Omni has not done anything. Many more shingles have blown away. The roofs on several of the dressing rooms are collapsing.
Here is what we posted in February 2018---Our thanks to three historic restoration experts---John Matteo (The Matteo Cobb Collaborative), John Airgood (Alexander Nicholson), and Gibson Worsham (Glave & Holmes Architecture)---who volunteered their time and talents to provide us with a report on what is immediately needed to reduce or eliminate any further degradation of the two Bath Houses and the Victorian Cottage at the Warm Springs Pools. On January 11, they spent the day inspecting the buildings. Their findings, along with the estimated costs to do the work, are the basis of a proposal that we submitted to Omni this week. We await a reply.

Coincidentally, my wife and I were in Warm Springs last week and we were shocked at the condition of the bath houses. Omni (The Homestead) should be ashamed. I've written about the pools before . . .

I first saw the pools of Warm Springs in the summer of 1965. Just seven years old at the time; my father had brought me, along with a close friend, from the camp where we were vacationing on the Cowpasture River in Bath County, Virginia. Seeing and feeling 98 degree water flow naturally out of the ground and into a stream fascinated this young Virginian – just as it has fascinated other Virginians for hundreds of years.

Following the same buffalo trails as the Indians before them, American colonists crossed the Alleghenies – an Indian name meaning “endless” – and came upon the breathtaking site of Warm Springs valley and the pools of water where Indians had been bathing for centuries. “Taking the waters” has long been a tradition of Virginia gentlemen – and ladies. The first octagonal wood structure – the Gentlemen’s Pool House - was opened to the public on June 1, 1761. Built over, and around, a natural pool of warm spring water, the structure remains much as it did in 1761. One hundred and twenty feet in circumference, forty feet in diameter, and holding over forty-thousand gallons of constantly flowing, crystal clear mineral water, it is the oldest spa structure in the United States. The wooden structure surrounding the spring is a Virginia Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the original cottages, believed to have been built shortly after the men’s pool opened, is also still in use. The town of Warm Springs is the county seat of Bath County.

A second Ladies Pool House was opened on June 1, 1836 and is fed by separate springs. The women’s pool is circular, fifty feet in diameter, one-hundred-fifty feet in circumference, and holds 60,000 gallons of water. The two pools constant, perfectly matching human temperature of 98 degrees, in combination with the rich minerals in the pristine Warm Springs Valley, soothes body and soul. Flowing at 1200 gallons a minute, the waters contain calcium, chloride, nitrate, sodium, bicarbonate, and sulphate deposits. Known today as The Jefferson Pools, the two pool houses lie about five miles north of the Homestead Resort, on U.S. Route 220. The renowned and beautiful Homestead Resort owns and operates the two pools. The last private owner of the pools was Colonel John L. Eubank. Eubank served as secretary of the Virginia Secession Convention in 1861.

After opening to the public, word of the pools’ “healing powers” spread quickly through Virginia. Taverns, livery stables, hotels, and a church sprang up almost overnight in the remote, unspoiled, mountainous area – all to accommodate the influx of Virginians arriving to bathe in the pure waters. One such Virginian was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a frequent visitor to the area and he often sought the quiet solace of the pools while making his plans for the University of Virginia. One of Jefferson’s visits was August 13, 1818 when Jefferson was 75 years old. On this particular visit, Jefferson stayed 3 weeks, taking to the pools several times each day. The soothing waters helped relieve what Jefferson described as “rheumatism.” Jefferson was so impressed by the medicinal powers of the springs, that on August 14, 1818, he wrote his daughter, Martha that the springs were “of the first merit.”

Other renowned Virginians also frequented the springs. Robert E. Lee and his family visited a number of times; often for extended stays. Mrs. Lee’s painfully severe arthritic condition prompted her to seek the healing qualities of the waters at Warm Springs on numerous occasions. In July of 1856, Mary Lee wrote General Lee’s brother, Carter: “I have been confined to my room and bed most of the time more than 4 weeks … I cannot resign myself willingly to this state of inaction.” Carter Lee recommended a certain spring for therapy. Though it meant an 18-hour stagecoach trip from Arlington, Mary replied, “I must go either to Bath or to the Warm Springs.” She was not disappointed with the results and, after a few weeks of bathing in the soothing mineral pools and breathing the cool and pure mountain air, Mrs. Lee’s pain eased and she felt restored and refreshed.[2] Two years later, in August of 1858, Colonel Lee joined Mary and daughter Annie for yet another trip to Warm Springs. Though ill, Annie especially enjoyed the scenery surrounding the village writing that, “…the little streams…running and gurgling over the stones, the last rays of light as they lit up the clouds and mountains were very beautiful.” Mary’s condition, along with the fact that Annie was suffering from the effects of a lingering illness, concerned Lee; so much so that the family spent a month at the Homestead cottages recuperating and enjoying blessed and much needed fellowship.

Several years later, in August of 1863, Warm Springs again found Mary Lee as their guest. That year, Mrs. Lee, along with daughter-in-law Charlotte and daughters Mary and Agnes, all enjoyed the cottages and described her late summer abode as, “delightful…with a meadow full of haycocks and a clear stream running thro’ it and very near to the bath, which is one of the finest in the world.” General Lee made one final trip to Warm Springs with his family during the summer of 1868. Lee had to extend his stay in order to nurse daughter Mildred back to health after she contracted typhoid fever. The news of dreaded typhoid gave rise to much anxiety in the hearts of Robert and Mary Lee. Typhoid had already claimed daughter Annie at the age of twenty-three during the War. Lee, the ever-doting and duty-conscious father, never left his “Precious Life’s” side, holding Mildred’s hand each night until she fell asleep. The family stayed at Warm Springs until September when Mildred had recovered sufficiently to make the trip back to Lexington.

Another legendary Virginian enjoyed the mineral waters at Warm Springs. Major Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, while a professor at Virginia Military Institute, was once ordered by Commandant Francis H. Smith to take the corps of cadets on a training march through the mountainous areas surrounding Lexington. Jackson was delighted and one of the stops during the exercise was Warm Springs where Jackson benefited from the morning and evening baths taken in the healing water of the springs. Jackson, like most visitors during the 19th century, bathed twice a day in the springs; each time spending 10 to 20 minutes in the pools. Many believed that the best times to bathe were before breakfast and again before supper. It was also believed that exercise was best avoided while in the water.

Other interesting personalities have connections to Warm Springs. The widow of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, Flora Cooke Stuart, enjoyed summers at Warm Springs. “Aunt Fanny” Sheppard, who was born into slavery and was the mother of the first black missionary to the Congo, William Sheppard, served for many years as the attendant at the Ladies’ Pool. Aunt Fanny taught many Bath County girls to swim by tying a sheet around their waist and tossing them into the pool.

Visiting the Jefferson Pools today at Warm Springs is like stepping back in time. Warm Springs Valley remains much as it was 100 years ago with small shops and inns (No Wal-Mart), winding country roads that seem to go nowhere in particular, and beautiful green hillsides where sheep graze at their leisure. A mid-week visit in July or August will often find the pools empty. The slow pace of the village of Warm Springs hearkens back to a time in the South for which many readers of this journal long. Stepping onto the grounds of the pools, one immediately catches the unmistakable scent of sulphur and notices the clean, though somewhat weathered white-washed bath houses. Outside the structures, one can put their hands into the streams flowing out from the springs beneath the houses and feel the warm water that has bubbled up from hundreds of feet below ground. The rolling green hills, mountains, and lush meadows that surround Warm Springs Valley make a perfect backdrop and immediately envelope the visitor in an aura of serenity. One can easily imagine General Lee and his family enjoying the same tranquility and it is easy to see why they visited so often. Should readers someday find themselves in western Virginia, they would be well-served in seeking out the Jefferson Pools of Warm Springs Valley – where “reason and knowledge” have thus far failed to mar God’s gifts. The ancient tradition of “taking the waters” will convince all that, in the words of Mary Lee, the spring “is one of the finest in the world.”

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