By ZACK HAROLD, West Virginia Public Broadcasting
BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — Every two weeks, Lauren Lee stuffs a few dozen gallon jugs into a large black laundry bag. She brings him to a covered pavilion right in the middle of Berkeley Springs State Park, itself right in the middle of downtown Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
She chooses one of the two brick water fountains and begins to fill her jugs, one by one, with water drawn from the seven underground springs.
“I like coming here. I always meet new people. I’ve never been able to do that anywhere I’ve ever lived,” Lee said.
She doesn’t just come here to socialize.
“We have well water where we live, so it’s much easier to use it in our machines, like coffee,” Lee said. “And for the plants, because our water is killing our plants.”
Water is free. But of course it wouldn’t be much more expensive to buy water from Kroger or Dollar General. It would certainly be more convenient. No need for empty jugs or laundry bags.
But the water that Lee gets from these springs has something that store-bought water doesn’t.
“I feel like it’s part of the healing and the nutrients I get from the earth,” she said.
People have been coming to Berkeley Springs for centuries, seeking healing. It was the natives who apparently introduced the Europeans to its medicinal properties. The springs were already such a popular destination in the mid-18th century that a young surveyor named George Washington made sure to stop by when he visited the area.
Washington would return several times – once to treat his rheumatic fever and later with his wife Martha and daughter Patsy, hoping to treat the girl’s seizures.
In 1776—when Washington was probably busy with other concerns—the Virginia General Assembly established a town around the springs. They called it “Bath”, after the spa town in England. This started a wave of development in the city, and some buildings from that era still survive.
There are the two-story Roman baths, built in the 1780s. For a nominal fee, you can still enjoy a half-hour soak in a 750 gallon tub filled with spring water. The Gentlemen’s Spring – where the water fountains are located – arrived in the 1800s. So did the Ladies’ Spring, now known as the Main Bathhouse.
The bathhouse also sells empty one-gallon jugs to anyone who wants to take water home, as long as they have them in stock.
If you arrive without an empty pitcher, you can pick one up from the main bathhouse.
“I sold 15 to one person on Saturday,” said Leslie Smith, who runs the spa’s front desk. “People swear by this water. They take a bath there. They wash their hair in it. They cook with it. There’s a woman from China, they come here and all day (they fill) five-gallon jugs. Like 50 of them.
Inside Appalachia, we didn’t meet anyone from China during our visit, but we did find someone from Lebanon.
“My friend told me about it a long time ago,” says Fadi Talj. “Then when I got closer I realized I was only 30 minutes away. And that’s when I started looking for it.
Talj is originally from Lebanon, then lived in Frederick, Maryland before moving closer to Berkeley Springs and its waters.
“You don’t find many of these places around, so if you find one nearby, you take advantage of it,” he said.
Dorothy Vesper, a geology professor at West Virginia University, is also a fan of Berkeley Springs water.
“Every time I pass by, I refill my water bottle,” she said via the Zoom call. “It’s good material.”
Vesper isn’t sold on health claims, however. A few of his graduate students have studied Berkeley Springs water. They found minerals present: magnesium, as well as potassium, sodium, calcium and other members of the periodic table. But all chemicals exist in minute amounts.
“You would have to drink a lot to get enough of all the useful nutrients,” she said.
The research yielded some good news. Not all natural sources are equal. Some are not safe to drink. Some have been contaminated by their environment, while others are in reality only discharges from old abandoned coal mines.
Berkeley Springs, on the other hand, is pristine.
“It has no metallic (taste). It is a kind of soft spring water. I just think it tastes good,” Vesper said. “I have no qualms, I would drink it straight from the source.”
Aside from the taste, however, Vesper said spring water is no better for you than what comes out of the tap at home.
So what about those who feel helped by this water? What about those who believe they have been healed by it? Is this all just a placebo effect?
Vesper was clear, she’s not a doctor, but she has a theory.
“Personally, if you let me go and spent two weeks hanging out in springs, I would feel better,” she said.
There could be something to it.
There is a tranquility in the grounds among spring-fed pools and cherry blossoms. Perhaps the benefit that Lee and Talj attribute to water actually comes from the ritual of coming back week after week and bringing water up from the earth, just as our ancestors did for centuries.
If the healing isn’t in the magnesium, it may be in the memories mixed in with it.