Editor’s note: In August of 2016, Brian Balogh, Melissa Gismondi, and I made a trip to the Jefferson Pools at the Omni Homestead Resort. We were hoping to see for ourselves if the springs were indeed restorative and if visiting was an early form of medical tourism. We assigned Brian the task of taking a dip and reporting to the group while Melissa gathered the history and I snapped some photos.
According to lore, the springs were discovered by Native Americans who would stop and rejuvenate themselves in the water while traveling through the area. Eventually, “taking the waters” was not only seen as relaxing and energizing, many believed the mineral waters held medicinal properties. In 1841, Dr. H. Howard wrote that he’d been sending his patients – with ailments like painful menstruation to chronic diarrhea – to the springs for at least ten years. Famous “takers” include Thomas Jefferson and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee.
While no one in the group was looking to cure any ailments, we learned that the sulphur content of the waters can relieve tense muscles and the added buoyancy (a result of the high mineral content) may make you feel a little euphoric. In any case, Brian reported feeling very relaxed after his soak and, as you can see in the photo, definitely looked relaxed.
Following is a brief recap Melissa wrote of the visit and of a subsequent chat with an architectural historian who’s studied the bathhouses.
Digital Editor, BackStory
“Do you feel like Thomas Jefferson?” I asked Brian Balogh. “I feel more like Peter Onuf,” he quipped while seated in the pool of the men’s bathouse at the Jefferson Pools.
We were in appropriately named Bath County, Va., in a structure that dates back to the early 19th century, taking in the mineral pools and seeing if there was any truth to the waters having healing powers. The building was warm, but not too sticky for an August morning. As Brian, “took the waters,” I asked questions of Eileen Judah, a member of the Omni Homestead’s public relations team. The pools are currently owned by the resort.
According to Judah, only a small portion of visitors come specifically seeking pain relief. Most people now come for the history and to experience the springs. Judah went on to describe the massage effect of the pool that comes from the water current, which is close to the jets of a whirlpool.
The temperature of the water at the pools is typically around 98 degrees, but can vary depending on the depth of the pool. It’s also high in sulphur and minerals. In the past, people drank from the waters and a small drinking pool still exists outside of the bathhouses.
Sulphur (or sulfur) is a naturally occurring element. According to WebMD, it is the third most abundant mineral in the human body. It is “believed to help treat skin conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis or acne.”
In 1841, Dr. Henry Howard (then of the University of Virginia) wrote in a letter to Dr. Thomas Goode:
I have advised all my patients who were afflicted with chronic diarrhea or painful menstruation, that resisted medical treatment, to avail themselves of the medical powers of the Hot Springs.
It is true that a few cases have occurred in which the patient returned to me without receiving any relief, and some have claimed my attention in which the disease appeared aggravated: but in all these cases it was ascertained, that either the preparatory measures necessary to be adopted previous to taking the baths, or the auxiliary regimen to be used simultaneously with bathing, were not rigidly adhered to.
Vicki is an employee of the Homestead. In this interview she talks about the history of the area and her experiences at the pools.
Interestingly, WebMD lists on the side effects tab for sulfur that it is “POSSIBLY SAFE when applied to the skin appropriately, short-term.” It also says taking it by mouth might cause diarrhea.
There are two houses – one for men and one for women. Gibson Worsham, an architectural historian who’s studied the houses, explained that the pools date back to 1760, not the structures. He’s also quick to point out that Thomas Jefferson did not design them (a part of the local legend), but did visit them once, well after he was president.
The actual men's bath that stands today was originally a stone enclosure. There was a flag that would go up and men would go in for two hours, exit, and then women would have two hours. The wooden cover wasn't built until the 1820s.
The original wooden structure included a top and then two wings on the north/south. The corners were added later in the 1830s to create an octagonal center. There was no main door and so to get into the pools you had to go through the dressing rooms. The form the wooden structure has today is from the 1840s and 1850s. Worsham said that it was also around this time when they created the massage plunging area.
In the1850s, the pools were owned by the Brockenbrough family of Richmond. They built the cover and a nearby hotel. The Brockenbroughs lost a lot of money during the Civil War and in the 1880s, the pools were purchased by a Hot Springs company.
The hotel was torn down in the 1920s but the Ingles family (who owned the pools by then) kept it and the structure in tact. They'd also erected the structure for the ladies pool in approx. 1875. That building had some structural issues and was rebuilt in the 1930s.
Worsham said that the idea of calling it the Jefferson Pools was a 1990s marketing ploy. He suggests an appropriate name would be the Warm Springs Pools. Regardless of the name (or the reason for the trip), people continue to love the pools because of the warm, luxurious feeling it gives. And medicinal or not, that’s something anyone can feel good about.