Extending south from the Potomac River in the Eastern Panhandle, Morgan County is 229.6 square miles of mostly parallel north-south ridges. It lies within the foothills of the Appalachian mountain chain. The wild and scenic Cacapon River snakes north through the county, emptying into the Potomac at the unincorporated hamlet of Great Cacapon. There is archeological evidence of prehistoric people in Great Cacapon and other locales along the Potomac and Cacapon rivers.
The Cacapon Mountains divide Morgan County into the sparsely settled, forested, and mountainous western segment and the more populous east, which includes the county seat of Berkeley Springs. Panorama Overlook marks the northern end of the Cacapon Mountains. The view from the pull-over on State Route 9 includes Great Cacapon and the confluence of the Cacapon and Potomac rivers amid the jumble of the western mountains.
When 16-year-old George Washington arrived in March 1748 on his first surveying trip of Lord Fairfax’s huge land grant, he camped at the ‘‘fam’d warm springs,’’ according to his diaries. Maps named them Medicinal Springs and hundreds of hardy health seekers were already visiting in summer, drawn by stories passed on by the Indians. They have since become known as Berkeley Springs, the centerpiece of the historic county seat town.
The source of the thermal springs is unknown, but they flow constantly at about 1,000 gallons per minute with an unchanging mineral content. Described since colonial times as clear, sparkling and tasteless, the waters emerge at the base of Warm Springs Ridge from five major and numerous minor springs. Their temperature is 74 degrees Fahrenheit regardless of season. The springs have been used as the town water supply since 1892. Today, two commercial water companies bottle the spring water and market it throughout the East.
Washington returned nearly a dozen times to ‘‘take the waters,’’ and first met steamboat inventor James Rumsey at the springs. On December 6, 1776, the Virginia House of Burgesses established a town there for the purpose of providing lodging for those coming to cure their ills. The town was called Bath, still its official name although the post office name of Berkeley Springs is commonly used. Lots were purchased by the colonial elite who chose to make Bath the country’s first spa. Morgan County was created from parts of Hampshire and Berkeley counties in 1820. It was named for Daniel Morgan, a Revolutionary War hero who was said to have taken the waters for gout.
In spite of periodic ups and downs, the care and feeding of visitors has been a major industry in Berkeley Springs for more than two centuries. Hotels have come and gone, bathhouses have been built and razed. Repeated fires and the Civil War took their toll. One of America’s earliest travel writers and a first-rate sketch artist, David Hunter Strother (Porte Crayon) lived at, and later owned, his family’s hotel in Berkeley Springs. There are buildings still in use from various periods in Berkeley Springs’ spa history, including the 1815 Roman Bath House and Berkeley Castle, built as a summer cottage in 1885.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad has been a major force in Morgan County since before the Civil War, making its way parallel to the Potomac River. The railroad, now CSX, still traverses Morgan County, though the trains seldom stop. Nearly all the railroad stops disappeared as population centers by the 1930s, and today only Paw Paw remains along with a spur in Berkeley Springs to serve the U.S. Silica sand mining operation.
Paw Paw, on the Potomac River on the westernmost edge of the county, is Morgan County’s other incorporated town. Once-vast apple orchards have disappeared from the area, but Paw Paw remains active with a high school, library, and health clinic. The paw paw fruit that grows wild on trees along the riverbanks gave its name to both the town and the largest man-made structure on the C&O Canal—a tunnel dug more than half a mile through Sorrel Ridge, just across the river in Maryland.
Two of the county’s most notable industries trace their beginnings back to the 1890s. High-grade white silica sand was initially mined by several small, local companies. Today the sand, used to make glass, is mined and sold nationally by U.S. Silica. The county’s other major industrial employer is Seely Pine Furniture, a custom-order furniture maker owned since 1996 by former Governor Caperton’s family. U.S. Silica maintains the private Potomac Airpark, sized for corporate jets.
Agriculture had a golden age in the early part of this century. Thousands of acres of tomatoes were cultivated, and more than two dozen canneries kept a large portion of the population engaged during the fall. From 1937 to 1941, the Tomato Festival provided a break for the workers in early September and brought thousands of visitors to Berkeley Springs.
Morgan County has two state parks, both vital to its tourism industry. The village green surrounding the warm springs in the center of town was set aside as public land by Lord Fairfax and designated Bath Square by the town’s colonial founders. In 1929, it became Berkeley Springs State Park, complete with historic bathhouses. It is West Virginia’s smallest state park, at five acres, and the only one at which visitors can get a mineral bath and massage. Since 1974, the annual Apple Butter Festival has filled its lawns on Columbus Day weekend.
Cacapon State Park was built as a Civilian Conservation Corps project in 1933 and has grown into one of the most popular resorts in the state park system. In the 1960s, the state added a Robert Trent Jones 18-hole golf course to the park’s 6,000 acres. More than 22,000 acres is available for public use in Sleepy Creek Hunting and Fishing Grounds on Morgan County’s eastern boundary.
From a 2000 population of 14,943 to a population of 17,541 in 2010, Morgan County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. It is a popular haven for retirees and artists from the nearby Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area. The significant second-home population and locally owned tourism industry recall historic periods when colonial elite and Victorian industrialists made Berkeley Springs their preferred destination.
This Article was written by Jeanne Mozier
Last Revised on October 20, 2010
Newbraugh, Frederick T. Warm Springs Echoes: About Berkeley Springs and Morgan County. Berkeley Springs: Morgan Messenger, 1967.