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For Independence Day, book recalls local guy who made good

July 07, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

He might have divided important tracts of rich farmland, sawn magnificent stands of oak and walnut and smelted iron ore, shipping grain, timber and metal down the Potomac River and bringing boatloads of cloth, plaster, seeds and tools back upstream - perhaps under the power of a prototypical steamship - to tame the wild frontier.

Instead, George Washington settled for becoming the nation's first president.

If his mind was on the Revolutionary War and a fledgling government, his heart was in Berkeley Springs, Hancock, Oldtown, Cumberland, Romney and points west, a region he tramped so often that the wilderness became known as "Washington's Woods."

In a small but tantalizing book "George Washington and Us," John Douglas - novelist, historian and editor of the Morgan Messenger in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. - chronicles Washington's significant involvement in the region, including extensive reprints of Washington's own diaries.

Douglas said he began tinkering with the project 15 years ago, when attorney and book collecter Bill Carey loaned him the diaries and he noticed lots of Tri-State area references.

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Washington first saw the warm, mineral springs in what is now Morgan County, W.Va., as a boy of 16, as part of a surveying team.

Washington seemed dubious about the health benefits of the springs, reckoning the damp air and poor accommodations as negating factors: "I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt (by sleeping out in the damp air) than the waters can do them good," he wrote in 1761. His beloved half-brother Lawrence wasn't helped by the water in his losing battle with tuberculosis, and Washington himself reported only marginal help from the springs in shaking off occasional illnesses.

In Washington's day, Berkeley Springs must have been terribly picturesque. It was a playground for the wealthy, but also something of a triage for the sick and infirm, who camped out around the waters in tents or under the stars, hoping for a cure.

But the waters that really captured Washington's imagination were not of the springs, but of the Potomac, which he hoped through the course of his life would become a major artery for commerce. Inventor James Rumsey demonstrated for him a mock-up boat "for ascending rapid currents by mechanism," and that got all kinds of commercial visions dancing in his head.

By then he had sunk considerable financial and emotional capital into the area, buying land, marshaling troops to fight Shawnee and Delaware warriors and serving time in the Virginia legislature representing a broad stretch of western Virginia that included much of today's Eastern Panhandle.

Long before there was Del. Charles Trump, it could be said, there was George Washington.

Washington's journals and Douglas' book call into question a well-accepted tenent that the springs were historically a place of peace, where all peoples, all races, all tribes put down their weapons so everyone could benefit from the healing waters.

In fact, Indian warriors raised cain on Warm Springs Ridge, which shadows the springs. Douglas said the springs as a place of peace was a PR move that came about after the Civil War. Berkeley had a reputation for driving Confederate sympathizers out of the area with rude treatment. As the Virginia planters regained status (and money) they were disinclined to spend their tourism dollars in Berkeley Springs which was viewed as hostile to their type.

Thus came the grand pronouncement that the springs had always been a placid oasis of peace and inclusion.

For Washington, it was a place of business and society. He appeared ready to make it the hub for his commercial endeavors - a plan scuttled by duties of the Revolution.

Indeed, Washington's motives for American independence may have significant root in the lands of Western Virginia. In an effort to quiet the Indians, the Crown began to cut back on land grants and was even rumored to be second-guessing land grants it had made to veterans of the French and Indian War - including 23,000 acres granted Washington himself.

As lots for the Town of Bath (Berkeley Springs) were drawn out, Washington purchased two of the original 131 parcels because, he wrote, "it was always my intention to become a proprietor there..." He contracted with Rumsey to build a home, but the more visionary than practical inventor never got around to completing it.

Washington never lost interest in the Potomac. Two centuries before Sen. Robert Byrd made it popular, Washington was bringing federal agencies to (West) Virginia, including the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. In his later years though, he cut back on his visits to the springs, fearing he would be mobbed by a parade of people calling at his door. He also worried that the town was suffering from "growing dissipation," most likely in the form of rowdy gamblers.

Circuit riding ministers pegged the town "wicked...the seat of vanity, and said the townsfolk were "rude and violent (and) they swear, get drunk and fight often."

As a transplanted native of Berkeley Springs, it's comforting to know that I come by it honestly.

(Douglas' book is available at Borders Books in Hagerstown, or may be ordered by mail by writing: John Douglas, P.O. Box 901, Berkeley Springs, W.Va., 25411. It's $11.20, including shipping.)

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