Historic Jefferson Pools in Peril

May 30, 2018

The oldest spa in America could be here in Virginia – in the remote and mountainous Bath County.  That’s where warm water bubbles up from the ground in pools where Thomas Jefferson once soaked.  The springs have been a major tourist attraction, but the county recently closed them down. 

Bill Jones, Lee Elliott and Phil Deemer are fighting to repair and preserve the Jefferson Pools.

Bath County is all about water – crisscrossed by mountain streams and blessed with bubbling springs.

“They’ve been a tourist attraction since colonial times, and I’m sure the Native Americans enjoyed them a long time before we arrived,” says  area resident Bill Jones. 

Wealthy Southern families have been coming here since 1759 to take the waters and avoid malaria, which was common in America’s east coastal plain. Jones is a hydrologist and he says even the water is historic – at least 65 years old.

“The U.S. Geological Survey did some tests a few years ago, and they looked for tritium in the water," he explains. "Basically there wasn’t any, so that means the water is older than 1952 when we started doing above ground hydrogen bomb tests.”

The historic men's bath house has played host to eight presidents .

Over the years, owners of the property repaired wooden bath houses covering the springs, and – until recently – preservationist Phil Deemer says the bones of those buildings were strong.  Now, however, the roofs are leaking.

“So many of the shingles are missing," Deemer explains. "Water is now getting into places it didn’t get into before, so those bones I talked about before that were in pretty good shape are now starting to degrade much more quickly.”

Which is a shame, he adds, because inside the circular men and women’s bathhouses you can literally immerse yourself in history:

“One of the differences with Monticello and Mount Vernon is you go and you stand behind the velvet rope and you look in.  It’s a museum of sorts.  This is actually an actively used building which is also historically significant.  Bath County is where history bubbles up,” Deemer says.

Bath County closed the Jefferson Pools, which are owned by the Omni Homestead, because the bathhouses were deemed unsafe.

That’s why the group he helped found – Preservation Bath – is asking the Omni Homestead Hotel, which now owns the pools, to protect them.

Deemer figures that would cost around $85,000.

"That’s peanuts for the Omni,” he concludes.

Longer term, he’d like to see a major restoration, which could cost $2 million.  The Omni Homestead’s managing director, Brett Schoenfield, was not available to speak with us but told WDBJ TV that several projects at the current hotel, which is over 100 years old, require funding.

“It becomes a matter of priority of capital spent and making sure that all of the amenities and structures are viable to continue the on-going enterprise,” he said.

In the meantime, Preservation Bath’s Lee Elliott fears the structures at the Jefferson Pools could fall apart.

“Every night there’s a thunderstorm and a big wind I’ll wake up and think, ‘Please, let the pools be there in the morning.  Let them be saved,' she says.

And Phil Deemer notes his group would be happy to take this project off the Homestead’s hands.  His not-for-profit might get grants to do the work needed, while the Omni is unlikely to attract outside contributions.

“The pools over the last several years have profits somewhere in the range of $250,000-$300,000 according to the calculations we’ve seen.”

At the Grist Mill Inn, one of many area businesses which depend on tourism, owner John Loeffler says the pools are central to this region’s economy. 

"In speaking to several other business owners,  we’re all down this year.  When we were making  transfer from our savings account to our business account this winter to make payroll, we met another business owner who was doing the same thing," he recalls.  "The next week we saw her again, and she said, ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize how much the pools affected my business.’"

And, he adds, prospective guests will sometimes cancel reservations when they learn the Jefferson Pools are closed.