You may know about the famous Jefferson Pools in Hot Springs, Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson and other notable figures would bathe to heal physical ailments and relax in the warmed waters. However, after recent renovations, the Omni Homestead Resort embraced the origins of the famed springs with the name that graced the mineral-rich waters back when Thomas Jefferson soaked in them–the Warm Spring Pools.
Jefferson spent three weeks at the pools in 1819, bathing three times a day to relieve pain caused by rheumatism. It is ironic that the pools were named after the U.S. President; while he originally described the waters in a letter to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, as being of "first merit," local historians claim he found the spa “quite boring.” He even worried that the waters made his condition worse in the long run.
The History of the Thermal Springs in Virginia’s Mountain Region
The Warm Springs are part of a significant group of about 100 thermally-warmed springs along the edge of the Virginia/West Virginia border. A U.S. Geological Survey found that the springs have a remarkably uniform rate of flow and temperature; the waters remain at about the same temperature year-round and flow into the pools at an impressive rate of 1,700,000 gallons per day! Amazingly, the water in these springs takes about twenty years to complete its cycle through the Earth and back to the surface.
Jefferson may have been one of the most famous visitors to the Warm Springs Pools, but he did not discover them. According to local lore, that distinction went to an unnamed Indigenous wanderer, who fell asleep relaxing in the mineral waters and awoke rejuvenated many centuries ago. Archaeological evidence from the area seems to support the idea that Indigenous people enjoyed the springs far before Jefferson’s time, with some artifacts dating back at least 9,000 years.
In fact, the practice of bathing in mineral-rich waters associated with thermal springs is thousands of years old. Water running from aquifers near the surface filters down to geothermally heated rocks, then is forced back up under pressure through faults in the Earth’s crust. As heated water holds more minerals than cold water, the mineral properties of these thermal springs was thought to promote quicker healing.
Founding America’s First Spa
While people in the area had been bathing in the healing waters of the Warm Springs for centuries, it wasn’t until 1761 that the pools were encircled by an octagonal stone structure to allow for easier entry. This makes the Warm Springs Pools the oldest spa structure in America!
The springs were open to the elements at this time and were not covered by a bathhouse until the 1820s, at which point the owners erected an octagonal structure to match the stone basin. In the mid-1870s, a second structure, the Ladies’ Bath House, was added to the site, allowing women to join in the restorative bathing practices.
The Bath Attendants
The founding of the Warm Springs Pools is in itself an interesting story, but one often untold part of the history is the people who assisted guests at the thermal waters. From the pool’s opening in the 1700s to well into the 1900s, the Warm Springs Pools were maintained and attended by a long line of Black American workers. The best-known of these were Frances Martin Sheppard and her husband William Henry Sheppard, who spent over three decades as the caretakers of the pools in the early 1900s. Frances is said to have taught the girls of Bath County how to swim by tying a sheet around their waists and tossing them into the pool! Another prominent family who ran the pools was the Tonslers of Charlottesville, who were employed at the Warm Springs for over ninety years.
Luxury in Nature: The Homestead Opens
During the early- and mid-1800s, the lands surrounding the Warm Springs were still wild and difficult to traverse, with ragged mountains and thick forests in every direction. After creating the first recorded survey of the area, Thomas and Andrew Lewis obtained 140 acres, including the springs. Seeing an opportunity to turn this land into a luxury tourist attraction, Andrew Lewis partnered with Thomas Bullitt, who procured an additional 300 acres and built the first hotel in 1766 on the site of the current Omni Homestead Resort.
If you visit the resort today, the opulent structure and vast grounds are quite impressive, but back when it first opened in 1766, the Homestead was a wooden hotel with only 18 rooms, named in honor of the “Homesteaders” who built the resort and the bathhouses of the Warm Springs Pools.
The Bullitt family operated the resort until 1832 when Dr. Thomas Goode and his family purchased both the hotel and the thermal springs. As a prominent physician of the era, Dr. Goode recognized the importance of the spa therapies in helping his patients with various ailments. “The Cure” was one of the most famous treatments implemented by Dr. Goode, which involved a salt scrub followed by a relaxing Swiss shower. This is a service you can still get at the spa today!
Dr. Goode passed away in 1858, but his family continued running the resort and spa until early 1880, when M.E. Ingalls, a notable lawyer who discovered the Homestead during a railroad surveying expedition, bought the property with multiple wealthy investors. Ingalls had a grand vision for the Homestead and added on to the property over the years to create a luxurious getaway for the elite.
The Homestead’s Tragic Demise
Ingalls’ vision faced a terrible setback in 1901 when a fire that began in the resort pastry shop burned the main resort to the ground. Luckily, the resort was not at full capacity, and all guests and staff were able to escape without serious injuries. The staff worked hard to keep the fire from spreading, and their hard work spared the spa, casino, the cottages in Cottage Row, and the Virginia Hotel building.
But Ingalls would not be deterred from his pursuit of mountain grandeur; the day after the fire, Ingalls met with the president of the resort and the many investors to discuss the Homestead’s future. He persuaded this group to rebuild the resort, and within a year, the Great Hall was completed and the Homestead reopened. Just two years after the hotel welcomed guests to the rebuilt resort, the West Wing was added.
The 20th Century: An Era of Growth
Ingalls’ passion for the Homestead led to him buying out the other investors in 1911, and he began to pour time, money, and energy into making his dreams for the resort come true. The famous tower of the Homestead was completed in 1929, and other upscale features, like the theatre and Garden Wing, were added during his stewardship.
The Homestead would switch hands several times throughout the 20th century, with each owner adding new amenities and features.
The Jefferson Pools Rebuilt
In 2013, the resort was purchased by Omni Hotel & Resorts, and the hotel company’s management began assessing the Homestead for necessary improvements. In October 2017, the pools, which were known as the Jefferson Pools at the time, were ordered closed by Bath County due to deteriorated conditions leading to safety hazards. Omni Hotels & Resorts brought in a team of historians and architects to put together a plan, and after a 14-month, $4 million rehabilitation, the pools were reopened to the public in 2022.
Planning Your Visit to the Warm Springs Pools & the Omni Homestead
Today, you can relax and soak in the healing waters of the Warm Springs Pools–the same therapeutic experience that Thomas Jefferson (and several other U.S. Presidents) enjoyed in the 18th century!
A stay at the Omni Homestead is a luxurious complement to your Warm Springs Pools visit. After a $140+ million, property-wide renovation finished in 2023, the 2,300-acre mountain resort now boasts more than 30 on-site recreational activities, from an expansive, luxurious spa that features an adults-only Serenity Garden to two championship golf courses. Attractions such as a ski area, Equestrian Center, Shooting Club, falconry, mountain biking trails, and an outdoor water park make the Homestead a perfect destination for a family-friendly vacation.
Book a weekend getaway to the Omni Homestead to experience the healing waters of the Warm Springs Pools and all the other incredible amenities this upscale resort has to offer!