High hopes and hot water

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This is one of the earliest photos of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs. The camera is pointed downstream, south, and a number of buildings representing the birth of Pagosa Springs during the 1870s are shown in the background.

I’ve completed writing about “Traipsin’, tradin’ and explorin’.” For our next subject, here comes “High hopes and hot water.”
A trail-worn prospector bound for Baker’s Park camped near the Great Pagosa Hot Springs in 1861. He thought “that nice hot water hole” an ideal place to launder his shirt. When the woolen shirt was removed from “that nice hot water” it simply disintegrated into a multiplicity of useless threads.
By the early 1870s, health seekers were bathing in the 140-plusdegree mineral saturated waters of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs. Many of them were travelers along the now well-used road past the Hot Springs that evolved from the Old Spanish Trail. Others were miners covered with blood, sweat and tears looking for rest and relaxation after an onerous ordeal while digging for gold in the high San Juans. You can bet all of them picked up on the wisdom of bathing in a tub of water ladled from the spring as opposed to diving into the scalding water and becoming forever useless.
Predictably, the soothing, healing properties of the Pagosa Hot Springs were gaining renown. It was a time in history when doctors prescribed hot spring soaking as a cure for a variety of maladies.
At the same time, a new gold mining camp called Summitville located a few rugged miles northeast of the springs up the East Fork of the San Juan River was in full swing. From that direction in 1873 came the Browns. They were among the first to cross Elwood Pass.
A protype pioneer woman, Mrs. M.O. Brown, her young son and her father, Mr. Sallee, made the perilous journey. Sallee was both blind and suffering from an aggravated case of rheumatism.
Calling the route from Del Norte across Elwood Pass to Pagosa Springs a road would be a major overstatement. At best, it was an unimproved, unmarked horse trail embedded in some of the most rugged mountainous terrain in North America. It was home to Ute, Apache and marauding Comanche Indians before they put away their weapons of war and made peace with the whites. Grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions were a fearful threat, armed with razor-sharp claws and fangs perfectly designed to rip a living from this untamed wilderness.
Fully aware of the formidable obstacles, Brown faced the challenge eyeball to eyeball, grasped reins in both hands and successfully made the trip over the mountains and back.
Permanent settlement around the hot springs began in 1878, the year building began on an Army post on the west bank of the river. The new Army post was called Fort Lewis.
Why was the Army building a fort at the hot springs? Read next week’s column to find the answer.

This story was posted on July 3, 2019.