High hopes and hot water

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This 1888 photo of the hot springs shows a second bathhouse on the right of the still-remaining, mundane in appearance, men’s bathhouse. The new ladies’ bathhouse opened solely for the ladies has a more attractive, probably Gothic, architecture. Now the ladies could bathe at the same time as the men without the risk of being gawked at.

What did the Pagosa Hot Springs look like in 1878 before people commenced messing around with the natural contours? For our description, we again rely on the professional eyes of Army Engineer Lt. C.A.H. McCauley, who inspected the fledgling Fort Lewis and nearby hot springs in 1878.
“The group of hot springs occupies an area of about 21 acres upon the eastern side of the river … the main hot spring is said to be the largest thermal spring and possess the highest temperature of any in the United States … The crater is an irregular depression approximating a pear shape, and is about 69 feet long by 45 feet wide … the depth of the waters being uknown …,” McCauley wrote.
Motter’s note: The depth remains unknown even today. Two or three years ago I watched a team of engineers from Farmington drop a weight attached to a cable of about 1,000 feet in length into the boiling water and fail to touch the bottom.
McCauley continued, “… columns of bubbles rise constantly everywhere over the surface … near the center a furious boiling appearance is presented … the temperature of the spring was found to be 141˚ F … for convenience we may say there are 19 springs with a temperature above blood heat.”
McCauley described the land surrounding the springs as “peculiar, honey-combed ground over which a passerby must exercise caution.” Elsewhere, he noted, “the general surface is solid and will bear the weight of a horse and rider, although a hollow sound will be heard while passing over it.”
Until construction of Fort Lewis was begun in 1878, we have no record of anyone living near the hot spring. Native American bands camped there temporarily from time to time, but, true to their nomadic lifestyles, soon moved on.
Welch Nossaman and a couple of companions built cabins near the hot springs as early as 1876. Other cabins may have been erected nearby, especially along the wagon road fathered by the Old Spanish Trail that passed in an east-west direction about 1 mile south of the springs. As early as 1861, this route was also known as Baker’s Toll Road. A lot of miner’s took advantage of this route to travel from New Mexico to the mining camps of the San Juan Mountains located up the Animas River from today’s Durango. Miners being a recalcitrant lot, I doubt if Baker ever received a nickel for his toll road but, you can bet many a miner took a look at the hot springs.

This story was posted on July 15, 2019.