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Shady doings with the springs

Photo courtesy John M. Motter The first bath house at the Pagosa Hot Springs was built by Thomas Blair in 1881, two years before title to the land was released by the U.S. government.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The first bath house at the Pagosa Hot Springs was built by Thomas Blair in 1881, two years before title to the land was released by the U.S. government.

Thomas Blair opened the first public bath house near the Great Pagosa Hot Spring in May of 1881.

It contained, “one large plunge fully four and one-half feet deep, and several single bath-tubs, fully sufficient to accommodate all visitors. This fine bath house is run in connection with the Hamilton House, the gentlemanly proprietors of which will do all in their power  for the accommodation of the traveling public.”

In truth, the audacious Blair was squatting. A patent for the land containing the Great Pagosa Hot Spring was not issued by the U.S. government until July 5, 1883.

On June 10, 1881, George D. Nickel surveyed the town site of Pagosa Springs and 80 acres containing the hot springs, an action necessary before the springs property could be awarded to the Valentine scrip claimants.

A Durango reporter wrote in July of 1881, “I have already taken one plunge bath—not in boiling water  but in water cooled to 85 degrees—a regular dive and swim, which reminded me of the sports of boyhood.”

Several curious, one might say suspicious, events surround the transfer of title to the hot springs from public to private domain. A variety of ownership claims by private parties had been filed as early as 1875.The events triggered this cynical comment from Lt. C.A.H. McCauley, an army engineer who visited the hot springs in 1878. McCauley apparently felt the rightful ownership of the springs belonged to the Ute Indians.

“Wrested from its hereditary owners. By perjury, misrepresentation, or fraud, in the Brunot convention or treaty with the Utes in 1873, for the cession or purchase of what is known as the San Juan region, the location of the springs was subsequently claimed by various squatters, as agricultural land, omitting the springs on their plat prepared for file and record. To doubly hold the place, it was entered by a confederate as a mill site, and lest this too should be invalidated the ground was taken up as a placer claim. To legally establish the latter, at a  convenient point to the springs, the ground was duly ‘salted’ in the most approved manner, by firing gold dust from a shot gun into the earth, after which, in the presence of a witness, a pan of earth was washed and ’color’ found by the merest accident. The last and strongest claim was the placing of Valentine scrip upon some forty acres of land including the most valuable springs.”

In next week’s column, we’ll describe the series of governmental actions that ultimately resulted in creation of a town site, private ownership of the hot springs, a military reservation, and Archuleta County.

This story was posted on October 3, 2013.