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The first written accounts of the hot springs

We’ve been writing about the perceptions of the first anglos to view the Great Pagosa Hot Spring.

What about the Native Americans who dipped in the hot springs many years before the white man knew they existed?

Army Engineer Lt. C.A.H. McCauley visited the hot springs in 1878, the year the Army started building Camp Lewis across the San Juan River from the Great Pagosa Hot Spring.

Here is McCauley’s description of “Red-Men’s Bathing Houses.”

“These were the natural cavities found in close proximity to the Great Hot Springs. One in particular,” McCauley wrote, “at the southern edge of the springs is a point of escape of hot vapor and has been used as a sweat hole, the Indians crouching within and covering themselves with a blanket from above.”

According to local tradition, Indians, particularly of the Southern Ute bands, continued to visit the hot springs regularly until the 1950s. They were said to prefer coating themselves with mud mixed from mineral water, rather than bathing in the water only.

What did the Pagosa Hot Springs look like in 1878?

We turn again to McCauley and his 1878 visit to the springs and a fledgling Fort Lewis.

“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 and 45 feet wide … the depth of the waters being unknown … 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 141F … for convenience we may say there are 19 springs with a temperature above blood heat.”

McCauley described the land around the springs as peculiar, honeycombed 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 Fort Lewis was built in 1878, we have no record of anyone building near the Great Hot Spring.

This story was posted on December 5, 2013.