People flocked to the Oregon resort-spa-hospital in the 1920s.
At the turn of the 20th century a talented physician named William T. Phy moved to Hot Lake, a tiny northeastern Oregon town named for nearby hot springs. In the ensuing decades he would capitalize on the hot springs’ reputed healing powers to transform the existing hotel, dance hall and bathhouse complex into the Hot Lake Sanatorium, aka the “Mayo Clinic of the West.” Phy bought the property in 1917 and by the 1920s operated a hotel, hospital, ballroom and dining facilities. But by the mid-1930s the business had collapsed, meeting the same fate as most of the other lavish hot springs resorts in the West.
Indians had forged the original trails to the major Western hot springs, bringing their sick and injured to soak in the thermal waters. Their worn trails in turn led white explorers and settlers to many of the hot springs, though given the telltale sulfurous steam plumes, few would have remained secret for long. In the mid- to late 19th century entrepreneurs across the West snapped up hot springs land rights and soon advertised the healing powers of their waters, invoking the luxurious mineral baths at European spas.
One such place,Vichy Hot Springs [www .vichysprings.com], even took the name of its famous French counterpart. Opening outside Ukiah, Calif., in the early 1850s, it accommodated such famous visitors as Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Jack London (three of its renovated original buildings are among Mendocino County’s oldest standing structures). Farther south California entrepreneur Sam Brannan, intrigued by Calistoga’s natural hot springs, developed a spa, complete with mud baths and pool, in the early 1860s. Back up north the owner of a resort outside Eugene, Ore., ran this ad copy in an 1874 issue of The Oregonian:“The medicinal properties of the water have been tested by the cure of those who have visited them who have been afflicted with various diseases—particularly female weaknesses, rheumatism, scrofula inflammations both external and internal, and general debility.” Hot springs spas sprang up in every Western state.
In the 19th century local Indians and white settlers acclaimed the therapeutic benefits of the Sol Duc hot springs, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. But it wasn’t until 1912 that a resort-spa opened for business there, featuring a three-story sanatorium, 165 guestrooms and a movie theater. The medical claims made by the owners of the various hot springs ranged from probable (springs could alleviate skin problems) to plausible (relaxing can lower blood pressure) to laughable. Central Washington’s Soap Lake supported several resorts, and rumor had it its waters had cured baldness, rattlesnake bites and, in one case, death.
Whites probably first saw Hot Lake in 1812, when members of the Wilson Price Hunt expedition passed through northeastern Oregon on the journey from St. Louis to Astoria. In his 1836 book Astoria, Washington Irving describes the lake as a sulfurous marsh 300 yards in circumference.“The vapor from this pool was extremely noisome,” he writes, “and tainted the air for a considerable distance.” Feeding the lake was one of the world’s largest hot springs, spouting 186-degree water at nearly 30 gallons per minute.
In 1864 trend-spotting entrepreneur Fitzgerald Newhard built a hotel complex at Hot Lake that came to include a post office, dance hall, barbershop, drugstore, blacksmith shop and bathhouses. But the location was remote—nearly 200 miles from Boise and 300 from Portland—and Newhard’s inviting complex didn’t really catch on until the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad 20 years later.
Dr. Phy became director of the Hot Lake facility in 1904 and oversaw construction of a three-story, 105-room brick hotel and sanatorium between 1903 and 1906. And finally the people came—people looking for rest and cures. Hot Lake made $178,811 in 1910. Two years later the railroad built a spur line directly to the hotel, bringing even more customers. After purchasing the property in 1917, Phy expanded the resort-sanatorium to 300 guestrooms and updated the kitchens. He also installed such state-of-the-art equipment as X-ray machines and added a surgical theater, transforming Hot Lake from a vacation resort into a modern medical facility. Although the sanatorium’s typical customer was wealthy, the good doctor reportedly accepted patients unable to pay. Upon Phy’s death in 1931, the North Powder News praised him: “He not only followed his profession with a genius and skill that ranked him among the leaders, but he endeavored to promote good health among the laity.”
In 1919 writer Fred Lockley visited Hot Lake for Portland’s Oregon Daily Journal. “Although there was nothing the matter with me,” he wrote, “I decided to take the course of treatment so that I could better describe it.” In the dining hall Lockley met patients suffering rheumatism, high blood pressure and stomach trouble. His own treatment consisted of getting very warm, sweating copiously and, later, waxing poetic about the healing experience. “A large part of the getting well,” he wrote, “consists in resting, bathing, drinking the medicinal water from the hot springs and forgetting the cares and anxieties of [one’s] business.”
Dr. Phy’s and Hot Lake’s fortunes intertwined: As the physician rose in esteem, so did his sanatorium; as the older doctor grew ill, his sanatorium began to decline. By 1931 medical trends and the Great Depression had weakened the business. In March that year Phy died of pneumonia.
A May 1934 fire destroyed most of the buildings in Hot Lake. The sanatorium remained intact, but the resort—stymied by the Depression and then World War II austerity measures—never bounced back. The railroad rerouted, and the subsequent highway snubbed Hot Lake by several miles. The post office closed in 1943.
Over the years several hot springs spas succumbed to fire. The hotel at Medical Springs, near Hot Lake, burned down in 1917. Fires in 1920 claimed several resorts at Soap Lake (the one whose waters had reputedly cured baldness and death). Oregon’s Mount Vernon Hot Springs Hotel survived until 1968 before it too burned down. Many other spas and sanatoria simply declined and faded away. But hot springs resorts didn’t vanish. In the 1970s back-to-the-land groups resurrected several in northern California and Oregon, while others used the hot springs to fill family-friendly swimming pools. At the turn of the 21st century many hot springs resorts catered to stressed-out city folk, offering such amenities as massage therapy and yoga.
As for the Hot Lake facility, A.J. Roth bought the property in 1942. He hoped to reopen the resort, but though his family lived there for 32 years (son Richard later wrote The Hot Lake Story), the business never took off. From 1974 to 2003 no one owner could seem to hold on to the property, which in turn housed a nursing home, an asylum and a restaurant. In 1987 The Oregonian reported that a new owner, a physician based in La Grande, planned to restore the resort, but by 1991 the property again lay abandoned. Hot Lake’s remaining claim to fame was its supposed ghosts, who played the piano at all hours, rocked in long-abandoned chairs or screamed in agony (a haunting, perhaps, from Hot Lake’s asylum days).
In 2010, after seven years of restoration, Hot Lake’s current owners, the Manuel family, opened a bed-and-breakfast [www.hotlakesprings.com], with soaking tubs. Although they are optimistic about the future of Hot Lake, the days of 300 guestrooms, top-notch medical care and dining facilities for 1,000 are over.The Hot Lake Sanatorium is long gone, but perhaps Americans carry its legacy in their devotion to health clubs and personal trainers. Anyway, we are wise to keep in mind the words of a man who attended to Oregon Daily Journal writer Fred Lockley’s treatment at Hot Lake: “If people would eat less, walk more and sweat more every day, they would not have to come to Hot Lake or need to see a doctor.”
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.