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Springing to life

Ashland once bubbled with hot springs and mineral springs, enough to make it a major tourist draw back in the days of stagecoaches and the early railroads, but it all fizzled out with modern transportation patterns, Prohibition (it was often served with alcohol) and the expense of maintaining rapidly corroding pipes.

“Taking the waters” was not only a pleasurable way to relax, but was thought to relieve a range of ills, including sciatica, back pain and rheumatism, said Amy Blossom, who will present “Hot Springs: Sacred Ground, Healing Properties,” at noon Wednesday, Aug. 9, at the Ashland Public Library. It’s free and open to the public.

The Rogue Valley sits atop a mix of ancient volcanic and maritime geology that has delivered springs for millions of years and were revered by Native Americans, who called their vapors “the breath of the Great Spirit.” They thought the waters would heal you if you’ve lived a good life, says Blossom, who was Ashland’s librarian for decades.

Ashland’s plethora of springs were marketed as the “Carlsbad of Oregon,” with the first one, Wagner Soda Springs, tapped in 1840, well before wagon trains arrived here, she says. It was located near Buckhorn Springs, another long-term spa on Emigrant Creek.

Wagner had a plush, pretentious 20-room hotel for the elite of Ashland, as it was phrased in promotional literature. It opened in 1885, and was a two-hour wagon ride from town, but because of railroad patterns — and being bypassed when Highway 66 was built — it closed in 1911.

Most were soda springs, which means you drank them, while the minority were mineral springs you could immerse yourself in, says Blossom. Much soda water was bottled and shipped to big cities, including Portland and Chicago. The fluids were popular in local bars, which found ways to make them palatable with hard liquor, but Prohibition in Oregon, passed in 1916, was “the final big blow to all of them.”

Mixing the waters — especially the still available Lithia water — with lemonade was also very popular — and continued on in the dry years, but the elixir has disappeared from the public memory and palate.

Mineral springs boasted a range of supposedly healthful minerals, including iron, magnesium, sodium bicarbonate, sodium hydroxide and carbon dioxide, the latter often used to make dry ice.

The hot springs, especially Jackson Hot Springs, built in 1862; Helman Hot Springs on Randy Street (it was a dime for kids admission and ran from 1886 to 1956), and the Ashland Mineral Springs Natatorium, known as Twin Plunges, were in or near town and essentially filled the role of “taking a bath.”

However, when indoor plumbing became available, more and more people would bathe at home, often with many family members sharing the same bath water, she says. Indoor plumbing was another stake in the heart of the natural springs movement, she adds, and it was essentially gone by the time of the Great Depression.

Twin Plunges was a big survivor. Built in 1909, it featured two big pools, high dive, trapeze rings, maple dance floor and seating for 500. Located where the present Ashland Food Co-op is, it was taken over by Al Wilstatter, renovated and limped along until 1978.

Lithia Mineral Springs, thought to be exceedingly healthful, contained the element lithium, known to calm and balance one’s moods. The city passed a bond issue in 1914 to have it piped in from the area of Emigrant Creek. It was so mineralized, it corroded pipes, hampering its popularity. Its mellifluous name survives all over town but its use has not. However, you can still take home bottles of it from Plaza fountains and a pipe by the gazebo in Lithia Park.

Tourists and unaware folk are often photographed in the Plaza recoiling from the sulfurous elixir and spitting it out.

The immense mineral springs rage, nationwide, “was what people believed in. It was the medical way,” says Blossom. “By the 1920s, however, medicine, as we know it, was taking the lead over natural ways. People still go to mineral springs daily but it’s definitely not what it was in 1914.”

—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

The Wagner Springs Hotel was a luxious spa destination a two-hour wagon ride from town. [Photo courtesy of the Southern Oregon Historical Society]
A map showing hot springs around Oregon. [Contributed photo]