From skin diseases to heart health, Steamboat’s mineral springs have been a healing destination for more than 100 years
Editor’s note: This story was corrected at 9:45 a.m. Monday. The person who sought to bottle water from Lithia Springs was H.W. Gossard, and the railroad reached Steamboat Springs in 1908, according to Katie Adams, curator at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Long before Mount Werner attracted skiers, Steamboat Springs was a destination for a different kind of tourist — those seeking the healing waters of the town’s mineral springs.
Steamboat Springs is home to about 13 public mineral springs, ranging in temperatures from 55 degrees to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to soft boil an egg in ten minutes.
Dagny McKinley is a Steamboat resident and mineral spring connoisseur — in researching her book “The Springs of Steamboat” she’s tasted every public spring available. She takes her mineral water chilled for a day in the refrigerator to kill some of the sulphurous smell and with a bit of lemon to encourage effervescence, though she admits that none of them taste great. Though she’s lived to tell the tale, water in city-owned public springs is untreated and could carry disease-causing bacteria.
The mineral springs have been touted throughout history as a cure-all for ailments inside and out, including mood disorders, scoliosis, gout, dyspepsia, skin diseases and anemia, she said.
“Initially, that was the draw to come to Steamboat itself — was that we had these healing springs,” McKinley said. “In the early 1900s, the papers would tout it as ‘We had more mineral springs in the area than any other place in the entire world.’ … It used to be a world-class destination for the hot springs.”
Among them, Lithia Springs, located off 13th Street, and the Heart Spring, now contained within the Old Town Hot Springs complex, had the biggest reputation for health benefits. In the 1940s, signs at the eastern and western entrances to Steamboat implored tourists to visit the two pools.
But Lithia Springs is a bit of a misnomer. Of the 12 springs managed by the city, half contain an equivalent or greater amount of lithium, according to data from the city. This is the case with several springs around town. The Cave Spring has more sulphur in it than the Sulphur Spring, and Soda Spring has more than twice the amount of iron per liter than the Iron Spring.
Though the idea of natural remedies bubbling up out of the earth seems too good to be true, scientific studies have verified that some minerals in area hot springs can improve some of these ailments.
Lithium is a common treatment for bipolar disorder. Magnesium chloride has been shown to improve skin’s hydration and roughness. A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine concluded that water containing sulphur — beyond treating skin, respiratory and musculoskeletal disorders — can improve a number of cardiac diseases, including heart disease.
These minerals are found in most, if not all, of Steamboat’s springs. Still, you shouldn’t rely on hot spring healing alone. If you’re concerned about your health, visit a physician.
People have made use of these healing properties from the earliest times. According to Ute historian Roland McCook, the Ute bathed their horses in the valley’s sulphur springs before hunting trips or battles to bless the horses.
Steamboat’s first family of settlers, the Crawfords, chose this spot because of the springs in the 1870s.
“I was satisfied that the springs would insure a future and I saw with my mind’s eye a prosperous city at no far distant date,” Crawford wrote in his diary, which was published in “The Tread of Pioneers” by Charles H. Leckenby.
Once the town was platted, the mineral springs’ “undoubted” curative and healing powers were the headlining feature early Steamboat residents used to entice more people to the area. In the 1930s, H.W. Gossard sold bottles of Lithia Springs water and is said to have lined the trunk of his Buick to carry a trunkful of the water home to California each winter. By 1940, the Steamboat Pilot declared that nothing in nature was lacking to make it the greatest health resort in the world.
At one point, there were about 150 springs in the Steamboat area, though there could be some embellishment to that number — the same Pilot article that gave that statistic claims that waters in the springs reached impossible temperatures of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Still, it’s certainly true that Steamboat had more springs than exist today. As more roads and homes were built, rocks were used to fill in some of the springs as the town grew up on the marshy land. Other springs were trampled out of existence by livestock’s hooves as ranching rose into a major industry in the Yampa Valley.
Steamboat Spring, the town’s namesake, was once a geyser with two spouts, McKinley said. The geyser and its chugging sound ceased when the railroad came in 1908, though natural geological processes could’ve also diminished the spring’s geysers.
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