In 1970s Steamboat, Old Town Hot Springs was relied upon for daily hygiene
August 4, 2017
Longtime Old Town Hot Springs manager Pat Carney entertained an audience at the Tread of Pioneers Museum Friday with the story of a late-night call she received in 1977 informing her the wooden roof of one of the swimming pools at the historic swimming destination at the eastern entrance to downtown Steamboat Springs had caved in – which ultimately proved to be good news.
"I was called the pool manager when I was hired in 1975," Carney said during her Brown Bag lecture. "I grew up on the ocean in Rhode Island and knew nothing about swimming pools. I have a master’s degree in urban affairs. I knew nothing about pools, let alone a pool heated by a geothermal spring."
In that era, one of the pools at what was then known as the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association, measuring about 20 feet by 60 feet, was enclosed by glass walls topped with an arched timber roof.
The good news was that the nearby Heart Springs fed the pools with 220 gallons of water a minute at temperatures consistently between 102 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit. The bad news was that the roof wasn't properly ventilated, and all of that high humidity had caused it to rot.
“Everyone in town, when I got here called it the ‘Swim, Sauna’. Not everyone in town had a place to live. It was a place where many people took their showers. It was a bathroom for many people.” – Old Town Hot Springs Project Manager Pat Carney
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"With no ventilation, it ended up taking down the whole roof," Carney recalled.
At the time, the board of Health and Rec was struggling to make annual payments of $14,000 on a loan from the Farmers Home Administration and replacing the roof with something more appropriate was not an option.
When the debris had been cleaned up, the glass walls surrounding the pool remained standing, and Carney recalled citizens in Steamboat found they preferred swimming in the open air even in the midst of a Rocky Mountain winter. A member of her audience reminded Carney how unbearably stuffy it was swimming in the covered pool.
Within a couple of years, the glass walls were taken down as well, Carney recalled. And Health and Rec patrons liked it even better. That led to keeping the larger lap pool open all winter — a move that generated more revenue and helped the pool begin to work out of its financial woes.
"In 1980, Charlie Williams realized we had to keep the pool open all year," Carney recalled. "The lap pool was only open in summer until 1980. That significant move was followed closely in 1981 with the construction of the first water slide at the pool.
"What we were trying to figure out is how could we keep this place open and stable," she said. "The water slide was a big shot in the arm for that."
A year later, Health and Rec, unable to manage the rustic Strawberry Park Hot Springs miles from downtown, sold it to Don Johnson for $180,000.
"He's done a fabulous job with it," Carney said, explaining that the sale solidified the financial health of the downtown hot springs.
Finally, Carney explained that the culture of Steamboat Springs and accordingly, the role of the downtown hot springs, were very different than they are today.
When Carney arrived in the mid-1970s, the facilities included, in addition to the swimming pool, two small locker rooms, a small front desk and a small but very popular sauna.
"Everyone in town, when I got here called it the 'Swim, Sauna,'" Carney recalled. "Not everyone in town had a place to live. It was a place where many people took their showers. It was a bathroom for many people."
Carney's title ultimately became dignified. She was the executive director for many years and now serves as the project director at Old Town Hot Springs.
Her board has seen membership grow from 4,000 in 2006 to 7,000 in 2017, and a new capital campaign for a building project intended to allow the revered nonprofit to continue its mission of helping locals and visitors lead healthy, active lives has been launched.