Legend has it: Sleeping giants, mystic springs and the sound of a Steamboat

Local lore finds life in Steamboat Springs community

John F. Russell
Steamboat Springs' Elk Mountain
John F. Russell

— As executive director of the Tread of Pioneers museum, Candice Bannister will tell you that most great stories begin with the same simple phrase — legend has it.

There are several stories that have become legend since James Crawford first gazed across the Yampa Valley in 1874. Some predate his arrival; others may be aimed at marketing our town to tourists. But they all have at least one thing in common: Steamboat Springs.

What’s in a name

As the story goes, Steamboat Springs was named by three French fur trappers who were living along the banks of the Yampa River in 1865.

Bannister said legend has it the trappers heard a noise that sounded like a steamboat engine as it made its way up the river, and they named our small town Steamboat Springs.

As it turned out, the noise was not a steamboat, but one of many mineral hot springs that were active in the area. However, the name and the story stuck.

Now, nearly 150 years later, it’s that story that explains how a small mountain town located in the heart of the Rockies is named for a boat that could never have navigated the rolling waters of the Yampa River.

Bannister said the story is supported by the words of longtime Steamboat Springs newsman Charles Leckenby, who published the story of how Steamboat got its name in his book, “Tread of Pioneers,” which was copyrighted in 1945.

Leckenby came to Steamboat as a young man, and landed his job with the Steamboat Pilot newspaper just days after arriving in 1889. He tirelessly pursued the history of Northwest Colorado and spent much of his time talking with the men who settled in this town and the old timers who could describe what it was like to live and survive in the early days

Bannister explained that the pages of Leckenby’s book, and other written words from that time, are an important part of our town’s history and provide insight into those early days.

“When we start looking into history we turn to books like this (Tread of Pioneers),” Bannister said. “Charles H. Leckenby was the early longtime editor of the Pilot and understood and appreciated sound journalism.”

Longtime local Bill Fetcher, who was born and raised in Steamboat Springs, said he first heard the story as a child and believes from his own research that the tale of how Steamboat Springs was named is accurate.

However, Fetcher never got the chance to hear the source of the spring that inspired the name. The source of the sound was silenced in 1908, when the railroad came to Steamboat. It is widely believed that crews, using dynamite to make way for the rails, disrupted the source of the sound.

Other stories speculate that local children stuck rocks in the springs hoping that, when the geyser erupted, it would shoot the rocks high into the air. The belief is that by sticking rocks into the springs, the children eventually silenced the sound it made.

There is also a question of whether the spring was actually a geyser or if the water simply flowed out of the ground.

Yampatika naturalist Tom Kelly, who has led tours of the local springs, cited recent studies on the minerals and salts found around the springs that seem to support the idea the Steamboat Spring was never a geyser, but there may have been a dome that created the unique sound.

The Sleeping Giant

If you look to the northwest from downtown Steamboat Springs, it’s hard to miss Elk Mountain, and it’s easy to see that the early residents of the Yampa Valley probably couldn’t help trying to explain why the rock formation that fills the horizon looks like a giant sleeping.

Trenia Sandford published “The Legend of the Sleeping Giant of Steamboat Springs” in 1999, writing the fictional story of the giant as it was told to her by her grandmother Evelyn Ellis Semotan, who first penned the words as part of a school project in the early 1900s.

The children’s story revolves around a Ute tribe living in the Yampa Valley near where Steamboat Springs is located today. The tribe had a friendly relationship with a giant, who also lived in the valley and protected them. The two got along fine until the giant fell in love with the songs of a young maiden, who would sing along the banks of the Yampa River every evening. The giant, who only wanted the girl to sing to him, wasupset when the maiden stopped coming to the Yampa to sing. The giant learned she had fallen in love with the chief’s son, and she would rather spend her time singing for him.

In a fit of jealous anger, the giant turned the beautiful maiden into a doe, and the only way to break the curse was for the chief’s son to shoot the giant through the heart using a giant arrow with a stone tip. The warrior spent many days building a giant arrow and bow using a large stone, bird feathers, Aspen trees and deer hides.

One day, the giant realized he had been wrong and that he had forgotten it was his duty to protect the people living in the valley. He explained to the tribe that the chief’s son must shoot him in order to break the curse, and he allowed the young warrior to fire the shot. The arrow found its mark, and the curse was broken. The giant fell to the ground and turned to stone. He remains there today, and his presence protects the people who inhabit the valley.

Today, Sandford isn’t sure where her grandmother got the idea for the story, or if she just made it up to please her teachers.

Sandford said she has visited Ute reservations with hopes of finding out if the idea for the story had been passed along to her grandmother at some point, but Sandford said her search for a Ute story about the mountain has been unsuccessful.

The Yampa Valley Curse

Because he was born in Steamboat Springs, Fetcher has spent much of his life absorbing collecting tales about local lore.

“I grew up here, so I’ve heard it all at one point or another,” the 71-year-old said.

Fetcher admits he has never been able to trace the story about the Yampa Valley Curse, which he argues is most likely a story made up by a taxi cab driver moving passengers between the ski area and Yampa Valley Regional Airport sometime after it opened in 1966 — just a few years before he first heard the story of the curse.

He said he has doubts the curse can be traced back to the Native Americans who spent summers in the area until 1879, when they were forced to relocate to reservations following the Meeker Massacre.

“None of us growing up here in the ‘50s and ‘60s had ever encountered the story,” Fetcher wrote in a letter.

Fetcher said the story, which states that once a person visits the Yampa Valley, he or she will have to return and live here forever, eventually gained new life and became a marketing statement designed to give visitors a reason to come back.

It was also clear, based on stories in historical documents from that period, that some of the Utes who visited the valley, including the followers of Chief Colorow, did not want the settlers in the Yampa Valley.

Bannister said there is a “romantic vision” of early settlers and Native Americans swapping stories around a campfire, but there isn’t much historical documentation to support the idea.

James Crawford, arrived with his family in 1875 and was able to gain the trust and friendship of many Ute tribe members who came to the area to hunt in the summers — including Chief Yamonite. There are stories of the chief’s wife visiting the Crawford home, and the Native American children would play with the Crawford children.

However, the amount of communication between the Crawford’s and the Utes was limited by language. If the Utes did pass on a curse, it is not well-documented or has yet to be uncovered in the reporting from that time period.

Fetcher views the legend of the “Yampa Valley Curse” as modern lore, especially since he did not hear the story growing up in Steamboat Springs.

“I maintain that legends help make our lives and history more interesting, but it’s important not to lose sight of the truth behind them,” Fetcher said.

Thirst for health

The bubbling, light-blue waters of the Lithia Springs have a hold on longtime Steamboat Springs resident George Tolles.

Tolles isn’t sure how long he has been making the trek to the local spring to fill one-gallon water jugs for himself and friends, but it’s been long enough to acquire a taste that dates back decades.

“It’s slightly sulfurous, but if you squeeze a little lemon or lime into the water, it will cut right through that taste,” Tolles said.

Tolles, who is 87, is a huge believer in the health benefits of the water.

“It makes you feel mellow, and it really works if you drink it regularly,” Tolles said. “Lithium is a known drug with a lot of positives. At one time, and I’m not sure if it’s true, I was told that there are only three lithia springs in the United States. So it’s a pretty rare thing.”

Tolles, who taught for years at Colorado Mountain College and has traveled the world, is a regular at the Old Town Hot Springs, and he went head-to-head with the city over plans to expand the area where dogs could be walked at the animal shelter because of fears it would pollute the Lithia Spring.

“I had to testify that I was a habitual user,” Tolles said with a chuckle. “I guess I am.”

Tom Kelly — who has spent years leading tours of local springs and studying the geological sources of the water and why they are so prevalent in Steamboat Springs — isn’t so sure about the health benefits, but understands the importance of the idea to Steamboat’s history.

“I personally don’t think there is any value to drinking the spring water, because there is not enough lithium and not enough minerals to make a difference,” Kelly said.

But he added it’s hard to argue the point with someone like Tolles — who is in his 80s and still in great shape — promoting the cause.

And Tolles is not alone in his belief in the restorative powers of the springs.

The Yampatika Utes, who spent summers in the Yampa Valley hunting elk, considered the springs to be sacred and would visit them when they were in the area.

When James Crawford arrived in the valley, he noted there were more than 160 springs in the area. He built one of his first cabins near the Iron Spring, and the springs were well known among the town’s few inhabitants, as well as miners and fur trappers who ventured into northern Colorado.

By the time the railroad was completed in 1909, the local springs had become a big draw. Gazebos were built over many of them, and people came from across the country to bathe in, drink from and enjoy Steamboat’s many natural hot springs.

The idea that the spring waters had medical value caught the attention of Henry Williamson Gossard, who founded Chicago’s H.W. Gossard corset company in 1901 and moved to Steamboat Springs a short time later. He leased the Lithia Spring, with hopes of bottling the water and selling it across the country.

He built concrete breastwork around the springs and an entry, complete with a guardhouse and tin soldier. According to Tolles, Gossard also lined the trunk of his Chrysler and took water with him when he left for California in the winters.

“From the time the railroad was built through the 1920s, Steamboat Springs went through its spa period,” Fetcher said. “They came to stay at the Cabin Hotel, they came to swim at the health and recreation swimming pool and to soak in the Heart Spring. That continued through the 1920s, but the Great Depression put a crimp on people traveling to places like Steamboat Springs and doing tourist type things, in general.”

The tough economic times took their toll on the springs and the town. Fetcher said the Cabin Hotel fell into disarray and eventually became affordable housing for the worker bees. It remained that way until it burnt to the ground in 1939.

Today, the springs are still a big draw in Steamboat, and visitors can take walking tours featuring the springs that remain in the area.

As for Tolles, he is hoping that hip replacement surgery and his schedule will allow him to get back to his long-running tradition of heading to the springs for his daily glass of water.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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