Tales from the Tread: The magic of mineral springs
The Tread of Pioneers Museum’s Brown Bag Summer Storytelling Series is underway, and to kick off the summer on July 5, local author and historian, Dagny McKinley, presented the “Springs of Steamboat.” McKinley is the author of a book by the same title and has a wealth of knowledge of local history and the wonders of the local mineral springs.
For those who missed McKinley’s talk, we invite you to learn more about the wonders of the local mineral springs during the Mineral Springs Walking Tours held at 9 a.m. every Wednesday through Aug. 28. The tours meet at the Depot Art Center on 13th Street and are presented by Yampatika in partnership with the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
There are a reported 150 springs in a concentrated area in Steamboat Springs. They vary in temperature from 40 to 150 degrees. The most common minerals are lithia, iron, calcium and sulphur.
There are three thermal springs: the Heart Spring at the Old Town Hot Springs, the Sulphur Cave Spring and the Steamboat Spring. Most thermal waters are meteoric in origin — meaning they have come from precipitation above ground that is absorbed into the groundwater system and is heated by faults. In order for the Heart Spring at Old Town Hot Springs and Strawberry Park Hot Springs to reach the temperatures they do, they likely dip down 12,000 feet below ground.
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The Ute Indians and their predecessors were the first people attracted to the springs. They believe that mineral spring water is the blood of Mother Earth with healing powers. As such, the Utes frequently bathed themselves and their horses in the springs.
Steamboat Springs town founder James Crawford was also attracted to the springs. On Crawford’s journey west, he ran into a prospector who told him about the springs. When he finally came to the big spring, a spouting geyser that eventually was named Steamboat Spring, he found another 20 out of the 150 springs that were later located.
As soon as Crawford saw the area around Steamboat Springs and its abundance, he was ready to stake his claim. He believed the springs would ensure a successful future town, and he settled the area with his family in 1875. He built the first bathhouse over the Heart Spring, and many weary travelers and settlers enjoyed a warm clean bath, a unique luxury in the frontier west.
Later, an 1888 brochure called Steamboat Springs “The Future Metropolis of Routt County — A refuge for rest and retirement, a resort for pastime and pleasure and a sanitarium for the weak and invalid.” An 1889 Steamboat Pilot article reported “The Largest Group of Mineral Springs in the World is at Steamboat Springs.”
What: Mineral Springs Walking Tours presented in partnership with Yampatika and the Tread of Pioneers Museum
When: 9 a.m. every Wednesday through Aug. 28
Where: Depot Art Center, 1001 13th St.
Cost: Free, yampatika.org
James Crawford initially thought the springs in the area would draw interest but knew the greatest boost to the population would come from the railroad that eventually reached Steamboat Springs in 1908. The priorities for the town became the following.
- Build first class modern hotel with 100 rooms.
- Build bottling works to bottle, ship and sell carbonated waters.
- Build a handsome and modern bathhouse over the Heart Spring to replace the old one.
- Set up precipitating tanks to save sulphur from the sulphur spring.
- Pipe hot water from springs for heating purposes.
There are many notable springs in Steamboat, most around 13th Street. Of particular note are the following.
- Iron Spring or Heron Spring: This spring was used by the Crawford family and was named for Margaret Crawford’s pet heron who would regularly go to the spring and soak. When U.S. Highway 40 was initially paved, the underground passageways that flowed to the Iron Spring were interrupted, and the spring became nothing more than a few bubbles.
- Lithia Spring or Milk Spring: This famous spring was prescribed by early doctors to treat manic-depression and stabilize mood. Its waters were believed to cure gout, rheumatism, arthritis, liver disorders, kidney disorders, inflammation of the bones and joints and blood disorders, according to the 1867 British Pharmacopeoeia. There are only a few lithia springs throughout the world.
- Soda Spring: This spring is located in the pavilion in West Lincoln Park. Old timers stopped for a glass of its fizzy water that was made into lemonade, and it was also used for digestive conditions. When Lincoln Avenue was widened in 1988, the Soda Spring was capped and piped through plastic PVC piping to ensure the water remained drinkable and retained fizz. However, the highway was expanded, and the spring lost forever.
- Steamboat Spring: The earliest known reference of this spring was in 1839. Frederick Wislizenus, a German doctor, who accompanied a fur-trading caravan, reported the spring to be an active thermal geyser. It is believed to be the only natural geyser in Colorado and reportedly blew 5 to 15 feet in the air. It also omitted a loud chugging sound that resembled the sound of a paddle wheel steamer, which led to the naming of Steamboat Springs. When the railroad was built, and the hillside was blasted, the spring ceased to blow and was reduced to what we can see today.
- Sulphur Cave Spring: This spring on Howelsen Hill is in a cavern of limestone. It is filled with highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. When scientist David Steinmann first explored the Sulphur Cave during summer 2007, he immediately noticed numerous clumps of bright red, blood-colored worms living in the small stream that flows through the cave. He suspected that the worms could be a new species previously unknown to science, and after over eight years of work, the worms are now formally described and named Limnodrilus sulphurensis. Similar ecosystems as the Sulphur Cave could potentially exist on other planets like Mars or even in other solar systems.
At the end of her talk, McKinley spoke of all we do not yet know about the natural wonders and purpose of our vast array of mineral springs. She urged the audience, “We may not know what each of these springs has to offer … so I urge you to help fight for and preserve the places that are special and unique.”
Candice Bannister is the executive director for the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
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