Long before hot tubs were invented, aching bodies were soothed by bubbling hot water escaping from the ground. Artifacts and petroglyphs found on rocks near hot springs testify that Native Americans frequently used these areas, and early settlers appreciated and promoted the hot springs they found in Idaho Territory. In the Wood River Valley, many springs were discovered and developed in conjunction with the mining boom of the late 19th century, providing local recreational opportunities and attracting wealthy out-of-state visitors and dignitaries. Associated hotels brought money into the area, and provided an alternative source of income a century before “economic diversity” became a Chamber of Commerce byword.
Established in 1879 by the Croy family, the Hailey Hot Springs were among the first to be developed and promoted in the Wood River Valley. A family named Smith later purchased the springs, made minor improvements, and, according to pioneer historian George McLeod, charged patrons a dollar “for a couple of clean towels.” An on-site hospital also utilized the springs, to treat miners and other patients for a variety of ailments.
In 1881 Charles Pentez, a chemist for the Union Pacific Railroad, analyzed the water and proclaimed its superiority: “I find it to be a spring of natural sulphur water, identical in character with the well-known springs of Avor [sic] and Sharon, in New York state, the White Springs of Virginia, and the Bagneres of the Pyrenees—all celebrated springs.” He described the minerals as “dissolved sulphide of soda, chloride of soda, sulphate of soda, and flaizine, a product of nitrogenized organic matter to the amount of 18 grains to the gallon.”
On August 6, 1888 a company headed by Robert Strahorn, a publicist for the Union Pacific Railroad, paid $20,000 in cash for the Hailey Hot Springs property, the Lamb Ranch, and a controlling interest in the Electric Light works. His wife, Carrie Adele Strahorn, later wrote, “Domestic difficulties at the Hailey Hot Springs probably accounted for their being thrown on the market as they were owned by one J.L.G. Smith, who was so cruel to his family that his wife at last picked up a shotgun and killed him, an act justified by the courts and in the hearts of many of the Hailey citizens.
“A large ranch bought by the new Hot Springs Company gave a latitude about the place of a thousand acres of rolling bunchgrass and meadow lands, with the Wood River in the foreground. The registered Kentucky cattle, a hundred and fifty head, formed the finest herd west of Iowa, and it was a great attraction long before the hotel and swimming pools were completed.”
Despite a last-minute emergency cleanup caused by a flood in the gentlemen’s cement plunge, the hotel formally opened to the public on June 20, 1889 with a grand ball. The Hailey Times touted the “Colonial style” hotel’s “hot and cold plunge and tubs and steam baths for ladies and gentlemen, roomy offices, billiard and bar rooms, splendid parlors, roomy music, and ballrooms.”
Although electricity at the hotel was undependable and lights would go out in the middle of important social functions, necessitating the use of candles, “Hailey Hot Springs Hotel made huge profits from its onset…” according to George McLeod. This was probably due to the fact that, as Mrs. Strahorn noted, “no pains or money had been spared in making the place attractive for such people as Jay Gould and family, and many other notables who found it a charming retreat.”
The resort burned to the ground on August 2, 1899. The Wood River Times reported a rumor that the fire was “accidentally set by the upsetting of a lamp used by some ladies who were curling their hair.”
“The visitors to the springs were not of the eastern penny-pinching class of tourists,” continued the Times’ editor. “They were usually very wealthy people, who demanded the best there was to be had, expecting to pay well for it. It is estimated that they put into circulation in this immediate vicinity between $300 and $500 a day. The loss to the town is therefore quite serious.”
The Hailey Hot Springs resort was never rebuilt, but in 1918 water from the springs was piped to the popular Alturas Hotel (later the Hiawatha) located near the county courthouse. Built on what was once a “wild cherry patch,” the Alturas was another project of the Strahorns and the Union Pacific Railroad. When it opened back in May of 1886, it was lauded by the editor of the Hailey Times as “the finest hotel between Denver and the Pacific Ocean.”
Financier Thomas A. Mellon, father of Andrew W. Mellon, took a mortgage on the hotel so that it could be completed. It was reportedly a favorite of the Mellon family, who visited often, “making quite a Mellon patch for the highlands of Wood River,” according to Mrs. Strahorn.
In his History of Alturas County, George McLeod notes that the hotel “contains 82 rooms and each is furnished with hot and cold water” and that “the hotel is heated throughout with this water which has a temperature of 126 degrees, Fahrenheit…There is a large natatorium in connection with the Alturas.”
Known by the name of Johnson’s Cold Springs from 1881-1883 and by Bolton’s Cold Springs from 1883-1905, Clarendon Hot Springs flourished briefly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pioneer lawyer James Hawley wrote, “Clarendon Hot Springs, situated seven miles from Hailey, have demonstrated their curative properties in cases of rheumatism, skin and blood diseases, nervous affections, etc. The springs are located in a natural grove of great beauty and the grounds are being gradually improved. Hotel accommodations are provided and there is good fishing and hunting nearby.” Although the hotel closed after WWII, Clarendon Hot Springs remained accessible to the public until the late 1970s.
Stagecoach entrepreneur Isaac Lewis began developing Guyer Hot Springs, located west of Ketchum in the Warm Springs area, around 1887. He built a bathhouse and restaurant-bar with a dozen rooms, including a ladies’ parlor, along with a twenty-by-forty-foot dance floor. Like other spas in the post-Civil War West, Guyer attracted Easterners with both the money and the leisure time to reach remote Idaho. For several decades, local families also flocked to Guyer Hot Springs, one of the only arenas for family entertainment near Ketchum.
In his History of Idaho, James Hawley remarked, “Guyer Hot Springs are located in the northwestern part of Blaine County, not far from the town of Ketchum and in the heart of some of Idaho’s most picturesque scenic territory. The waters of these springs have been analyzed by expert chemists and have been pronounced beneficial for many diseases. In June 1914, a new mission-style hotel was opened to the public and bathing facilities are ample for present demands. Connected with the hotel are tennis courts, a ballroom, a cement swimming pool, etc. The adjacent streams afford fine opportunities for the fisherman.”
According to Wendolyn Holland, author of Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History, “At Guyer, an elevated bridge with guard rails crossed Warm Springs Creek, where paths led to the hillside hot springs. Just below the bridge was a large water wheel, which cooled water for the bathhouse. Guyer hotel guests enjoyed hot and cold water in their rooms, an open-air plunge, and bathing facilities separated for the sexes.
“Guyer Hot Springs was a fashionable resort. Local ladies wore plumed hats and sixteen-button gloves while they played tennis or croquet, swung on a big wooden swing, and danced in the pavilions. Women splashed in long pantaloons and dresses.”
When Captain Guyer’s son, Raymond Guyer, returned to Ketchum from Peru in 1913, he took control of the resort and changed the original structure into a gracious two-story building with gables. He kept the baths and plunges in their original location near the springs, but moved the hotel up to the bench above the river, hiring Charles H. Grout, a former manager of the Idanha Hotel in Boise, to oversee the newly refurbished resort when it opened in March 1914.
Grout quoted the new hotel’s cost at $25,000 and proudly announced, “We have just ordered five famous saddle horses. The building…will have its own electric lighting system by means of a turbine engine.”
Shoshone retailer Carl E. Brandt purchased the grand hotel from Raymond Guyer in 1927. Believing that the resort’s distance from Ketchum discouraged business, Brandt managed the gigantic engineering feat of piping the hot spring water underground into town to the hotel, which had been moved and renamed the St. George. When it burned down the following year, Brandt built the Bald Mountain Hot Springs motel and pool next door.
Today Guyer Hot Springs are used only to heat two-dozen homes in the Warm Springs area of Ketchum. Clarendon and Hailey Hot Springs are closed, and the Alturas Hotel has been razed for a supermarket. Although its cabins still stand, the Bald Mountain Hot Springs motel is a sporting goods store and the pool, covered over with sod, serves as a wine cellar. The grand old hot springs hotels of the Wood River Valley are now history, faded memories of a colorful past.