Tom Ross: Which came first -- hot tubs or ski lifts?

Steamboat is naturally hot -- always has been, always will be

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Could Steamboat Springs lead the nation in hot tubs per capita? One would have to think that if the U.S. Census Bureau kept track of such things, we'd at least rank in the top 25.

When skiers book their vacations, one of the first questions they want answered is whether the condo comes with a hot tub. It's true, there's nothing quite like relaxing outside in a hot pool with giant snowflakes drifting out of a night sky in January. What many visitors never understand is that Steamboat was never without a "hot tub."

With all of the fiberglass spas in Ski Town USA, it's easy to overlook the fact that from the earliest European settlement in the Yampa Valley, and probably before that, "hot tubs" were part of the lifestyle. In fact, the earliest public amenity owned by the Steamboat Springs Town Co., predecessor to the city of Steamboat Springs, was a public bath house built around the natural hot springs at the east end of town.

I don't imagine that after hearing the history, anyone would baptize me "all wet" for suggesting that Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Center is the modern steward of Steamboat's oldest institution. And as the community launches into a discussion about building a recreation center that would cost tens of millions of dollars and possibly include an indoor swimming pool, I think it's instructive to look back at how Steamboat has always offered residents and visitors a geothermally heated pool.

Former Steamboat Pilot editor Dee Richards preserved the history in her irreplaceable 1976 volume, "Steamboat Round the Bend."

As every student of Steamboat history knows, Miss--ourian James Crawford and five other men came to the valley in 1874, looking for the ideal place to homestead. Crawford's party noted the abundance of springs near the "big bend" in the Yampa River. Crawford didn't stumble upon the hot spring until Aug. 1, 1875, after he'd returned with his family and built them a log cabin.

Richards wrote in her book that James Crawford was out hunting deer when he followed a game trail down a hill about a mile east of the cabin and came to a place where a creek flowed directly through a hot spring.

He went to fetch his wife, Margaret, and children Lulie, Logan and John in the wagon. Mr. and Mrs. John Crawford were also in the party. They proceeded to shovel out a hole in the sand and presumably took turns indulging in hot baths.

It wasn't long before the industrious Mr. Crawford built a log shelter over the "Bath House Spring." When Horace Suttle built a sawmill on Soda Creek in 1881, life in Steamboat changed as pioneers began building frame houses with framed doors and windows. Almost as soon as they undertook the first of many school-remodeling projects, they re-sided the bathhouse over the spring, covering the original logs.

The springs began attracting gold miners from Hahn's Peak who had not bathed since the previous winter. One night, these fellows were sitting around soaking when one particularly bright gentleman said, "Hey, we've already got a hot tub -- shouldn't we get busy and build a ski resort? Because people are going to demand high-speed quad chairlifts as soon as they book their spa vacations!"

OK, I admit it, I made that last part up.

But the following is historical fact straight out of Richard's book: The Steamboat Springs Town Co. sold its pool holdings to H.W. Gossard in 1931. He subsequently deeded the property back to the Town Co. four years later and a nonprofit corporation, the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association, was created to manage the hot springs pools and see to their upkeep.

My point is that Health and Rec and the Heart Spring are inseparable from the history of the community. It could be that some will interpret my decision to write this column as advocating for Health and Rec's plan to build a covered swimming pool, over the push to build a new natatorium in a recreation center.

Actually, I haven't yet heard all of the information I need to reach my decision. I have questions about the wisdom of both plans.

But there's one conviction I hold firmly, and that is, Health and Recreation, as the steward of the Heart Spring, is an institution that deserves broad community support to ensure its role is always kept alive.

Part of Health and Rec's future plans include restoring the area surrounding the Heart Spring, and the hot pool it feeds, to a more natural setting. That's a fine idea we don't need to debate.

And as long as the Heart Spring continues to issue 225 gallons of 103-degree water every minute, the energy costs for Steamboat's first hot tub should remain nominal.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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