Take a brisk constitutional along the Fall River’s warm, spring-fed wind through the small southern Black Hills town of Hot Springs among redrock cliffs and turn-of-the-century pink sandstone storefronts, and you can almost hear the tuba of the Bower Family Band floating on a breeze, and feel the bustle of a boom time that swelled the streets, hotels and bathhouses with throngs of the curious, hopeful and on-the-mend, enchanted by a far-reaching lore about healing waters.
Nestled in a canyon between Battle Mountain to the Northeast and Cascade Mountain to the West, blessed with a temperate climate for the Hills, and year-round mineral hot tubs sought for their medicinal powers since time immemorial, the mystery is why the teeming crowds ever dwindled.
But they did. There’s a faded grandeur here that could typecast the town as a set for a cynical indie film about small town teen angst in the bedraggled heartland. There’s also an optimism, a stubborn faith in the idea that nature has given this canyon something too obstinately invigorating not too spring forth at any moment from beneath the crust of the lean years, a Hot Springs eternal, cheerfully oblivious to the callous cycle of boom-and-bust.
Long before the sandstone storefronts of Main Street were built, there is historical evidence that Native people, including the Lakota and Cheyenne, have believed in the healing power of the thermal waters of the Fall River Basin for centuries or longer. A common origin story in early promotional literature, unverifiably attributed to indigenous oral tradition, features an elderly woman afflicted with pains in her legs who fell into a pool when she reached to touch its waters and was healed.
As the people of the plains tamed wild mustangs of Spanish descent, and were able to travel further afield, oral marketing may have brought on earlier migrations from citizens of plains nations. Another tradition says that in the 16th century as an epidemic was raging, word spread from the West of the miracle water and pilgrims from many nations came to convalesce. When the troubles passed the place was forgotten for a spell, then revived as a resort by the Cheyenne.
When the Lakota arrived, they named the place Minne-kahta, or “warm waters.”
The popular history of Battle Mountain attributes the name of the densely pined peak above town to an 1869 Lakota vs. Cheyenne skirmish over possession of the waters that ended in a truce.
Five years later, Custer’s expedition into the Black Hills brought an already simmering gold fever to a boil, setting in motion the land grab he famously died for. A year later, a US Geological Survey junket led by Henry Newton and Walter Jenney conducted a resource reconnaissance in the Hills. Some legends put Calamity Jane among the explorers. This is possible as the expedition embarked from Fort Laramie and Jane is known to have worked as a prostitute at the Fort’s Three Mile Hog Ranch, a soldier’s bordello. With or without Calamity Jane, the party officially confirmed what prospectors already knew. It would be awhile before the fever broke.
Jenney returned in 1879 with a first expedition veteran, Valentine T. McGillicuddy, and Colonel William Thornby, an important character in early Hot Springs history. The trio happened upon a bath fed by a mineral spring, clearly fashioned in the shape of a moccasin.
They “found abundant evidence of lodge poles and tipi rings in the vicinity, suggesting fairly recent occupation by local tribes,” according to a National Park Service study. They couldn’t have known that their discovery for their tribe of this moccasin-shaped bath would become the geological and conceptual wellspring for the latest incarnation of an ancient idea.
Thornby returned that year with rancher George Boland and the two found another spring, one that would become the source of the Evans Plunge Bath, today the last of the public baths established during the peak years that’s still taking bathers.
The bathhouses weren’t even a glimmer in a frontier investment banker’s eye yet in 1879 though. The Colonel had a myopic focus on solid gold at the time, blinding him to just how auriferous the warm waters of Minnekahta could be, though he always took pride as the first Euro-American to discover them. Pioneers arrived along Fall River in a slow trickle those first couple years. Like the Colonel, most of the migrants didn’t think much of water unless they were thirsty. The entrepreneur that would transform the canyon into a hinterland boomtown, importing ailing Easterners by the trainload, was occupied at the time with the lucrative business of blazing trails for people with a pan and a dream.
Born in Parkman, Ohio in 1835, as a young man Frederick T. Evans left home to make a living in the mammoth lumber yards of “The Pinery” along the Wisconsin River. He bounced around for a while as young men are apt to do, ending up in De Soto, Nebraska and joining a pioneer expedition to Walla Walla. Once back in Nebraska, he established a ranch on the Platte River near Grand Island. Then, he and his family moved to Sloan, Iowa where he broke into the mercantile business, then on to Sioux City a few years later.
When word of Custer’s Black Hills Expedition hit the wires, bringing in waves of prospectors from as far away as the East Coast (and forcing the Lakota into a doomed struggle to force the US government to honor the Treaty of Fort Laramie), Evans ventured into freight. His Evans Transportation Company shipped miner’s needs (pick axes, whiskey and Levi’s perhaps) up the Missouri from Sioux City to Pierre, then hauled the goods via wagon train over the Fort Pierre-Deadwood Trail. Business was booming. In 1880 alone, 25 million pounds of Black Hills-bound freight were unloaded from steamboats onto the docks at Fort Pierre.
Around this time though, Marx and Engels’ ideas about capital had wafted over from Prussia and even to Ft. Pierre. Labor troubles made it hard to get the wagons loaded. Evans hired Native American replacement laborers to load the wagons, only to have them sabotaged by agitators. Then an 1881 flood destroyed his warehouse along with much of Ft. Pierre.
Evans and others looked to Chamberlain and a route along the White River as an escape route from the morass. The idea of the Chamberlain Road had been mulled over for years, ever since Congress re-appropriated the Hills in 1877, and in fact the Chicago and Milwaukee Railway (Milwaukee Road) had surveyed for a possible railway. Since the line would cross through the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations, however, developers would need approval from the tribal agencies.
Granting right-of-way to white men was a slippery slope for the Lakota in those days. Nonetheless, Milwaukee Road officials were able to convince Spotted Tail and a delegation of agency leaders at a conference in Washington D.C. to approve the route’s passage. Shortly after returning to Rosebud, Spotted Tail, the legendary warrior, long turned peacemaker, was killed — victim of a murky dispute with Crow Dog.
The Milwaukee Road pushed gold-ward, and the Fred Evans Transportation Company was there ahead of every trestle bridge, fortifying creek crossings and building way stations. The Chamberlain Road opened to traffic in 1882, then fell apart within a year as the Lakota disputed details of the right-of-way agreement. Badlands regolith quickly reclaimed much of the track until the Dawes Act led to the partition of yet more land from the Lakota, and by 1907 the Milwaukee Road again cut a path parallel to the sidewinding White River.
Over time, Evans displayed a knack for shrewdly picking the right path, for him, to the Hills — without getting too heavily invested in one or the other when nature, labor or Indian troubles coincided to force a route adjustment.
Still, whether it was the stresses of pioneer shipping, or the replacement of overland transport by rail that warmed him to the idea of settling in place, by the early 80’s, Evans had become enamored with Hot Springs. And with his shipping fortune, he would become the most important investor in the nascent spa town.
After the ’79 junket that discovered Moccasin Springs and other thermal wonders for Euro-America, William Thornby wrote an article (the Colonel had traded his silver eagle for a fountain pen at this point) for the Black Hills Pioneer extolling the miracle working waters of Minnekahta. His gushing tribute caught the eye of two Deadwood doctors open to non-traditional medicine.
Doctors R. D. Jennings and A.S. Stewart conducted a medical recon on his claims, and soon became such ardent believers in the miracle water that they stayed. The two doctors started the Dakota Hot Springs Company, along with Fred Evans and some others, to promote the development of the area with a focus on natural health care alternative, long before the advent of communal shiitake farming or the importation of chakras.
In 1882 the Company platted the town of Minnekahta. The first grand resort was the Minnekahta Hotel, financed by Evans and designed by R.D. Jennings. The doors opened in 1886, the year the town was renamed Hot Springs, a shrewd marketing move that would capitalize on the etymological mystique already established by its older cousin in Arkansas.
The young town’s reputation grew as more resorts, like the Hot Springs House (1889) at the Minnekahta Baths — the town’s first open-air bathhouse, built on the site of the moccasin-shaped tub found by the Jenney geological expedition — were built to cater to affluent travelers, though the location thirteen miles from the nearest railroad depot in the town of Buffalo Gap would leash ambition to rural reality. Until the railroad came to town, the majority of resorts were more rustic.
Had they lined the streets with bawdy houses and saloons they could have been awash in easy money, but town planners always had a higher-minded development scheme than other Black Hills towns like Deadwood, eschewing gambling and other vices. Badger Clark expressed his approval in his history When Hot Springs Was a Pup. “Take that, Buffalo Gap, Deadwood, and the rest of you! Neither a Roaring Camp nor Monte Carlo, Hot Springs has always been good!”
In 1891, branch lines of the ) and Burlington Northern (BN) railways reached the good town that chose wellness over vice and the possibility of attracting a well-to-do clientele from around the nation was thrown wide open. In May of that year, Fred Evans opened the Evans Plunge Bath. A free bathing promotion and special excursion train brought swimmers in from throughout the Black Hills. The Bower Family Band, a popular local brass and bass drum outfit — and subjects of the 1968 Disney film The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band — played the Plunge all summer.
Unfortunately for visitors the town’s flagship property, the Minnekahta Hotel, had burned to the ground the year before. “This fire which would have been a calamity of the first magnitude only a year or two before, hardly caused a ripple in the swift days of ’90,” Clark recalled, “but just served to clear an excellent building site, upon which Fred Evans fixed a calculating eye.” Some even speculated that Evans had the place burnt down himself, so he could a build a newer, more opulent inn at the corner of Main Street and Minnekahta Avenue.
In August 5, 1892, Max Meyer of Omaha was the first guest to check in for the grand opening of the new Evans Hotel.
For Clark, the Evans, “located at the junction of the two main canyons and with a beautiful view straight up the newly graded Minnekahta Avenue, guarded on either hand by its pine-plumed hilltops,” was the architectural denouement of Hot Springs’ pioneer era.
The coral-hued (“peach-blow” is what one Evans Hotel brochure dubbed its complexion) native sandstone quarried to build the Evans and the other structures that formed the heart of the business district projected health. The semi-arid canyon town in a low-sunk bowl among the sunny southern Hills with its yucca and sage has an almost Mediterranean feel — a Fall Riviera between the Buffalo Gap Grasslands and the windswept rolling hills of Wind Cave.
“In the Evans Hotel its builder outdid himself, as he intended to. It was still a day of makeshift crudities in western South Dakota, but Mr. Evans put into the construction of his new hostelry every refinement and luxury known to the hotel architecture of that day.” In 1927, when Clark still considered the Evans “the finest hotel in the Hills.”
With the Evans Plunge Bath and Evans Hotel, Hot Springs now had world-class facilities to draw a growing leisure class to the town’s natural assets. Through the efforts of the Hot Springs Publicity Bureau in conjunction with the railroads, the small town in the southern Hills became a nationally known destination for health seekers. “The Carlsbad of America,” read one pamphlet, “in the famous Black Hills, Climate and Waters Combine to Heal the Sick.” The railroads even held medical conventions for their staff doctors in town, building on an idea in the collective imagination of Hot Springs as a place where twin rivers of medical science and traditional folk cures joined in one spring-fed confluence.
An adroitly marketed mythology of Hot Springs as a place of healing and unsurpassed beauty was passed along through advertisements, pamphlets and word of mouth. “History refers to the Vale of Kashmir in the Himalaya Mountains as one of the most beautiful spots in the world,” intones an undated, archival pamphlet produced by the Evans Hotel. “Poets have written of its charms and bards have sung its praises. It is described as a spot where Nature has exposed her most beautiful forms, where the elements are at rest amid perpetual sunshine. But with all its attractions, the beauty and the climate of the Vale of Minnekahta outshine those of this marvel of the Himalayas.”
Florid maybe, but the mythology worked its magic. The redrock canyon was uncommonly beautiful, and people believed as they had for centuries that there was power in the water. The bathers lined the block as in old Jerusalem the infirm stood in wait for the angel-grazed bath of Bethesda. Spa resorts with names like the Blunch, Burdette House, the Braun (still operating), Catholicon, Hiawatha, Davis, Ferguson, Fall River, Gibson, Gillespie, Huebner, Kohler, Mower House, Parrot, Valley and Williams lined the avenues alongside stand-alone bathhouses like the Siloam, Stewart and Sulfur. Entertainments were taken in at the Morris Grand Theatre. The Hygeia Spring (later named Kidney Spring) gazebo across from the Evans offered a cool resting place beneath the fair goddess of hygiene after strolls along Fall River’s redrock edge.
As the Burlington and Northwestern Railroads published advertorials praising the spring’s healing powers, more people boarded trains bound for better health. In 1903, the area received another boost when Wind Cave officially became a National Park. In 1907, the federal government gave Hot Springs its official medical imprimatur when it built the Battle Mountain Sanitarium, with its own spring-fed mineral spa, as a home for Union veterans of the Civil War. The small town soon had three hospitals and dozens of bathhouses and health resorts. The name Hot Springs had become longhand for health. Even President Calvin Coolidge paid a visit during his summer stay in the Hills.
While the town’s resorts filled with prosperous travelers, tourists from the east weren’t the only people willing to travel to the springs. The Lakota, having lost the Hills to the gold fever that incidentally discovered the miracle waters for whites, were now confined to reservations. But the memory of the water brought people back. “There is clear indication,” says “The Home of the Bison,” a National Park Service study, “that Lakota continued to come to the region to bathe at the thermal waters in Hot Springs and Cascade Springs.”
“Early Hot Springs residents recalled Lakota camping all along the Fall River to bathe. Many stayed at a campground on the Petty addition at the lower end of town where a tourist court is now located, and some even remained there over an entire summer season.”
It’s not clear what the more well to do travelers thought of these encampments, if they knew of them at all.
It’s hard to picture the height of the Hot Springs scene, much less imagine it through the eyes of the people there. What was it like for these pilgrims to step off the Pullman car into a mecca for healing rimmed with cathedrals of redrock, cratered here and there with Mother Nature’s jacuzzis?
Any student of Western literature from the era is achingly familiar with stories of long, mysterious ailments that kept their sufferers cloistered, bedridden and alone, plotting shocking novellas à la André Gide.
Here was a place to go after you’ve incinerated the bed sheets and thrown the windows open.
Here was a sanctuary for under-the-weather but hopeful humanity: pale New England shut-ins, long-bearded Civil War amputees, hypochondriac heirs, proto-hippies, battle-hardened Lakota elders — all drawn by the water.
It wouldn’t last for long. The height of the Hot Springs boom was the pre-WWI years. The Depression brought a dose of austerity to the Hills, though it was tempered in the area by the presence of large Civilian Conservation Corps camps at Wind Cave.
Several factors are blamed for the slow demise of Hot Springs as a health resort. There were the usual fires and floods. An 1897 flood washed away the gazebo and the goddess Hygeia. (In 1904, workers found a head and a leg in the Fall River. They were displayed for a time at the Palace Saloon). The palatial Gillespie Hotel burned in 1915. The list goes on, but every town endured the occasional disaster. Floods and fires didn’t stop Hot Springs.
The automobile gave people who could afford one more options for a holistic retreat. The trains lost passengers and started cutting down on scheduled stops, then eliminating stations, a national pattern. By the 40’s, rail travelers once again had to take a shuttle from Buffalo Gap or Edgemont. Lifetime Hot Springs resident Dave Chute remembers that, “The bus came down from Edgemont, backfiring all the way,” when he was a kid in the 40’s.
Around Hot Springs some blame the medical establishment for shutting the spigot on the idea of the water as a cure-all. There is something to this. The Battle Mountain Sanitarium had already capped its springs by 1926 when the new Veterans Bureau hospital for treatment of tuberculosis opened. Western medicine was finalizing its long divorce from prescriptions that smacked of the metaphysical. The late 60s revival was a long way off in fiscal years.
Even as the Post-WWII Black Hills shifted from logging and mining towards tourism as an economic driver, several factors conspired to further consign Hot Springs’ heyday to the past.
Geographer Dr. Martha Geores speculates that the popular shift toward modern medicine, as well as fears of contagion, dampened the public’s fervor for thermal springs. “The widespread acceptance of modern medical techniques hurt belief in the healing powers of the waters, and certainly the polio epidemic of the 1950s discouraged many people from going to the spas.”
By the 1970s, the Evans Plunge was the only bathhouse left. Fred Evans’ stalwart survivor has endured numerous rebuild and facelifts. The first Plunge lasted only a few years, before the all-wood frame was thoroughly rotted. A 1947 flood required another rebuild. The sixties saw another.
The present shell makes no aesthetic gestures but the warm water still flows at five thousand gallons per minute — a tributary to the past.
The once grand Evans Hotel had been converted to an apartment building for elderly residents by the time town planners began to shift their focus to the town’s historic significance. In 1974, the National Register of Historic Places recognized the Hot Springs historic sandstone district. In 1977, Hot Springs and two other cities (Galesburg, Illinois and Madison, Indiana) were selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for a new pilot project, the “Main Street Approach,” aimed at revitalizing seen-better-days business districts in small Midwestern towns.
Though the pilot was embraced by the Carter administration and duplicated many times, it was no magic wand for Hot Springs. Geores blamed a narrow focus on the architecture: “the history of Hot Springs is not in sandstone buildings alone but in a metaphor of ‘health = Hot Springs.’ Without the metaphor the buildings lose their context.”
The 1979 gutting by fire of the Evans Hotel, the sandstone district’s historic center, couldn’t have helped. As the feds moved on, the town was left with an ashen remnant of their Main Street’s crown jewel. Residents formed a group called Save Our Sandstone (S.O.S.) to restore the Evans. Though the Main Street Approach project of re-opening several floors as a hotel never recovered, the building was restored and still houses elderly residents. S.O.S. went on to restore several more sandstone structures along Main Street.
Still, a sleepiness lingers over the Fall River gorge, lending credence to Geores’ thesis. Outside the Evans Plunge much of Hot Springs’ potential lies untapped. Maybe in the long view the present is a lull — like those legends that say the redrock-rimmed fountains of youth were forgotten for a spell, between the time when Native pilgrims sought their waters as refuge from a terrible plague, and when the Cheyenne built their own healthful hideaway. The economic model that town founders like Fred Evans brought to the Minnekahta tends toward lightning-quick bursts of confetti followed by protracted periods of regress.
Those healing Minne-kahta flow on.
Today, a new cult of healthy living hoists its gluten-free flag over the stomping grounds of America’s upwardly mobile. Aisles of herbal remedies and supplements at the upscale local grocery attest to the ongoing tug-of-war between establishment and non-traditional medicine.
Is Hot Springs well positioned, culturally and geographically to gather this demographic at the Black Hills pools of Bethesda? Or have any haute monde pretensions long since faded with the weathered surfaces of the sandstone?
If so, would that be ok? If the fossilization of its heyday keeps Hot Springs affordable for the middle and working class veterans, laborers, hospital workers and retirees who have found a paradise long abandoned by the Pullman sleepers, maybe it would.
Maybe there’s a middle road and just maybe Hot Springs can make it. Construction is under way at a new spa and hydroponic garden off Minnekahta Avenue. More portentous maybe — that spring the geological expedition discovered in 1879, the one with the moccasin-shaped tub? Though it sits dormant and undeveloped, unseen from the street, the tubs have been dredged. The water flows warm and clear again and plans are in the works to bring the bathers back to where the latest take on an ancient place all began.
Eventually, they always come back to the water.
Next time: Hot Springs Spring: Spumes of renewal.
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