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The Great Hot Spring in 1878

The earliest map I know of showing buildings in Pagosa Springs was made by an Army engineer by the name of Lieut. C.A.H.McCauley who visited the fledgling post called Fort Lewis in 1878, shortly after construction on the fort began.

McCauley left the following description.

“Aside from this, the springs must have been to the aboriginal inhabitants a place of great resort … since Indian trails from all directions converge thereto, all deeply worn, doubtless in the various pilgrimages made by numerous bands and families … the pipe of peace is said to have had an unusual supremacy … to the main springs, from the boiling appearance of its center, the Utes gave the name Pah-gosa (Pah signifying water, and gosa boiling) which name, with corrupted orthography, it still retains.”

Motter’s note: I digress to voice one of my pet peeves — the practice by some people of spelling Pagosa as Pahgosa. There is no justification for the practice based on the early history of the Springs. Neither is there any justification for saying the name means “Healing Waters.” McCauley’s description of the meaning of the name Pagosa does not agree with the Ute language dictionary published circa 1980. According to the dictionary prepared under the auspices of and with the help of Southern Utes in Ignacio, Pagosa comes from two Ute words meaning “stinking water.”

It is also popular among some locals to spell Pagosa as Pahgosa as McCauley did when he was explaining the pronunciation of the word. Nowhere else in anything I have read from those early days is the “H” included in the name Pagosa. There is no sensible justification for spelling it that way now. Having gotten that off of my chest, I continue with McCaulay’s report.

McCauley continued his report be describing “Red-Men’s bathing houses.” There were natural cavities in the ground found near the Great Hot Spring.

“One in particular,” McCauley wrote, “at the southern edge of the springs is a point of escape of hot vapor and has been used as a sweat hole, the Indians crouching within and covering themselves with a blanket from above.”

According to local tradition, Indians, particularly of the Southern Ute bands, continued to visit the Springs regularly until the 1950s. They are said to prefer coating themselves with mud mixed from the mineral water, rather than bathing directly in the hot water. The fact that the water temperature is about 144 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface necessitates finding a means to lower the temperature to prevent being parboiled.

What did the Great Pagosa Hot Springs look like in 1878? For our description, we turn again to McCauley and his 1878 visit to the Springs and Fort Lewis.

“The group of hot springs occupies an area of about 21 acres upon the eastern side of the river … the Main Hot Spring is said to be the largest thermal spring and possess the highest temperature of any in the United States … The crater is an irregular depression approximating a pear-shape, and is about 65 feet long by 45 feet wide … the depth of the waters being unknown … near the center a furious boiling appearance is presented … the temperature of the spring was found to be 141 degrees F … for convenience we might say there are 19 springs with a temperature above blood heat.”

More next week from McCauley’s description of the Pagosa he saw in 1878.