Pagosa’s Past: ‘One of the most remarkable hot springs on the continent’

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Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This is one of the earliest pictures of the Pagosa hot springs, backed by three bath houses and the town’s main street across the river in the background. The year should be the late 1890s.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

Army Capt. John N. Macomb leaves us one of our first written descriptions of the Pagosa hot springs. Macomb was a topographical engineer who, in 1859, was charged with the responsibility of finding a military route for military supplies from Santa Fé, N.M., to southwestern portions of the original 48 states.

He was also looking for a good route for building a railroad connecting the eastern states with the West Coast, especially California. 

The Mexican-American War had just ended and, through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Mexican government had ceded parts of today’s Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and Utah to the United States.

Macomb viewed the springs and left the following description of what he saw. “In the upper part of this valley is the Pagosa, one of the most remarkable hot springs on the continent, well known, even famous among the Indian tribes, but up to the time of our visit never having been seen by the whites.

“It can scarcely be doubted that in future years it will become a celebrated place of resort, both for those who reside in the surrounding country and for wonder-hunting, health-seeking travelers from other lands.”

It is quite possible that, unknown to Macomb, white trappers had seen the Pagosa Hot Springs. Fur trappers such as Kit Carson and Old Joe Williams had been exploring the Rocky Mountains since the early 1830s, trapping beaver to be used for gentlemen back east and in Europe for fashionable hats. 

Traders were traveling the Santa Fe Trail between Kansas City and Taos/Santa Fe as early as 1821.

The origin of the word Pagosa is believed to be Southern Ute, meaning smelling or stinking waters. That’s not a popular Chamber of Commerce-type name. They much prefer healing waters.

The first white settler in Pagosa Springs may have been Welch Nossaman. By the early 1870s, gold had been discovered throughout the San Juan Mountains. There can be little doubt that miners on their way from New Mexico to and from the mining camps stopped to look at the hot springs.