If you are traveling on I-84, Hot Lake Springs can serve as a wonderful (if weird) layover. Or, if the timing is not quite right for spending the night, a short stop for a recuperative soak can be just the ticket for improving one's disposition during a long stint of driving.
The resort is steeped in the history of Europe and America's obsession with mineral water health spas and is one of many that thrived in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the century. What compelled people to travel so far and spend so much time and money to soak in these remote mineral water baths?
When Hot Lake Springs was first built this spot must have seemed impressively isolated. There was of course the city of La Grande, a mere 8 miles further down the line. In its heyday of the 1910s and 20s, La Grande was a small but well-established full-service western desert railroad/cattle town. But you wouldn't really be aware of this if you got off the train at Hot Lake Sanitorium (sic). You could do this because Hot Lake had it's own train station (and post office). This enabled visitors to come directly from all over the U.S.
I imagine people traveling from the East Coast and getting off directly at Hot Lake. Stepping off the train onto the platform at the station must have been something. Looking around you'd see great stretches of emptiness. But behind the lake of geothermally-heated mineral water with vapor wafting up into the hills, was the giant "modern" resort, seemingly plopped down in the middle of nowhere. A traveler might have been on trains for days clattering through the desolation of the Great Plains, the Rockies and eastern Oregon desert only to step off into an oasis resort of high grandeur. Visitors could maintain serious bragging rights of having traveled deep into to the Great American West without ever really having suffered the loss of any modern convenience.
Given the relatively isolated location, and considering when it was built, the facility was remarkably big and modern. The brick addition (as pictured above at the left) was completed in 1908 and became the new focal point of the complex. This three-story structure is most of what remains today. When completed, it boasted full modern appointments: indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity. Residents' rooms were airy and well lit: with tall ceilings, awning lights above the doors and big exterior windows. The third floor was a dedicated and modern medical facility which included a surgery. Contemporary accounts often refer to these services as the "Mayo Clinic of the West."
|Photo Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort (link at end of article)|
|Photo Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group, Hot Lake Resort|
Look at that tile! Yowza! The counter top may be newer.
|Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort|
As stated, the 1908 brick structure was an add-on to an even earlier Victorian-era wood structure that was more-or-less built over the source waters of the hot spring. This earlier wood portion burned down in 1934. Even though the business recovered and carried on, the original section was never rebuilt. Since the original structure appears to have been built directly over the springs, I'm curious to know how it was utilized. Where and how did the Victorians take their water?
|Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort|
A big part of the Hot Lake Resort story is its miraculous resurrection. Moving into the 20th century modern medicine replaced mineral hydrotherapy and business died off. The resort closed in the 1950s and for the next few decades there were a succession of other tenants using the space. For a number of years it was completely vacant. The facility slowly crept into dereliction. At the its low point, vandals had smashed out all of the glass windows and the roof was seriously leaking and even missing in some sections.
|Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group, Hot Lake Resort (link at end of article.)|
In 2003 a family bought and began a significant rehabilitation. While the restoration is a blessing for bathing and history enthusiasts, here the story turns a little weird.
The restoration considers the building's history but in a way that is really odd. It's not so much a restoration as someone's fantasy/nostalgia recreation. The hotel rooms are redone with faux historical elements and are drenched in what I refer to as "potpourri excess." It's bed-and-breakfast cute gone wild. Here are some photos of my room:
And it's not just the excessive frill and artificial fragrance. Watch out for the the flocks of peacocks and geese on the grounds who tend to honk (at least in the case of the geese) and poop everywhere. Speakers outside and in the common areas play canned Big Band-era music from morning to evening. To make matters worse it was the same hour or so tape loop. I don't know how many times I heard Glen Miller's In the Mood. It made me feel rather crabby.
In spite of my complaints we are extremely lucky to have Hot Lake Resort back in business and the water, as it has been for thousands of years, is no joke. It comes out hot, 208 degrees, and is mineral laden. Sampling it with a good soak helps you understand why this place was so popular a hundred years ago. After a relaxing bath, all (most) of my grievances about the stay were forgiven.
There are a number of different soaking options at Hot Lake:
There is what remains of the old spring house that is filled with acrylic hot tubs and artificial plants.
Around the back of the spring house I thought these two outdoor claw-foot tubs had potential. Were they intended as cool-down cold plunge tubs or will they be set up for outdoor soaking? I would sure rather soak in the wonderful outdoors in these instead of the plastic tubs inside.
There's also the relic of an old brick structure. The water in here was super hot, almost too hot to stand, but I had the space to myself and it was wonderful.
You can close this gate for a little privacy.
Stepping in the gate and just to the right is this little semi-private deck next to the private soaking area. The chairs face the soaking pool to the left.
Ahhhh!, a private pool of super hot water! The open trellised roof, old brick and vines winding down to the water made for wonderful atmosphere. The only negative was that soaking in this water with really challenging. It took me a while to adjust and even then and I could only stand soaking for five or so minutes at a time, after that I was cooked!
Next to this brick hot soaking relic is a neat-o waterwheel contraption that lifts, slows and cools the water for a series of outdoor soaking tubs. The water, at 208 degrees, as it comes out of the hillside, is near boiling so it needs this process to cool off for the next series of soaking pools.
|From Hot Lake Resort, La Grande, Oregon|
Water from the wheel pours into a gutter which is channeled into the outdoor pools.
Again, I'm not a big fan of acrylic tubs.
My favorite was this one (above), a pool made out of cement and local rocks. The trouble with it was that it was the farthest one away from the water wheel and it was hard to keep it sufficiently hot. There was a fair amount of lake algae as well. I was warned about this by the staff but it didn't bother me at all. Relaxing, looking out over the lake, made it all worthwhile.
Here's another view of the cement outdoor pool taken from above, water vapor lifting up off the lake.
There is a very good Flickr group of photos of the resort/sanitarium. I used some of the photos for this post from that group. Thanks to Allen Sandquist, in particular, for making his collection available.