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  • Peter McGuire

The Soda Spring, Strawberry Park Hot Spring, and Conservation: Steamboat part 6 of 6

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

The 20th Century and Today

Karl Hovelsen grew up in Kristianaia, now called Oslo. In his 30s, he won Norway’s highest medals for competition skiing and moved to Colorado. There, he made a living with the Ringling Bros circus making appearances “Ski sailing” as “The Sky Rocket.” He was one of the first to introduce ski jumping to America (it had existed as a sport in Norway for around a century). In 1914, he built a ski jump in Steamboat Springs, where he taught the sport to locals.

By now, he went by the Americanized form of his name: Carl Howelsen, but he was lovingly called “The Flying Norseman.” He organized the first Winter Carnival in Steamboat, which continues to this day. It became an exhibition of skiing and winter activities in general, helping to popularize skiing as a pastime across the state.

Carl Howelsen (originally Karl Hovelsen)

Nowadays, the centerpiece is “The Lighted Man,” a tradition started by Claudius Banks in 1938 when he attached working lightbulbs to his ski poles and roman candles to his helmet. Over time, the suits have become more sophisticated, but every year Claudius’ son, Jon, carries on the tradition of skiing down Howelsen Hill illuminated with electricity and pyrotechnics.

Like a moment of passing inspiration, Howelsen disappeared as quickly as he appeared. He returned home on a visit in 1921, fell in love, and left Colorado forever the next year. It wasn’t until 1939 that the first commercial ski hill opened in Colorado and it soon became the iconic Colorado activity. In 2022, Decker Dean became the 100th person who lived or trained in Steamboat Springs to compete in the Olympics, the most of any American town. Dean is called “The Flying Machine,” and carries on Howelsen’s legacy. Steamboat has become one of the most popular ski resorts in Colorado, finally providing a good reason to make the hour-and-a-half detour off of I-70.

Strawberry Park Hot Springs

Personally, I’m not much of a skier. My favorite part of the ski day is soaking in the hot tub, and that’s what drew me to Steamboat Springs in September. In the hills above the town of Steamboat Springs, there’s a winding, unpaved road that leads to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. It’s a bit of a misnomer because it was never part of Strawberry Park, where the brief Strawberry boom happened. There was a sign that read “Buffalo Pass, Strawberry Park, Hot Springs” and, in the absence of another proper name, it came to be known as the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. When we visited, my partner and I joined in the proud tradition of skinny-dipping after dark.

As with the hot springs in town, the Crawfords suspected they were the first to discover this spring because it showed none of the signs of human interference they saw around the barely lukewarm Sulphur Spring. Water leaves the mountain at a scorching 150 degrees Fahrenheit and cools as it trickles down the hillside. The Crawfords don’t mention bathing in this spring, but they did make tea with it and use small pools to hard-boil or soft-boil eggs.

By the 40s, the springs were known for their pain-relieving effects. At the time, this was attributed to the minerals in the water, but this is virtually the only health claim that has been borne out about hot springs. Bathing in warm water does help soothe muscle and skeletal pain.

These hot springs were owned by the same association as the hot springs in town, but were left undeveloped and unwatched. By the 50s, it was common for locals and visitors alike to camp downstream of the boiling springs and create their own ad-hoc pools, mixing creek and spring water to create comfortable bathing temperatures.

As with all nice things, people ruined it. By the 1970s, the area’s popularity had outgrown the forest’s ability to replenish itself and garbage and feces had started to build up. House development had also encroached on the area and conflicts flared up. Skiers and visitors saw the area as a hippie paradise where clothing was optional. Locals and families wanted a more “family-friendly” atmosphere and saw that overuse was destroying the creek valley. In 1977, at the town’s request, police started ticketing nude bathers for indecent exposure, particularly if children were around.

In 1982, the organization sold the springs to a Chicago-based developer, Don Johnson, who cleaned the area, built permanent bathing pools, and charged for admission. Which is not to say that the nudity stopped, nor did its popularity with the old-timers diminish. One visitor recalled from the 80s “I remember rolling up there with a crew of hot, young ski bums and bunnies, getting nekkid in a teepee, sprinting to the hot pools, only to find a busload of equally nekkid seniors doing their thing.” (McKinley)

The springs became a more sober affair after March 2003, when a woman was found drowned there. Toxicology reports stated that she had a high level of alcohol in her system, along with cocaine and methamphetamine. Nowadays, entry is tightly regulated, and in the age of Covid, entry is limited to hourly blocks. That said, if you rent a cabin or campsite on the grounds, you can access the pools after dark. And by dark, I mean dark. Poolside lights are minimal and flashlights are frowned upon. Bathing suits are strictly don’t ask, don’t tell.

Nearly everyone in Steamboat has a story about the Hot Springs or some other spring that happens to be their favorite. The springs have remained at the center of human activity in the area, just as it was thousands of years ago. And as the population has grown, so too have conflicts of interest over the use and preservation of the springs.

The Soda Spring

The Soda Spring, also called the Pagoda Spring and the Iron Spring, remained a popular meeting spot throughout the 20th Century. Even in 1910, it proved a little too popular for certain residents.


If young people must spoon, let them remain away from the Soda spring after 10 p.m. as the thirsty must drink. This applies especially to a certain barber. Why not take a chance at a more secluded spot, say the Milk spring, or the Navajo?

I find it interesting that this anonymous writer suggests other springs as the possible locations for after-dark canoodling.

As with the Steamboat Spring, the Soda Spring constantly suffered from interference from visitors. In the Pilot, 1935, an article ran under the headline “Famous Soda Spring Has Returned to Former Activity”

The reopening of the famous Soda spring near the Cabin hotel is good news for Steamboat Springs….For years it has been the favorite spring not only because of its nearness to the main part of town, but also because it is palatable and vitalizing….

Mayor Luckens examined the spring last week had the recess cleaned about, and found that the trouble was clogging of the inlet by all kinds of articles which had been thrown or dropped into the pipe.

It’s clear that almost 30 years after the arrival of the railroad, Steamboat still aspired to being an indispensable destination. The same article states without a hint of irony:

The water of this spring is… destined to be used in all parts of the world when it becomes known, said a chemist who analyzed the water many years ago”

Unfortunately, the Soda Spring met with a fate very similar to the Steamboat Spring. In 1946, a two-lane highway was paved leading northwest out of town. Highway workers excavating the road found a multitude of springs and sinkholes and evened them out by filling them in with asphalt. It was not the only spring to fall victim to construction. Lulita wrote in 1977:

When the modern highway disturbed ancient underground passageways, the boisterous flow of the Iron Spring was reduced to a few lethargic bubbles. Other springs, trampled by herds of sheep or cattle or bulldozed under to make way for building and industry, disappeared. Well meaning people with little knowledge of, or concern for, the natural ecology filled native marshlands with tons of rock.

When the spring was again threatened in the 80’s, Lulita picked up the pen to remind Steamboat of its past.

Originally the Soda (Iron) spring had a strong flow. It bubbled boisterously. When a storm was coming, it boiled out of its rock basin. The flow was cut when the present road was blasted. Though the spring still bubbles lethargically, most the the water apparently drains into the river.

I am told this spring is again threatened by the projected highway. Unlovley as the spring is in its current state of neglect, I strongly urge that it not be forfeited. If you modern dwellers in Steambaot had enjoyed it as did the old timers, you would know it is worth fighting for. Why not try to find the original flow…?

Funds are always found for town maintenance, road work, ski projects. Why not maintenance of the springs?

In 1988, the Pilot ran an article “It won’t hurt to move spring, say officials,” sharing the opinion of local and state geologists that the spring could be relocated out of the way of the highway expansion without damage. They were successful at moving the pagoda but failed to move the spring.

In May of 1990 we get the opinion piece, “Eulogy to a spring.”

Toll the bell, Lower the flag. Sound the bugle. Mark the grave.

The Soda Spring in City Park, like the Steamboat Spring, has fallen to man’s pursuit of ‘progress’”

That’s right. A second landmark spring was lost to transportation. Today, you can no longer sample the fizzy waters of the soda spring, although you can look into the sad hole in the bottom of the pagoda where it used to be.

The next year, repairs to U.S. 40 failed to restore the spring. At that time, the resident engineer on the project, Dale Pyle, was still hopeful. He told the Pilot “‘We probably ought to put the gazebo on wheels,’... wondering whether the spring will pop up at a new location whenever road work is done.” In the same article, he clarifies his first priority. “It was a difficult job just to get stability’ on that section of the highway…. ‘We weren’t 100% successful, but considering the amount of water under there,’ the results aren’t bad.”

This is how the situation sits today: two famous springs destroyed and countless lesser-known ones lost under buildings. In retrospect, it seems that creating a permanent settlement on such unique geology was always fated to be a hideously destructive process.

Conservation and Today

Have we at least learned anything from all this destruction? Thankfully the town has taken certain lessons to heart. Here’s Dagny McKinley, author of The Springs of Steamboat Springs and Candice Bannister, director of the Tread of the Pioneers Museum, discussing recent efforts to protect the springs:

McKinley: "The committee was kind of Candice Bannister's idea. She came to me and said, 'I know you're really interested in the springs and we really need to be doing more to protect them and put protections in place for them" --this is something she's been talking about for quite a while. So we met with the City of Steamboat Springs and they felt the committee should be under their umbrella because that way it would have longevity. Whereas if we start it and one of us leaves, it could easily fall apart. So we worked with the city of Steamboat Springs to come up with a framework for it and then we went to the city council and they were in favor of it. The city manager was in favor.

So, as of right now, it is under the city of Steamboat Springs and they are still finalizing the structure and how it's all going to work. But the goal of it is the council will meet, having a variety of different interests in it, that can look at the best way to protect the springs from development, to have better education about the springs, to have better outreach about them, so that in another 100 years all the city-owned springs will still be here and still be protected."

Bannister: "This is really where the museum has come in to put focu on this. We partner with Yamptika to lead mineral springs walking tours all throughout the summer at 9 am. That starts at the Depot art center on 13th [the former train station]. You learn about each spring: why these are unique and how each one is different, and their history.

In addition to that, we've worked with a few groups to make all new mineral springs signs, so if you want to do the tour or some of the tour on your own, there are great interpretive signs there with all-new designs, all-new photographs and all-new text. We re-researched things, we found out a lot working with geologists, so that's one way that we're continuing to put focus on the springs."

When I asked about the key to future preservation efforts, they both agreed, it’s about making sure the town values the unique land it has claimed.

Bannister: "I love the saying "if they love it, they will save it.' And what we're talking about, I think, with cultural resources, or natural resources, is understanding that finite resource, understanding how important it is to our community, and taking steps to actually preserve it, share it, and celebrate it."

McKinley: "Through the Tread of the Pioneers they do a walking tour and they get a pretty good turnout for it, but it would be nice for the people in the community to really see the value of it again. There's a few, but it's not seen as this big economic value to the community like the ski mountain is."

Bannister: "What we have found over time is that the springs have kind of taken on a secondary role. We have so many great assets about Steamboat--especially skiing--and that's really what has driven things here. So, a lot of people who live here, they know that our name is Steamboat Springs, they might know where our name is derived from, they may know that there's a stinky spring making a sulfur smell in the downtown, but they're not necessarily understanding or appreciating the diversity of these springs, the number of these springs, that really puts Steamboat on the map as a small Yellowstone. I kind of call it the baby Yellowstone. You know, this incredible geologic area that isn't really getting the attention and focus on just how incredible it is because we have so many other things that it's standing in the shadow of.

Unfortunately, some of the spring-loving old times have passed away between when Dangy wrote her book and I wrote this piece.

McKinley: "A lot of the research came from George Tolles who was considered to be a water witcher. So he could take a stick and go onto a property and find where water would be for wells and stuff. But he was the spokesperson for the springs for years and years and years. He passed, I think, four or five years ago. But he was one of these people who kept all his notes and when I was doing research, he said 'here you go. You're welcome to it.' He was so generous with it [his research]. So, hopefully, there's people recording what's going on in town now.

Ultimately the forces that destroyed the Steamboat and Soda springs are still at work. As long as capitalism demands perpetual growth and development, natural spaces will always be threatened. Towns like Steamboat depend upon tourism to thrive, and yet, tourism threatens to destroy the things it loves from overuse. Here’s Candice on the need to balance growth with preservation.

Bannister: "I'm not pointing a finger at our Chamber of Commerce because they're doing their job, but they get on, for instance, a campaign initiative with Colorado Tourism Office, that said 'let's create a whole marketing campaign around a driving tour circle of the state featuring various hot springs.' Well, it's a great idea, right? And it really took off. And then, ever since then, this hot springs [Strawberry Park] has cars all the way down the road, they can't manage the parking, they can't manage the crowd. They're now on a reservation system, thank goodness, and I think that has helped with a lot (and that reservation system started with COVID)....

But it's a perfect example of where, I think, with the dawn of the internet and social media, and how much people are able to share information--their photos and their experiences--places that were off the beaten path like Steamboat, that were three hours from Denver--now a lot like these areas feel like the places you left--the areas that either you moved away from or are visiting from."

Conservation in white society has always been a project of a few concerned citizens pushing back against capitalism. Only loud, unified opposition from affected communities can tip the scales against the destruction of their environment (and even then, they often fail) as capitalist interests demand perpetual growth year after year after year.

One method for pushing back is education. I came across this story because of the efforts of the Tread of the Pioneers Museum and the book The Springs of Steamboat Springs by Dagny McKinley. Conservation is what drives people like Dangy to tell these stories.

The work of dedicated local historians enabled my research into this topic. I hope this piece serves as another link in the chain that connects people today to the past by showing how decisions made over a hundred years ago still affect the land and the people of today. By learning our history, we can better understand our relationship to those decisions, and in particular, the half-forgotten injustices that we continue to profit off of. Our ancestors arrived here, certain that they could make something of a pristine wilderness, but those changes have make human habitation in these fragile environments dangerously unsustainable. We can correct our vision of “progress” now, or after we’ve blasted the last mountainside, drained the last aquifer, and lost everything that made this part of the world special.

It’s really up to us to decide. I can’t say exactly what changes must be made, but I can say with confidence that we have been far worse stewards of the land than the people who lived here before us. The Ute had no desire to fill marshland with asphalt or blast railroads into the mountainside.

One of the biggest remaining obstacles to the projects of education and conservation is our own fragility. Because we identify with our forebearers, it’s easy to take discussion of their crimes against humanity and nature as indictments of ourselves and our society. The fact is that all society is borrowed clothes. We inherit it from our parents and pass it on to our children. We can mend it and update it, but we have to get a good look at it first to find the problems.

Fragility showed up in a surprising place when I started publishing this podcast series. Candice, who I’d spoken to a few times on the phone and over email, asked me to remove her participation from the podcast when she saw the series headline, “Why did Steamboat Springs Blow Up the Steamboat Spring.” Here’s her speaking to me days before the release of the first episode:

"We've already ruined--and this is terrible--we've already negatively hurt, in some way or another, three springs."

But after the release, she wrote to me, “They did not blow up the Steamboat Spring. I don’t think it is a good idea to over exaggerate. They had no intention of doing that….They were simply bringing the single most important transportation development of the time into our valley for goods and opportunities. In coming through the hillside and needing to blast, they inadvertently affected the adjacent spring’s flow.”

I’ve laid out the history accurately in this podcast, hopefully capturing the perspective Candice states here, while still holding the town responsible for their past actions. Am I overexagerating when I say the Steamboat Spring was blown up? It’s true that they did not stick dynamite into the actual hole or do it for fun. They blasted feet away from the geyser that gave the town its name. Or is Candice now downplaying the facts because, stated plainly, they give a bad impression of the town? Please let me know your opinion in the comments. To me, it was an example of how a dedicated conservationist can still have surprising episodes of fragility when confronting the past.

Lulita and Me: building a bridge to the past

I want to end this series with Lulita, who has served as my guide back through history. She was born and lived most of her life in the Pritchett home on Federal Boulevard here in Denver, just blocks from where I used to rent an apartment. Her father, Carr Pritchett, was a leading mining engineer. She was originally named after her mother, Lulie, but when her aunt complained about the possible confusion, it was changed to Lulita (“Little Lulie” in Spanish), showing the enduring Spanish influence on Coloradans.

What is now a thoroughly developed suburb of Denver was still rural in those days. Lulita wrote in 1983:

When I was a child, I had this big yard to live in, and several nearby vacant lots that had once been an apple orchard. We dug caves, picked sand lilies, found horned toads, and climbed trees. We always had a dog and cat. Roller skates were the style, and I had a tricycle. Then, in the summer, we went to Steamboat.

Lulita graduated from the University of Denver in 1926 and taught there until 1930, when she quit to take care of her parents, who were now in their 60s. Her sister, Margaret, never had a job and also stayed home taking care of her parents. Lulita eventually found the house too crowded. She wanted to go out and have adventures like her mother had, so she took another job a decade later, this time as a file clerk.

Lulita as a young woman (somewhere around age 14)

In 1943, Lulita’s father passed away and in 1952, so did Lulie. All along, Lulita had been writing diaries, poems, stories, and histories. She loved the town of Steamboat Springs, although she had never lived there, and remained active in their current affairs, writing conservation-minded letters to the Pilot and visiting often. In 1959, she published The Cabin at Medicine Springs, a 245-page fictionalization of her grandparents’ settlement of Steamboat Springs and the night of the Meeker Massacre. It won several awards and become a well-read children’s book in Colorado and surrounding states. As I quoted earlier, it treats Indian removal as a sad necessity and shows a midcentury reframing of Indians as tragic and misguided but essentially kind and sharing. In her way, she reminded Coloradans of what they lost with the destruction of the Ute nation.

It doesn’t appear that Lulita actually needed to work, having inherited plenty from both of her parents, including a stately house in a prime location of Denver and the the undeveloped plot next door. Nevertheless, she worked for 34 years while her sister Margaret stayed home. In 1972, Margaret passed away and, later that year, the house suffered a burglary while Lulita was at work. The loss of family heirlooms permanently shook her peace of mind. She added bars to the house and stopped leaving for extended periods, retiring from her job two years later.

For almost 15 years, she lived alone. During that time, she compiled most of the original sources used in this podcast and wrote extensively about her family. She held onto family artifacts, transforming her house into a living museum. Her nephew recalls being politely but firmly told not to sit in the antique chairs. She served as the crucial link from her parents and grandparents at the turn of the 20th century to researchers like me in the 21st.

In 1988, Lulita’s health declined. Enormous development had taken place over the preceding decades and north Federal wasn’t the prestigious neighborhood it once was. The Denver Broncos Mile High Stadium opened a mile down the street. The site was chosen because the neighborhood was no longer affluent and white but middle and lower income and Hispanic. She sold the house to relatives, moved into a nursing home, and within a year, passed away. She was 84.

Her nephew, James Crawford, has since preserved her life’s work online.

A year after Lulita’s death, in 1989, I was born in California and moved to the outer suburbs of Denver at the age of 2. Over the next few decades, the area where Lulita lived hit its nadir and then, in the 2000s, as downtown Denver was extensively renovated, it again became a fashionable suburb. A wave of gentrification in the 2010’s brought in young professionals like me. I was a copywriter at a local ad agency. The Safeway that Lulita saw as the beginning of the end for her neighborhood was my local grocery store. I frequently bike up the Platte river past Confluence Park, where Denver once eyed the slightly-older town of Auraria across Cherry Creek. Now Auraria is a university and an amusement park, and the oldest houses of Denver have been transformed into boxy, new condos to house the young professionals brought in by the booming industries of today: technology, telecommunications, and weed.

Already, at age 32, I’ve seen my city drastically transform. Run-down, ratty old bars I played open mics at a decade ago are now rows of treadmills on the first floor of luxury apartments. Who knows what they will be a decade from now? That’s the fickle nature of the economy and the haphazard way we decide what survives and what gets destroyed to make way for the new.

I’m sure Lulita felt the same bittersweetness as she watched Denver and Steamboat Springs transform over her lifetime. In her late 70’s, she collected her Crawford Pioneer Tales that served as a crucial source for me. In it, she imagines her grandfather, looking out over Steamboat Springs near the end of his life in the 1930. James Crawford’s town never developed into the major city he’d dreamed of. His miracle spring water never became world-famous. But he had built a community. He’d changed the world, if only his corner of it. He’d turned a Ute campground into a white settlement and, for better or worse, he was proud.

Up in the Crawford house on the hill[,] Steamboat’s first settler sat on the wide porch where he could look out over “his” valley. The sturdy legs that had carried him across the Rocky Mountains for half a century would now carry him no farther than the front gate. As he puffed at his after-breakfast pipe, he could see the thin smoke rising from numerous stove pipes in the comfortable community on either side of Lincoln Avenue where once he had seen Ute campfires.

Moving his chair to keep in the strip of sunshine, he noted how the swallows were gathering on the electric wires — sign of another winter coming. The early scarlet of autumn sharpened the hill above the Steamboat Spring — that hill from which he had long ago dreamed a dream.

The vision was still afar off. But the sun was warm across his knees.

And he could reach a hand to his Maggie, who was never far off, and remind her, “Mother, we made the town!”

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