- Peter McGuire
Why Did Steamboat Springs Blow Up the Steamboat Spring? Part 1 of 6
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
Today, Colorado has only one natural geyser. Deep in the San Juan National Forest, there is a pool of whitish water that bubbles for 10 to 15 minutes every half hour or so. This is considered a true geyser, although, you or I would probably not recognize it as such. It’s certainly not very awe-inspiring. A geyser is defined as a geological feature that erupts intermittently when an underground space fills with water which heats to steam and escapes upwards. In some cases, it shoots out incoming water, creating dramatic fountain effects like Old Faithful in Wyoming.
In the case of the Geyser Spring, steam froths a milky pool to the point that some water spills over the side.
Colorado had a much more impressive geyser but we blew it up in 1908.
Not only did this geyser shoot brilliant jets of water into the sky, it had a unique feature: For thousands of years, almost continuously, the geyser announced itself with an eerie chugging sound that echoed up and down the valley. The sound came from the geyser refilling after each blast. The first White explorers dubbed the geyser the Steamboat Spring. Here’s the sound of a steamboat for those of us who are not familiar. Imagine that but loud enough to be heard across hills and valleys.
Why do I capitalize White? To treat White identity as a distinct cultural and historical force, not a default position
Why do I use "American Indian"? It is increasingly seen as the more specific term for indigenous North Americans, whereas "Native American" refers to all peoples of the Americas.
We may never know exactly how this geyser worked because both sound and spray stopped on June 25, 1908, when construction workers dynamited the mountainside nearby. They created an approach to the booming town of Steamboat Springs that would not overtax a steam locomotive engine and in doing so destroyed its greatest attraction and a natural wonder unique to Colorado. But the town got what it wanted: the trip from Steamboat to Denver could now be made in a day. If you visit Steamboat today, you can see that the railroad lies mere feet away from where the Steamboat Spring once jetted from the rock
I feel like the first question I need to answer is why we should care about geysers. I started this story when I visited Steamboat Springs during a lull in their event calendar. I was there too early to ski and an early snowstorm took most autumn activities off the table. My partner and I visited the museum in Steamboat, called the Tread of the Pioneers Museum, and I learned that the town is built on extremely hydro-geologically active land with dozens of natural springs that flow down the mountainside into the Yampa River. We had (legally) skinny-dipped in one of them the night before. Our tour of these springs ended at a large wooden sign explaining that the town is so named because of the chugging sound of their famous spring. A rather smaller, newer sign explains that the spring no longer makes that sound, or jets water, because of the blasting for the railroad. Worse still, we learned that the site had been sacred to the Ute who had been pushed out of the valley by White settlement. We stood, struck by the absurdity and callousness of dynamiting the spring as we watched water bubble up under the railroad track.
Despite myself, I started writing this podcast episode in my head as we drove back over Rabbit Ears pass to I-70. How could a town be so short-sighted as to destroy its namesake and claim to fame? We also noticed a pagoda in the park with a sign for the Soda Spring but could not find the spring itself. I bought Dagny McKinley’s book The Springs of Steamboat Springs and confirmed what I had seen firsthand. “[It] is now less than a puddle in the center of the pavilion often filled with leaves and other debris.”
The little hole in the stone bottom of the pavilion had plastic and candy wrappers in it when I saw it. As I read on, I learned this was another case of a spring that had become damaged and eventually lost due to human action. What was going on? How could the town be this cavalier about their springs?
Of course, there was no simple answer to be found in Dagny’s book, nor do I have one to offer you now. All I can do is explore the story of Steamboat Springs and try to understand the minds of the people who made these decisions over a century ago. As I cracked into Steamboat history, it opened into the wider story of White settlement of Colorado.
While I am not a descendant of the original settlers of Colorado, I live in a city they built and directly benefit from the expulsion of the earlier occupants of this land: the Ute Indians. So, I’m interested in how and why the power dynamics worked out such that I live in Denver and the remaining Ute are split between a dusty patch of Southern Colorado and an even drier piece of Utah.
When I looked into the destruction of natural wonders in Steamboat Springs and Colorado more generally, I was struck by how much worldviews dictated the course of history. A central idea that Americans used to dispossess American Indians was that White men would be better stewards of the land. This relied on the myth that American Indians were not “working” the land, as in, making it more productive and conducive to human life, which is both false and relies on a Western concept for valuing land. In sad, stark contrast to the previous stewards, it took only decades for the White settlers to begin destroying natural wonders. Worse still, the pattern continued at least through the 1980s. However, this story is not all doom and gloom. Just this year, dedicated conservationists in Steamboat Springs created the first legal protections for the springs.
That’s why I’m interested in this event. Here’s why Dagny McKinley wrote a whole book on the subject:
"It was actually a challenge I gave myself. I moved to Steamboat about 20 years ago now and I ended up leaving a couple times and trying out different places and I'd always come back to Steamboat. So, the last time I came back, I decided I wanted to learn more about the community, the history, the landscape, so I did a bunch of exploration and challenged myself to write that book in three months so I could learn more about the founding of the town, why it is here, and I was attracted to keep coming back to it."
And here is why Candice Bannister, Director at the Tread of the Pioneers Museum has been working in local history for two decades:
"Steamboat Springs and Routt county history is so unique and so interesting and really is a huge part of who we are as a town and a county. So to be able to be the ones who help to preserve that and share it with the community and help the town celebrate it and put it forward-- help it be seen-- is, for me, a huge honor and privilege that keeps me here every day.
Especially in a place like Steamboat Springs where our founders literally built our town and our foundation with their bare hands. Starting with local materials, having a love of this area and the beauty-- believing in the magic of the springs-- the abundance-- so, many of the same things that brought people here back in the turn of the century are the same assets that are bringing us today."
Humans and Springs
“Chug-chug-chug-chug....The sound came louder and louder. The mules forded the river easily, and the sight-seers were soon on the south bank looking at the source of the chugging. Big John or Frank had beat them there. They saw a small but lively spring that pumped a jet of water every few seconds thirty-five or forty feet into the air. It never missed a beat. Usually, the spurt slanted into the river, but when the breeze caught it, it showered the onlookers, who retreated.
“Yessir—” (Big John had to raise his voice to make himself understood above the noise of the spring) “—sounds exactly like a steamboat. I’ll bet those old fellows who built the Adobe reckoned they’d reached the head of navigation when they heard that sound. In springtime the water could get high enough for a boat.”
The grown folks read Jimmy’s claim notice on the quaking aspen there by the chugger while the children poked their fingers in a near-by spring as black as ink and fished “pink moss” out of still another pool. They all admired the water cascading over strangely carved white shelves into the river and discovered several springs bubbling in the stream itself.” - Lulita Crawford
This is how Lulita, the granddaughter of the founders of Steamboat Springs, described the spot that would become the center of White settlement in the Yampa Valley. They were not the first to be amazed by the natural wonders: the springs had been drawing people to the spot for centuries, maybe millennia.
Springs held great significance for the first settlers of the Yampa valley we know about: the Ute. Water often held religious significance for American Indians as a source of life, and this was especially true for the Ute and nations of the Western American deserts. Mountain springs, besides being important sources of life-sustaining water, represented a source of life itself and a portal where spirits could journey between the mountain and our world. They referred to the Steamboat springs as Medicine Springs and were known to bathe in one of the warmer and stinkier pools.
The Ute found the Yampa valley to be an excellent place to live in the summer because of the bountiful food available. The river is named Yampa for the roots that grew plentifully along it. The Ute who lived there were so associated with the food that neighboring groups called them variations of “Yamparika” or “root eaters.” Signs by the river today explain how its ecosystem became damaged due to White settlement and is in the process of being restored.
The first White family to arrive, the Crawfords, staked their claim at the Steamboat Spring and built their home on a hill nearby. In 1909, the Cabin Hotel opened across the river from the spring. It was a sprawling 100-room hotel that became the town meeting place and primary accommodation for travelers. The location’s centrality to the growing town meant that the train depot also needed to go right by the spring. By the time the hotel burned down in 1939, it was clear that Steamboat would not be an industrial powerhouse of the mountains or a major stopover for tourists headed to the Pacific coast. Only the rise of skiing saved the town from fading away like so many other mountain settlements.
In the heady days of the turn of the century, mineral water was all the craze. Virtually every restaurant offered mineral water from some famous mountain. Amazing, stupendous, unbelievable health claims became attached to drinking and bathing in mineral water. This turned out to be another bust for Steamboat. Its mineral waters were unable to provide the miracle cures ascribed to them and the spa there remained more of a local pool than a major tourist attraction.
To understand the town of Steamboat, we have to understand the water that runs under it.
The Steamboat Spring was just one of hundreds in the Yampa valley. Right by its gravesite, there is a lake that is filled by ten or more springs in close proximity. If you walk along the Yampa river, you’ll see many places where water jets or seeps from far above the water level. It’s likely that amongst these unnamed river springs flow the waters that once shot from the Steamboat geyser and the carbonated water that was once the Soda Spring.
The reason there are so many springs in the Rockies is that deep, primordial rock has become exposed to the air by mountain-building followed by erosion. It’s the same reason the mountains are so mineable: the exposed rock was magma not so long ago (in geological terms). The geologically-active, Precambrian rock along with the sharpness of the peaks has a tendency to absorb snowmelt and spit it back out further down the mountain. In the case of the springs of Steamboat Springs, the water is often being forced out of the ground upwards by heating or geological movement. Radioactive decay of uranium might also play a part.
The Rocky Mountains form an inland mountain range that stretches from northern Canada to New Mexico, covering most of Wyoming and Idaho. It juts dramatically from the great plain, that million-square-mile expanse of largely flat, dry grassland so many White settlers traversed. We joke in Denver that this city was founded by settlers who traversed the entire plain, came across the long-awaited Rockies and gave up. I certainly can’t blame them. I’ve only crossed the Rockies on highways that didn’t exist until the mid-20th Century.
The Rockies lie strangely far from a coast. Mountains are famously formed when tectonic plates collide and rock is forced upwards. In general, they form 200-400 miles from a subduction zone. So, how does a collision in California create a mountain in Colorado?
Sometimes when I try to tell a very small story for this podcast, I find myself adding more and more context. I really wanted to keep this episode short and sweet. After all, how much is there to talk about with some hot springs? But I’ll be honest. This one really got away from me. In order to explain why Steamboat blew up their geyser, we need to travel back about 350 million years, to a time long before Pangea began to break up.
Around this time, a large sea plate, which has now all but disappeared, began sliding under the west coast of what would become North America. California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington slowly accumulated against the side of this landmass. The land that would become the Rocky Mountains lay at the bottom of what was sometimes an inland sea, sometimes a seaway, and sometimes a swamp. This area was underwater for hundreds of millions of years, but it wasn’t ocean. It was in the middle of a continental plate. This sea was similar to the Mediterranean, which has also been cut off from and opened to the sea many times in geologic history.
We see the remnants of this sea all across the Rockies. The dramatic slabs of sedimentary rock at the Garden of the Gods or the Flatirons of Boulder are what remains of the seafloor, standing out against the harder, older rock that underlies the landscape. The bright-red sandstone that gives Colorado its name is just that: sand that was pressed into stone over time as more sand accumulated on top. Sand, of course, is just rock that has been worn down by the action of water. All sedimentary rock is created from a cycle from rock or minerals to something else and back to rock. At one time, it covered most of the Rockies, before erosion stripped it from the higher peaks altogether. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s still hundreds of millions of years in the future.
Roxborough State Park, Colorado (courtesy of Wikicommons)
Limestone takes a slightly longer route from rock to rock. Some of the earliest evidence of life is found in limestone: mounds of accretion called stromatolites. Accretion here means the byproducts of life—it collects minerals from the environment, metabolizes, gives off waste, and dies. Very small creatures doing this over a very long period of time leave rock accretions behind.
The earliest limestones are inorganic, but starting just half a billion years after the planet cooled, the earliest organic-based limestones began accumulating. This means that simple life had already sprung into existence. Life carried on as single cells for over 3 billion years—the majority of the history of the planet. Only about a billion years ago did life begin to form more complex structures, and this is when limestone really takes off. Now corals spring to life, and soon after, the sea bugs: arthropods and mollusks with hard shells. Eventually, internal skeletons come into use, and boney fish, followed by land vertebrates, add their calcium carbonate to the pile. For the remaining billion years of history up till now, these creatures lived and died, adding their bodies to sand, soil, bodies, and accretions of all kinds that create the variations in the white limestone dotting the landscape.
The often warm and shallow prehistoric sea played host to plant life from algae and plankton to ferns, flowing plants, and trees. 300 million years ago, life was still adapting to survival outside of water. Although forests of woody trees dominated the plains, hills, and swamps, bacteria had not yet evolved the ability to digest their cellulose, the woody parts. For 60 million years, plants lived and died, not decomposing but compacting into carbon deposits, eventually forming 90% of the coal on earth.
200 million years ago, we enter the Triassic and the first of the dinosaurs appear. While the vast majority of their bodies decomposed and re-entered the carbon cycle, some added to the sedimentary rock, and some were preserved long enough to fossilize, usually escaping decomposition by being trapped in a landslide or falling in a bog.
All organic matter only lasts so long. Anything older than 10,000 years that once formed a living body is now a fossil: a collection of minerals that maintains the structure of the organic matter. Fossils are so important to science because they preserve structures as delicate as a dinosaur’s feathers. The Rockies are famous for their fossil finds, exposed on mountainsides instead of at the bottom of a sea.
For hundreds of millions of years, parts of Pangea traveled apart, breaking into the continents we know today. Because land is made of lighter rock than ocean, it doesn’t always get replenished by sinking into the molten planetary core. There are places you can visit, called cratons, that are as old as the Earth itself. Some have been pushed up into mountains and weathered back down several times.
Usually, when ocean floor pushes under land, it creates volcanic hotspots and earthquakes such as the “ring of fire” around the Pacific Ocean today. Something odd happened in midwestern North America that’s not completely understood. You can imagine mountain building like the rolls that form in a rug when one side is pushed inward and the rest of the rug refuses to slide. In this case, the “rolls” formed closer to the middle of the run than you’d expect.
An explanation could be that the ocean plate stayed intact for longer than usual, and so exerted more upward force further inland than normal. It could have been caused by a plateau that took longer for the magma to “digest”, so to speak. It could also be that the entire interaction happened at a shallower angle than usual, causing a gentler collision that spread out the upward force.
The last great push that formed the Rockies started 80 million years ago and ended 55 million years ago. In the middle of this time period, 66 million years ago, the predominant life form on the planet—the dinosaurs—disappeared in a flash (at least from the perspective of the fossil record). The historically hot, wet earth, became much cooler. Water levels sank worldwide as water froze at the same time the underlying rock the Rockies rose higher and higher. Sedimentary, seafloor rock was pushed up and to the sides as older, harder rock jutted up deeper in the earth.
That’s why so much of the dramatic sedimentary erosion we see around Colorado has stripes that appear to be at a diagonal. The rock was pushed up and to the side and then weathered to the point where we can see it. The stripes, by the way, called layers, are formed by long periods of time when the composition of the ground was similar. They get their defined edges from mineral processes as they turn into rock.
For billions of years, seafloor sediment had built up 10-15,000 feet of rock. In just 25 million years, this rock traveled from below sea level to 20,000 feet in the air. It probably formed an immense high-altitude plateau similar to Tibet. Like all landscapes, this plateau had variations and valleys. The water that blanketed the area for so long now began to work in the opposite direction. In addition to the constant effect of weather, glaciers formed atop the plateau. For much of the 19th Century, geologists found it hard to believe that glaciers could sculpt landscapes in such short periods of time. That was until they properly studied the forces of glaciers that still exist today. They are incredibly powerful and, being on mountains and being made of water, they carve their way downhill. We normally don’t see this process because our lives are so short compared to those of glaciers, however, we are now seeing dramatic loss of glaciers worldwide due to global warming.
Mt Elbert (courtesy wikicommons)
This process of stripping down the sedimentary rock took much less time than building up. Today, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains is Mount Elbert at 14,440 feet—down 5,000 feet in the last 55 million years. Those 5,000 feet took possibly 2 billion years to build up.
The erosion exposed what is called Precambrian rock, as a broad term. This means it formed before the explosion of life in the fossil record. It’s mostly igneous, meaning recently so hot it was a liquid, or metamorphic, rocks that have been transformed by the immense heat and pressure under the surface of the earth—that is, the .04% of the planet we live on. Most of the earth is undergoing extreme temperatures and pressures unheard of on the surface because it’s rock all the way down. Then it’s a sort of liquid rock and eventually a liquid made of rock minerals. When mountains are pushed upwards, rock that has always been deep underground gets exposed. Because the rock was more liquid, elements tend to congregate together like different liquids separating in a glass. That’s what produces the mineral veins like the silver and gold that created much of the economy of the region in the 19th Century.
In the early 20th century, focus shifted to petroleum extraction: another outcome for Carboniferous trees (not from dinosaur decomposition as is sometimes said. That was a marketing ploy to make oil for cars seem more organic).
It’s worth noting that life plays a part even in creating mineral seams. Organisms live as far under the earth as we have been able to dig and likely play a part in concentrating minerals through a metabolic process. All of the deposits I’ve described are non-renewable on human timescales. They took hundreds of millions of years to form whereas our species only been puttering around for a few hundred thousand at the most.
Rock + Water = Life
The Rockies remain highly hydro-geologically active, and here, we finally return to springs.
Water not only erodes, it penetrates. Water seeps into the mountains and fills both underground caverns and aquifers: areas of spongey rock that can hold large amounts of water. Most springs are simply places where water flows back out of the rocks. The bubbling springs of Steamboat are caused by heating and gas production under the earth forcing water upwards. Hot springs across the Rockies attest to the immense forces at play below our feet.
Springs and snowmelt form streams. Streams form rivers, and rivers irrigate the arid Western deserts. Water from the Rockies cuts through sedimentary rock landscapes that have been eroded less than the high mountains. These rivers create the cliffs of Grand Junction, the arches of Moab, and the enormous span of the Grand Canyon, to name a few. These awe-inspiring landscapes are a snapshot of geological history. We caught them in a moment of transition between mountain and sand.
In many cases, the water that flows into the rock returns transformed. These are the “mineral springs” you’ve heard about from bottled water companies. The water has dissolved some of the rock on its journey through it. The rock that formed the young Rockies fed life across the west, down to the Gulf of California. Life of all kinds thrives on the bioavailable minerals; the Gulf of California is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world because of the minerals carried there by the Colorado River. By breaking down and transporting minerals, water makes life possible and provides the minerals we use to build our bodies
Why did I feel the need to recap all of evolution to explain the geology of Steamboat Springs? Living in Colorado, I’ve heard piecemeal explanations of the geology but have never gotten a good, big-picture look at the process. When I look at the rugged and craggy peaks, it’s easy to imagine rock as something very different from life. But something very special happens when water is added to rock. Water created a home for life. Life created layers of rock under the water. And now, in some cases, the minerals feeding the plants and animals of the Rockies once composed the bodies of their ancestors, long-since transformed back into rock. In a literal sense, the Ute are correct: springs represent a return of our ancestors to life.
In the words of Ute educator Larry Cesspooch: When we die, we give our bodies back to the earth that created it. We are water and the rest is minerals.
Unlikely Explanations acknowledges the Indigenous people of the Denver area. We honor and acknowledge that we are on the traditional territories and ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations. This area was also the site of trade, hunting, gathering, and healing for many other Native Nations: The Lakota, Ute, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Shoshone, and others.
Next episode out now. Learn about early Ute settlement and Ute beliefs.