Friday, August 10, 2012

Hot Times at Hot Lake Springs

Hot Lake Springs
During the 1910s and 1920s it was the hottest spot in Oregon. Three daily trains from Portland brought hundreds of guests to “take the waters” at the Hot Lake Hotel and Sanitorium, a little southeast of La Grande. They would bathe in the hot mineral waters, soak in sulfuric baths, and wallow in mud from the lake’s sediment in an attempt to cure a variety of ills from rheumatism to syphilis.
Of course, it had always been a hot spot thanks to the 208-degree water that bubbles out of the ground creating a steaming, sulfurous lake. Native tribes knew about the water’s healing powers and considered the place holy ground. The first whites to enjoy the lake were fur trappers returning from Fort Astoria in 1812; later on, it was a welcome stopover for immigrants traveling the Oregon Trail.
In the 1860s, a number of wooden structures were built around the lake and, in 1908, a three-story brick hotel with hospital was added. The charismatic Dr. William Phy developed it into a state-of-the-art medical facility with labs, operating rooms, teaching hospital, and an innovative x-ray machine that seems more like a prop from a sci-fi horror film. It was often referred to as the Mayo Clinic of the West and attracted patients and spa seekers from all over the world.
Bathhouse and lake
In 1934, a fire destroyed the large wooden structure.  By then, Dr. Phy had died from pneumonia, the railroad was rerouted, the new highway bypassed the property, and the country had plunged into an economic depression. During World War II, it served as a training facility for nurses and later as a nursing home. Over time, the building fell into disrepair.  Vandals had broken all but two of the 360 windows, and looted the fixtures and marble tiles. Holes in the roof allowed water to damage floors and walls. Several attempts to save the structure failed and the future seemed grim for this piece of Oregon history.
At the same time, David Manuel was establishing a reputation as a renowned bronze sculptor and transforming the little town of Joseph in nearby Wallowa County into a noted art community.  He and his wife, Lee, frequently drove by the Hot Lake Hotel observing its sorry condition but also envisioning the property’s potential as a major tourist destination. In 2003 they sold off their interests in Joseph and bought the place. While the old hotel’s foundations were still sound, everything else was a mess and it would be a daunting and expensive task to restore it. Eight years, a lot of hard work, and over $12 million dollars later, Hot Lake Springs was back in business with its grand re-opening in August, 2011.
One of the B & B rooms
Twenty-two of the former hotel rooms have been transformed into a bed and breakfast. Since the rooms were decorated and furnished by local donors, no two are alike. There is a charming breakfast nook and an Italian restaurant on the premise as well as a theater, full service spa, indoor and outdoor soaking tubs. The Manuels also moved their bronze foundry to the site and guests can take a tour and watch a video describing the lost-wax casting process. Many of his pieces, mostly of wildlife and Western themes, are displayed in an on-premise art gallery. Manuel has maintained a long interest in Western art and history, especially Native American history, and a small museum contains an outstanding display of artifacts he has collected over the years.
Outside, there is an antique vehicle display, honor garden, and life-size bronze statue of “The Promised Land,” the same one that occupies Chapman Square in downtown Portland.
The Promised Land
To see more photos and artifacts from Hot Lake’s heyday, take a short drive south to the town of Union with its wonderful county history museum.  The display of medical apparatus and equipment used at the hospital will make you grateful to be living in the 21st century.
To make reservations or view the various rooms online, visit their website at  It is not necessary to be an overnight guest to enjoy the property and tour tickets are available at $10 for adults. This includes the history museum, bronze foundry (tours at 10:00 am and 2:00pm Monday through Saturday) and access to the grounds and indoor facilities.

1 comment:

  1. Great story - makes me want to visit soon.