Past and Present Collide at Warm Springs
In its heyday, the scarred landscape of Salt Lake City’s Beck St. area was a site of physical and spiritual healing.
No one dreams of this place anymore,” the city employee told me as we toed the ledge of the main pool in the former Wasatch Warm Springs Plunge building, now empty save a smattering of office chairs, papers and a few dead birds in its deep end. It is spring of 2015 and this visit is the culmination of nearly three years spent studying the history of the Beck Street area of Salt Lake City, of which the Warm Springs Plunge building is the southern terminus. I spent months pushing for this brief access. Now, I am trying to take in as much as possible, as quickly as possible, before he escorts me out again.
I don’t think his comment was nostalgic or poetic. It was a simple observation of the neglect the building has undergone at various times since the mid-1970s. Ever since its last full-time tenant, the Children’s Museum, vacated for the Gateway, it has loomed over Beck Street derelict and ominous, a sorry reminder of its heyday as a resort and recreational haven for city residents.
It is easy to observe the chipping plaster, the boarded up windows and the unkempt landscaping and assume what he says is true—dreams of this kind faded with the onset of the interstate and increased refinery operations. Progress will claim Warm Springs as it has its myriad sister resorts along Beck Street and around the Great Salt Lake. This makes it easier to understand why the only proposal for the site currently under consideration by the city is Woodbury Corporation’s plan for a seven-story apartment complex that would dwarf the current building while subsuming its structure—protected by its presence on the National Register of Historic Places—into the project as a space for offices.
However, his statement is also untrue. People have dreamed of uses for the site since its closure as a municipal pool in 1976, and the dreams of the place prior to that are a palimpsest of historically and emotionally rich stories of place and community that go back at least 170 years, and perhaps far longer.
This writer’s connection to the area is no different—my sister was a volunteer at the Children’s Museum and took me there often; my father spent a career as a yardmaster for the adjacent Union Pacific Railroad, his yard tower providing me an aerial view of this steamy, smoky and loud part of the city; and two of my uncles were among the many children treated for polio in the hydrotherapy pools at Warm Springs.
What I found when I began my research in 2013 was that many people had stories of this place, particularly Baby Boomers, but had largely misplaced these memories because proximity breeds familiarity and I-15 had long diverted them away from this industrial corridor. But not everyone takes the shortcut I-15 offers and those with memories of Saturdays spent at the springs needed little coaxing to share their stories.
The story of Mormon pioneers “making the desert bloom” in the Salt Lake valley is an enduring one, inextricable from the other Mosaic imagery that the group would repurpose for themselves or have placed upon them—a people chased from their homeland, wandering the desert, settling next to a dead sea, coaxing what little they could from a barren land. It is also convenient myth.
The valley itself was more an oasis on the brink of the Great Basin. Seven watershed creeks poured off the Wasatch and, along with the Jordan River, fed a series of lakes and lakelets throughout the valley prior to emptying into the Great Salt Lake. Water quickly became the focal point of the settlement’s municipal and recreational needs.
Among the waters in the valley was a complex series of hot springs and seeps at the foot of the Wasatch, starting just north of Ensign Peak and continuing north to the Salt Lake/Davis county line. Between Warm Springs, the spring nearest the Plunge building, and Beck’s Hot Springs at the far north of this stretch, another four dozen or so springs were documented by early settlers. Most of them drained into Hot Spring Lake—a substantial body of water with a shoreline four to five miles in circumference in high waters. Collectively, these features constitute the Wasatch Springs Fault geothermal area.
Such abundant geothermal activity did not go unnoticed by early settlers. On July 22, 1847, two days before Brigham Young and company arrived in the valley, Erasmus Snow became the first Mormon to discover the springs while part of a scouting party. Four days later, Snow returned to the springs with Young, and Thomas Bullock, who noted in his journal, “we returned to the nearest hot spring and bathed in it. It was very warm, & smelt very bad. After washing we returned to camp, when I had a sweating.” However, it didn’t take Bullock long to change his mind about Warm Springs once Young solicited him to excavate the site. An entry in his journal a short while later states:
“…north of the Temple Block is a sulpher spring which I dug out and made into a beautiful place. My fingers rooted out the stones, and a couple of brethren afterwards assisted me with spades to dig out a place, about sixteen feet square, to bathe in—seven or eight persons often bathe in it at a time…”
Bullock was also likely the first to describe the purported healing properties of the springs when he wrote “These springs, like the Pool of Siloam, heal all who bathe, no matter what their complaints. The air is very salubrious, and with these Warm Springs, I can truly say we have found a healthy country.”
By the mid-19th century, “medical geography” was popular with Americans around the nation. At its heart was the belief that curative properties were inherent to particular places, with hot springs prominent amongst such geographical features. The enduring popularity of sites such as Hot Springs, Arkansas and Warm Springs, Georgia (where Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously convalesced) speak to the power of these beliefs.
Medical geography was as important to Mormons as it was to other Americans, and Young’s directive to Bullock points to his immediate recognition of the importance of the site for the community. The springs provided uses both practical and recreational, though the lack of facilities would necessitate the designation of certain days for men, and others for women and children. However, the site also served a critical spiritual purpose for the community—baptisms. This rite was known as “taking the waters,” and was often undertaken even by those who had previously been baptized. This was especially true for European immigrants who, though they had been baptized in their nation of origin, saw the rebaptism as a means of further assimilating into their new homeland.
Long before the arrival of the Mormons, bands of Shoshone and Utes had used the geothermal area as wintering grounds. It was at the springs that some of the earliest substantial and long-term contact between Mormons and Native peoples occurred and there exist little documentation during the winters of 1847 and 1848 indicating that relations were strained. However, early in the winter of 1849, measles arrived in the valley via an immigrant party, and the disease ran rampant at the springs, decimating Ute and Shoshone groups alike. In one particularly haunting account, an early pioneer wrote that they “would rush past our cabin howling and screaming—run and jump into the Warm Springs & then take cold and die…at all times of day or night their howls or mournings rent the air.” It would mark the last winter Mormons and Native Americans would encounter one another at the springs.
Bathhouse, ward house, commingling with gentiles
Young recognized the role the springs could play in the economy of the city. In 1948, he commissioned a bathhouse on the site, naming James Hendricks to serve as its overseer as well as the first bishop of the newly formed 19th ward, which utilized the bathhouse as their ward house for a number of years. Completed in 1850, the bathhouse was one of Young’s first public works projects, intended not only to improve the settlement and bring in outside revenue, but to foster cooperation in the fledgling community.
The small resort was popular with travelers, military men, federal agents, and miners, most of whom were “gentiles,” a term appropriated by Mormons to describe nonmembers. The bathhouse, with its rooms for rent and nearby hotels marked one of the earliest examples of Mormons comingling in an amicable way with the outside world after their arrival in the valley. Though all the early businesses in the area were LDS owned, the location of the resort and its amenities did provide a convenient distance between visitors and the city proper. Gentiles could be kept at arm’s length; nonetheless, proprietors did not fail to cater to the tastes of outsiders, with one hotel even holding a liquor license, the only one in the city at the time.
By 1855, the original bathhouse had fallen into disrepair and was sold to the A.H. Raleigh Golden Tannery. While the owners of the tannery ceased offering rooms for rent, they continued to offer bathing services. Even these reduced amenities quickly fell into disrepair under the new ownership and by 1859, the property had changed hands once again.
The proximity of bathing facilities to a tannery, one of the most noxious and toxic industries of the 19th century, did not improve its situation. This multipurpose venture, along with the increasing excavation of nearby gravel pits, marked the first steps in what became a theme for the area—the juxtaposition of recreational and industrial space, a site of both physical and spiritual healing giving way to a scarred landscape.
The Wasatch Warm Springs Plunge building was constructed in 1921 and was one of the first, and one of few surviving, examples of Mediterranean-style architecture in the city. Unlike other nearby resorts, Warm Springs remained a municipal facility for nearly all its history. In addition to the massive public pool, the facility also featured a secondary deep plunge reserved for private parties, a dozen private soaking tanks, a barber shop, hair dresser, large locker rooms, five private rooms on the upper floor available for rent, and even men’s and women’s masseurs. Though the Great Depression and World War II both threatened closure or a change to private ownership, the community continued to support municipal ownership for the site.
Though it endured the longest, with increasingly larger and more lavish iterations, Warm Springs did not remain the only water-based resort in the valley for long. It was not even the only resort in the geothermal area. Local tourism’s emphasis on mountain-based recreation (“The Greatest Snow on Earth,” “Life Elevated”) dates only to the 1930s. The 80-plus years prior were dominated by water-centered recreation in the valley.
Many Salt Lake residents are familiar with Saltair, on the shores of Great Salt Lake, which still exists as a shell of its former self. Far fewer are aware of the string of resorts, such as Lakeside, Garfield Beach and Black Rock that once lined its shores and catered to locals and tourists alike. Though few traces exist of this history, these resorts once warranted a dedicated “leisure line”—the Great Salt Lake and Hot Springs Railway—with service to Saltair, Garfield Beach, Warm Springs, Beck’s Hot Springs, Bountiful’s Eden Park and finally the Lagoon resort in Farmington.
The aforementioned Beck’s Hot Springs was a short distance from Warm Springs and sat on the shores of Hot Spring Lake. Named for its owner John Beck, who also owned Saratoga Springs in Utah County and was Beck Street’s namesake, the resort was a bastion of recreation for locals and visitors alike. Opened in the mid-1880s and advertised as the “coming sanitarium of the West,” the resort contained the largest and hottest of the springs. It featured a deep plunge that was 30 feet by 75 feet, a “private” plunge 40 feet by 80 feet, and 12 private baths measuring 10 feet by 10 feet. The grounds featured wide lawns and shaded picnic areas, dance floors, billiard tables and other games as well as first-rate lodging. The west end of the Hot Spring Lake had a small stream that joined to the Jordan River, which then flowed into the Great Salt Lake, providing an ideal spot much of the year for boating.
A change in priorities
Like many of the other resorts in the area, the constant upkeep of facilities adjacent to brackish waters as well as a series of fires would lead to Beck’s Hot Springs changing hands shortly after the turn of the 19th century, and then many more times over the next 40 or so years. The property’s final owners, the HOM Company and chemist Harvey Woodbury (there seems to be no relation between Harvey Woodbury and Woodbury Corporation) purchased it in 1943 in the hopes of developing it into a health center. Woodbury’s plans were defeated by new and stringent Health Department regulations and by the site’s condem- nation in 1953, after which the state took control of the land to use for portions of Highway 89 and later I-15.
Hot Spring Lake had fared worse. In 1915, the decision was made to drain the lake. The reason given by health officials was mosquito abatement, though its demise was expedited by the city’s construction of a gravity sewer in the 1890’s that drained into canals adjacent to the Lake. Over the years, the effluent eventually made its way to the lake causing complaints from boaters and other recreationists. Save a few small sulfurous ponds alongside I-15, nothing remains of the lake and few residents ever knew it was there.
By the summer of 1943, 40 cases of poliomyelitis had been reported in Utah. As numbers continued to increase, the Health Department promptly ordered all public pools closed, including Beck’s Hot Springs and the Wasatch Warm Springs Plunge. However, the two hot springs facilities were also identified as potential hydrotherapy sites for polio victims. Wasatch Warm Springs would become an epicenter for such treatment, with physicians recommending patients in Utah seek attention there.
However, the massive public plunges in the adjacent rooms were proving to be a problem. Studies commissioned by the State Department of Health in 1947 indicated that bacterial counts in the water were high enough to pose a hazard to swimmers. The Health Department’s recommendation was that the water be heavily chlorinated to kill bacteria.
However, sulfurous spring water cannot be chlorinated without producing precipitates harmful to both swimmers and the facilities themselves. In 1949, after a long closure and repeated debates, it was decided that the two large pools would be filled instead with fresh water, while the small private baths could continue to utilize spring water.
The municipal pool closed in 1976.
By the onset of World War II, the petroleum industry along Beck Street was already decades old and had grown by orders of magnitude. Refineries such as Utah Oil Company (later purchased by Tesoro) became an integral part of the military-industrial complex. With its adjacent railroad corridor, the newly constructed pipeline delivering crude products for refining, and its contributions to American military dominance, this small stretch of Salt Lake City welcomed globalization on a scale that far exceeded the wave of tourists the railroad welcomed into the city’s resorts in the 1870s.
At the same time that the refineries were expanding and growing in number, the city itself was growing exponentially. The need for aggregate materials such as gravel and asphalt increased in proportion to the size and population of the city. What had been a smattering of small-scale gravel pits along the east side of the Beck Street area grew to fill this need. Suburbs, airport expansions and I-15 reconstruction continued to fuel this growth. Initial limits imposed on the growth of extraction were discarded and it is seemingly only the city’s prescient wilderness designation starting at the Bonneville bench of the Wasatch that has constrained their operations.
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Beneath the industrial grit of Beck Street, 170 years of history lies dormant, stifled or diverted in much the same way all but a few of the springs have been. It is made up of layer after layer of community, all of whom treated the springs as a focal point.
From Ute and Shoshone encampments and the 19th Ward to the Scandinavian settlers in Swedetown and the young victims of polio convalescing in the pools, the springs were a place where difference was a constant yet the leisure and healing the space allowed was held in common. The Warm Springs Plunge building and the green space that surrounds it remain the last vestiges of a complex history documenting the displacement of the places people recreated by the places they worked.
What’s Next for Warm Springs Park?
In 1999, the Capitol Hill Community Council fought to have the space around the Warm Spring Plunge designated a park and to have nearby springs partially restored. The construction of the Marmalade Library in 2015 indicated a similar recognition that nearby neighborhoods have long lacked many of the resources available to other areas of the city.
Likewise, as word of the Woodbury proposal for the Warm Springs housing project spread, a number of like-minded people have come together under the name of the Warm Springs Alliance with the goal of preserving the site as a community gathering place. It is a goal worthy of the history of the site and one worthy of the neighborhoods it would serve.
Apartment buildings and townhomes privatize space and neglect the intersectionality that Warm Springs embraced to a far greater degree than did the rest of a city often divided by religion and other boundaries. At a time when it seems nearly every site in the city is turned over to housing development, what do we gain in compromising that history with one more apartment complex?
While the land is considered worth saving from a historical viewpoint, what about the present-day condition of the water? Does it still have its ancient healing powers? “We’re working to learn everything we can about the water that comes out of the ground at perfect soaking temperature,” says Nibley. “The pollution test came back squeaky clean.” The water’s mineral content includes sodium, calcium, magnesium and sulphur (a test for trace minerals had not yet been conducted). The group has also made contact with a University of Utah researcher who studies microbes in hot springs.
According to Nibley, about 90 interested citizens attended last month’s Warm Springs Alliance community meeting, including a government employee who has been part of the city team working on real estate proposals for the Warm Springs site (the employee came as an independent observer and gave no comments). At the meeting, attendees formed working groups to address community outreach, fundraising, future actions and other needs.
Anyone who would like to join in the effort to preserve what’s left of the Warm Springs Park is warmly welcomed. “We are making this happen. We are mobilizing. We are not waiting for someone else to act,” says Nibley.
For more information and to sign a petition to save the Warm Springs go to
Michael McLane is the director of the Utah Humanities Council’s Center for the Book. He is currently working on his masters thesis in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.