Home to the deepest hot spring aquifer in the world, Pagosa Springs was a popular destination for local Native Americans before it developed into a white settlement in the 1870s. The area supported a thriving lumber industry in the early twentieth century. Now it survives on tourism to the hot springs, nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area, the San Juan National Forest, and the Weminuche Wilderness.
The name Pagosa comes from the Ute word meaning “healing waters.” The hot water in the springs comes from fractures that allow it to rise from more than 6,000 feet below the earth’s surface, where it is warmed by residual heat left over from volcanic activity in the area that occurred more than 20 million years ago. Groundwater filters down through the fractures, is heated, and returns to the surface in a cycle that probably takes hundreds of years.
For generations before Europeans set foot near the Pagosa hot springs, Native Americans used the warm waters as a gathering place. US Army topographical engineer Captain John N. Macomb, the first person to write about the hot springs, noted in 1859 that the area was laced with footpaths leading to and from the springs. Calling it “one of the most remarkable hot springs on the continent,” Macomb added, “It can hardly be doubted that in future years it will become a celebrated place of resort.”
Some nonnatives began to visit the springs for health reasons in the 1870s. No public bathhouses existed, so people often bathed in seeps near the main springs, which was too hot for humans. Traffic increased after the Brunot Agreement of 1873 opened the San Juan Mountains to mining and white settlement. People began to settle around the springs, which lay along an important route to the San Juan mining camps. In response to a problem with fraudulent claims around the springs, in May 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes issued an executive proclamation reserving one square mile around the springs as a town site.
Utes still lived around Pagosa Springs in the 1870s. The sharp increase in white travel and settlement in the area resulted in fear and apprehension on both sides. Whites clamored for the federal government to establish a military post nearby and to improve the routes linking the San Juans to Fort Garland, the closest existing post in Colorado. In response, the government dispatched troops to the area in October 1878. They established a temporary post about a quarter mile north of the springs. The post was initially called Pagosa Springs before being renamed Camp Lewis at the end of the month, in honor of the recently deceased Lieutenant Colonel William Lewis. By November 1878 the camp had six officers and ninety-two enlisted men, who constructed the fort’s frame buildings, stables, and corrals. Some of the troops stationed there included Buffalo Soldiers.
In January 1879 the camp was upgraded to Fort Lewis, signaling an installation that was intended to be permanent. The fort saw its first serious activity later that year. When a conflict erupted with the Utes after the September 1879 Meeker Massacre, about 500 troops were stationed at Fort Lewis. The fort served as an important staging point, allowing troops to be placed between different bands of Utes in northwestern and southwestern Colorado.
The fort and its soldiers boosted the economy of nearby Pagosa Springs, which began to thrive on the commerce and security that the fort provided. In 1880 the town counted more than 200 residents, making it one of the largest settlements in southwestern Colorado. Already by January 1880, however, the army had decided that Fort Lewis was too isolated to be useful. Most of the troops headed west in May to reestablish the fort near Durango. One company remained to dismantle the old fort, which was officially abandoned in November 1882.
In the early 1880s, the future of Pagosa Springs looked relatively bleak. Fort Lewis had moved on. In addition, the railroad line bypassed town to the south. Passengers and freight could head straight to Durango by rail, and Pagosa Springs lost out on the daily stages and freight wagons that formerly passed through town.
The town nevertheless continued to develop throughout the 1880s and 1890s, helped by visitation to the hot springs. A few private bathhouses existed at the springs before the 1880s. Thomas Blair erected an early public bathhouse in 1881. Two years later a group of investors claimed eighty acres of land around the springs and incorporated the Pagosa Springs Company, which controlled the springs until 1910.
The Pagosa Springs Company erected a bathhouse in 1888 and another in 1890. Meanwhile, in 1889 the town got its first newspaper. In 1891 Pagosa Springs incorporated and began to grow into a substantial town.
A narrow-gauge railroad line arrived in 1900, allowing the region’s timber industry to take off. In the early twentieth century, led by the New Mexico Lumber Company and the Pagosa Lumber Company, wood became the main business in Pagosa Springs. During these years the thriving town modernized, adding telephone service and electricity. The boom lasted until the mid-1910s, when all the easy-to-reach trees were exhausted and the two big lumber companies closed down. A few smaller lumber companies continued to operate around Pagosa Springs. Without the big shipments of the boom years, however, the railroad line could not last. Service stopped to Pagosa Springs in the 1930s.
By that time, automobile traffic had begun to increase. In August 1916 the Colorado Highway Department completed a road over the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass, opening up a relatively easy route to Pagosa Springs from the San Luis Valley. About 1,000 people in 250 cars attended the opening celebration, where free coffee and elk meat were served. By the 1950s, automobile tourism had increased to the point that new motels were built in town to accommodate driving visitors.
In the early 1980s, Pagosa Springs developed a geothermal heating system, which uses hot water from the springs to heat some of the town’s buildings. The system, which was completed in December 1982, cost $1.4 million and was funded by Pagosa Springs, Archuleta County, and the Department of Energy. After paying back the Department of Energy funds over three years, Pagosa Springs became full owner of the system. The system has an annual operating budget of $40,000 and heats fifteen buildings, including the town hall, elementary school, junior high school, and senior high school.
Today the hot springs attract 175,000 visitors annually. Pagosa Springs has also become a popular place to stay for skiers of the nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area and hikers headed to the San Juan National Forest and the Weminuche Wilderness.