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Warm Springs

No one made the desert bloom. At its edge, the desert was oasis. It frothed. Dozens of springs and seeps poured from the foothills, the earth shifting in fitful sleep, its breath scalding, cloaking itself against the cold. They poured into a great, warm lake, and on into the Jordan River. The most hospitable of these, at the foot of Ensign Peak, is Warm Springs.

The grid cannot survive geography. Beck Street is a deviation, a thick northwest to southeast slash across the map, a reorientation. City palimpsest. From the Greek palin (again) and pse¯stos (rubbed smooth). Straight. Diagonal. Find the lowest point. We go where we must. Beneath the street, the waters rub away and undercut. They are nearly forgotten.

When pioneers arrived, they bathed in the desert. Rubbed clean a thousand miles of dust. But they were not alone in the wilderness. Shoshone, Ute, and Paiute smoothed stone around the edges of the pools in their millennia long baths. But their water-borne measles made new landscapes of bodies above and below the ground, made new stories of the water. Then the pioneers were alone.

Medical geography is the belief in the power of particular places to heal. Hot springs are primary among these places, calling those with rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, and other chronic pains to their mineral waters. By the end of their long treks, pioneers had these pains in abundance alongside a desire to forge a connection to their newfound home. Countless arrivals were rebaptized in the pools in a process they called “taking the waters.”

Their kingdom was soon surrounded. The federal government sent its myriad agents to explore the territory. Gold and other goods called thousands west to California and elsewhere. They too brought pains with them, so they took to the springs. Insular as the early settlement was, Brigham Young saw an opportunity. He commissioned the bathhouse a mile north of town, then hotels and other services, even a saloon—the first in the city.

The bathhouse was a multi-purpose tool—a little water for the bones, a little more for the soul, a good soak for the skin. The building held all comers on weekdays with dances and dinners, luminaries and games. But it served as chapel on Sundays, the divine filtered through the Wasatch, massaged by the earth, and rising to the sky. Vespers or vapors. A change of state.

When Union Pacific cut Brigham Young and Great Salt Lake City out of the Transcontinental plan, Young again saw an opportunity. He formed his own company, the Central Utah Railroad that connected the city to the rest of the country by rail. This brought thousands of visitors eager to take to the springs and curious to see the exotic, polygamous Mormon settlement.

But the bathhouse was not alone. The waters were everywhere, so leisure and luxury followed. To the west of Warm Springs were the resorts of the Great Salt Lake—Garfield Beach, Black Rock, and Saltair. To the north were Beck’s Hot Springs, Hot Springs Lake, Eden Park, and Lagoon. Another railroad was built, a leisure line for bathers and boaters.

Warm Springs shifted in and out of public and private hands often, but the waters stayed open. In the 1920s, the current iteration was constructed—the massive Mediterranean-style building that housed municipal pools called Wasatch Warm Springs Plunge. Residing on Highway 89, near a multitude of motels and diners, the Plunge was popular with tourists and locals alike.

In its heyday, the Plunge was luxurious—two large pools; myriad small, private pools; masseuses and masseurs; a host of concessions and beauty services; as well as rooms for rent on the upper level for tourists. The Plunge retained its history of healing as well, providing hydrotherapy for victims of polio outbreaks throughout the 1940s and 1950s and therapeutic services for a host of other afflictions.

But the springs were no longer alone. By the 1940s, industry encroached on all sides. Refineries and railroads rerouted waters or put them in pipelines while gravel pits ate the hillsides and the springs. World War II endlessly increased petroleum needs while the construction of the airport and I-15 demanded further tithes of the foothills. The fun was gone. By the 1970s, Warm Springs Plunge was a ghost.

If you drive Beck Street at night, the ground is still wild beneath the industrial landscape. Steam roils from drains and culverts. Sulphur wafts. If you walk the park grounds north of the Plunge, you’ll find Warm Springs and Hobo Springs hiding where the mountain meets the valley floor, turquoise and gurgling. They are alive and well. A new seep or two has even formed between the two, a reminder that this valley palimpsest belongs to water. It merely tolerates us.


Michael McLane is the former director of the Center for the Book at Utah Humanities. He is an editor with the journals saltfront and Sugar House Review, and author of the chapbook Trace Elements. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including High Country News, Dark Mountain, and the Colorado Review. He is currently pursuing a PhD in New Zealand. b. 1980

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