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Nakusp Hot Springs Through the Ages

by Milton Parent, local archivist and historian of the Arrow Lakes Historical Society

The Hot Springs, Nakusp BC

There are Hot Springs in many locations around the world and those areas, so blessed, usually have an interesting history. Three Springs in the Nakusp district fit into this category. The Halcyon, St. Leon and Nakusp developments all went through various stages of progression and regression with both Halcyon and Nakusp gaining commercial status in recent times.

Although the town of Nakusp started in 1892, the Nakusp Hot Springs, nine miles up the Kuskanax valley, were to be staked by Darragh and Lester Messrs in 1894. Even then, this wilderness thermal wonder was regarded as a God-given gift that should be open to the public free and unobstructed. The government relented and cancelled the application, returning the men’s down payment.

Mrs. Ellen McDougald, owner of the Leland Hotel in Nakusp, used a different tactic in obtaining the site in 1897. She staked the lot, 8514, like a prospector would, under the name of the Virginia mineral claim. In spite of her efforts to show ownership of the area, no development was undertaken. This, coupled with its remoteness from Nakusp, left the public free to use it at will, and continue to complain that no private party should have control of the water. Easier access was provided in 1912 by the building of a proper trail from town. Two years later, public protest paid off with the government putting the site into a reserve by order in Council.

Mrs. Gayford (Mrs. McDougald had remarried) again fought the issue and gained surface rights to her mineral claim. Buoyed by her victory, Ellen started a camp and attempted to charge for the water’s use, but this required some administration, an expense which rendered the operation unprofitable.

Nakusp Hot Springs original buildings

When the Nakusp Board of Trade took action against Gayford, a government survey was instituted to form a Class C park and a road, routed through the middle of the springs site. Now we had an area of merchantable timber, a surveyed road, and a park all jumbled together. The saving grace was that no serious development took place until 1928, when a fundraising campaign throughout the West Kootenay provided sufficient funds to erect a concrete pool, a community kitchen and some cabins. All materials and equipment had to be packed in by horse or on one’s back. A caretaker was hired for the summer at a mere $300 and many young people provided a horse packing service to the increasing volume of visitors now coming from outside points.

Because the mineral claim, although dormant because Mrs. Gayford had failed to pay the taxes, was still in existence, a prominent family by the name of Leary took it over in 1939.

Mrs. Leary, who had charge after her husband’s death, never interfered with the hot springs, but did the right thing in offering the spa to the Parks Branch to be added to the Class C park on the condition that it be designated as a Class A Park. A committee was formed in Nakusp to investigate the possibility of piping the hot water to a better camping site and produce a plan for a proper pool complex.
The mayor of Nakusp was asked to have the town accept administration, through a board, of such a complex while all levels of government were approached to get financing for the erection of the spa.

Nakusp Hot Springs cabins

A good logging road had now been pushed through to near the springs, so when money from the various government grants came forth, access was made possible without too much additional cost. Finally, in 1974, the current complex was opened by the Premier, Dave Barrett. It had only taken eighty years, but now Nakusp had a first class spa that people could not only enjoy but proudly offer to the world.

Reflecting upon the past history of the springs, although one could lament over its slow development, really for those early years, when there was little cash and a scarcity of leisure time, it was considered a poor man’s spa. Hiking the trail on a weekend by eight to twelve year old children, their lard pail lunch, willow stick fishing pole and best-of-all freedom from supervision, was a journey into paradise. It was growing up on your own, in a world that it is hard to imagine. There are a thousand stories to be told of this playground hidden in one of the Selkirk’s most beautiful valleys but the glory of the water and its comfort to the body always remains the same.

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