Tom Ross: Memoirs by noted inventor recounts 1st hot spring soak

Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Who knew that Spring Creek once flowed right through the geothermal Heart Spring in downtown Steamboat?

I had a chance to reflect this week on the fact the natural hot springs on the east edge of downtown are woven into the entire history of the community, from the native Utes to the earliest European settlers and continuing until today.

The board of the nonprofit Old Town Hot Springs is studying the feasibility of undertaking some major capital projects at the bath house, where Steamboat residents and their visitors go to soak away their cares and tone their muscles.

It seems our community’s passion for exercise in all seasons knows no end.

There are numerous accounts of how the founding Crawford family first built modest improvements around the hot spring barely a mile from their homestead cabin. One of the most recent is contained in a book I read about four years ago.

“Steamboat Springs: Memories of a Young Colorado Pioneer” is the story of the youth of Marcellus Samuel Merrill, who grew up in Steamboat in the early 20th century and went on to become a prominent inventor.

If you overlooked this book compiled by Merrill’s grandson David Merrill Primus when it first was published, it’s a good one to track down and savor. Merrill is famous for developing technology that balances automotive wheels on their axles and remains important to the auto manufacturing industry today.

Fortunately for us, he also was an avid storyteller and put down on paper his tales of growing up in Steamboat.

It is Merrill’s account of how the Crawford family stumbled upon the Heart Spring and its potential for frequent steaming baths that reminds us the spring arose right in the middle of the creek that now flows beneath a foot bridge between Old Town Hot Springs and the post office.

Big Jim Crawford was on the way home to the cabin after a hunting trip in early winter 1876 when he discovered the hot spring bubbling up in the creek.

Thanks to the efforts of David Merrill Primus, we know that Crawford “immediately returned to their cabin near the Iron Spring (on the west side of downtown), hitched up a spring wagon and took the whole family to the spring, which he made into a pool with a spade.”

Merrill relates that admission to the hot spring was a dime in about 1909, but the manager would admit youngsters in exchange for an hour or two spent digging dandelions from the ground.

The opportunity to take a hot bath without first heating the water on a wood stove was a rarity in the pioneer west and not something the early settlers of Steamboat Springs took for granted.

We draw our baths from indoor plumbing without really understanding the infrastructure needed to pipe it into our homes. But there’s still something special about sitting in a natural hot spring pool under a starry winter sky.

Western Reflections Publishing Co. in Lake City published the collection of Merrill’s stories in 2008. Merrill, who graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder, still is remembered by the College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU.

See related story

Jan. 16, 2009: Coming of age in frontier Steamboat

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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