Southern California Hot Springs: Sacred, Profane, Radioactive?

Maybe you want to be among those who go to bed on December 31, or who wake up on January 1 with a head swirling remorse of bubbles, or an intestine overflowing with abnormal calories.

Even before breakfast, sign up for a year-long fitness membership. You will search online for “clean diets”. You will make a promise of abstinence in food and drink. You may even decide that a weekend in a spa or hot springs will put you on the path to a new, spartan you.

Like so many Angelenos before you.

If the ground beneath our feet insists on jerking and rattling us to splinters and rubble once in a while, then it is only fair that we also get a little pleasure from our changeable geology. So I give you … the therapeutic heat source, geothermal energy at its most sybaritic.

For centuries, the interior of Southern California has been immersed in lush spa water. San Juan Hot Springs on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest appeared in tourist guidebooks as early as 1888. Other therapeutic destinations, some of which operate today, included Gilman Hot Springs near San Jacinto; Desert Hot Springs in the Coachella Valley; Glen Ivy Hot Springs and Corona; the almost forgotten Penyugal Hot Spring in the San Bernardino Mountains; Coso Hot Springs in Inyo County, its “volcanic iron water” and fumaroles now completely within the limited confines of China Lakes naval weapons facility; the hot springs in Elsinore, “the city of springs”; and – smells between Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve – the stunning Tecopa Hot Springs.

Patt Morrison, longtime Los Angeles Times writer

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All of them – and all the hot springs throughout the nation – were known for millennia to Native Americans who found in them sacred, spiritual, and healing properties. Native Americans overwintered in Desert Hot Springs in the Coachella Valley. And then came the white settlers and the commercialization of the hot springs that actually drove them from their own lands, even though some tribes tried to assert their legal claims. In 1846, a far-sighted Army lieutenant and topographic engineer, William Emory, became acquainted with the delights of Warner’s hot springs in San Diego County. He predicted at the time that “there will no doubt come a day when the disabled and pleasure-seeking part of the white race will gather here to drink and bathe in these waters …”

In LA, “modern arrivals took the water” in brand new spas. They bounced and lolled in it, drank it – hot, sometimes sulfur-scented water that, as an ad promised, “glitter and foam like champagne!”

On New Year’s Day 1903, hundreds of Angelenos hopped or crawled aboard trams to ride to the new Bimini Baths, a huge “natatorium” – a collection of swimming pools and restorative, relaxing hot springs – on Vermont Avenue between First and Third Streets, part of the city where geothermal water cascaded up again and again.

It could not have come as a surprise when men digging for oil in a lively landscape with tar pits and earthquake faults and oil leaks and methane pockets instead hit a wealth of hot water.

Remember that for centuries Los Angeles was in many places a swampy, spongy landscape. In the high summer of 1769, the Spaniards marched through present-day Beverly Hills, calling it the “meeting place of the water.”

Streams and fresh streams flowed across the Los Angeles countryside, and Arroyo de la Sacatela flowed virtually along a dozen acres of Bimini Baths site. In the 1920s, Los Angeles began a multi-million dollar ruthless campaign to bury its many streams and arroyos in underground sewers and storm drains, then fill the streams so the new property could enter the market. Only the town’s small Bimini Slough ecological park and its man-made streams stand as a showpiece reminder of the landscape that was.

As for Bimini, it is the name of a Bahamian island chain and the supposed site of the mythical Fountain of Youth, sought after by Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer of the early 16th century. (It’s probably a fable a rival has dreamed of trying to make de Leon look gullible.) Bimini Baths founder David W. Edwards chose “Bimini” from a poem by the brilliantly named author from the 19th century, Hezekiah Butterworth, author of inspiring patriotic works for young readers, who wrote about a Bimini in which a “fountain gives life to the dying / and youth to the old restoring.”

Los Angeles County has had several notable hot springs in addition to Bimini. These included:

  • Seminole Hot Springs, off Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains. Its waters were discovered in 1911 when men drilling for oil hit hot water that soon became known to have healing powers for “those afflicted with arthritis, stomach, liver and kidney problems.” It closed in 1959.
  • Warm Springs, over Castaic, in Elizabeth Lake Canyon. The springs produce only 5 gallons per minute, compared to the 100 gallons every 60 seconds from the waterfall at Bimini.
  • White Point Hot Springs, at the foot of slopes in San Pedro, which was opened in 1917 by a couple of Japanese brothers. Their landlord, one of them Sepulvedas, later built a saltwater pool heated by sulfur sources. The FBI abducted the brothers after December 7, 1941, and the military took over. The golf course closed in 1933 and the clubhouse burned down in 1951, but the warm and sulfur-containing water remains in rocky basins along the coastline.
  • And my favorite, Radium Sulfur Springs, opened in 1908 on Melrose Avenue in the village of Colegrove, annexed next year by LA. Its founder, GP Gehring, aggressively marketed the “bactericidal and radioactive” water as relief and cure for a dozen diseases, including alcoholism, female problems and paralysis. As a bonus, Radium Sulfur Springs claimed that it “cleanses the complexion, makes the skin velvety, eyes bright, hair shiny.” It had its own sales-dog: “Oh! How glistening it! Oh! How foamy! It chases a microbe wherever it roams.”

How much if any radium was actually in radium sources water? Hard to say; if you were lucky, no one. The beginning of the last century was an age of medical discoveries, along with the quacks that exploited them. Radium, the element discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie, and other radioactive elements promised extraordinary things for medicine – imagine looking into the human body! (Madame Curie died of cancer, overexposed to her own discoveries.) The world went radium-mad and fell for products like radioactive face cream, a “radiendocrinator” to wear at night “under the scrotum”, radioactively treated long underwear for adults and children, and luminous numbers painted in radium on clock and dials. In one of the distinctive screwball comedies of the 1930s, “Nothing Sacred,” Carole Lombard is a “radium girl” who was mistakenly diagnosed as dying of radium poisoning. It really is a comedy – honestly.

In 1904, The Times wrote of a WL Garner, a tuberculous local railroad worker “dirty from the grave of radium” at the British-American Medical Institute in 859 South Figueroa, where, recovering for health, he went to work running the institute’s “electro. -ozo-viro-radium treatment machine. “

By banning misleading packaging in 1938, federal laws virtually put an end to radioactive therapies. Many decades later, I saw glass goblets, allegedly from Curies ‘laboratory, being sold at a flea market in Paris, but I passed by and remembered that Marie Curies’ lab notebooks were so contaminated that they were stored in lead-lined boxes.

These hot springs and baths gave people with Victorian sensitivity a chance to frolic in the water in the name of good health. Primarily, men and women were served by separate jumps. No spirits were served. But sin crept in anyway.

In 1908, a 15-year-old boy named Victor Lamar was found dead in a Bimini basin. It turns out that he had been invited there by a man, and that more than once. As he told his sister, “I went to the bathroom with a man and was fine. Won’t you go out and have fun for $ 3 or $ 4?” An autopsy revealed that the boy was a victim of what was delicately called a “statutory crime.” His family sued Bimini Baths for poor supervision. And a Catholic priest from Oklahoma was identified in the trial as the man who committed the acts. “It is also alleged,” The Times reported, “that on other occasions he has been guilty of similar offenses.”

Bimini Baths burned down a few years after opening, but was enthusiastically rebuilt and added with a hotel, larger pools and a mission-style facade. It staged diving exhibitions and sponsored a water polo team. Local athletes trained here for the 1932 Summer Olympics in LA

By 1927, Radium Sulfur Springs had changed its name to Hollywood Mineral Springs, taking advantage of the local product and now claiming treatments – not cures – for arthritis, high blood pressure, neuritis and sciatica and obesity. It rebuilt its premises with sunken Roman baths lined with mosaic tiles and an on-site bottling plant. The water roared like the 1920s themselves, but the solemn weight of the depression apparently closed its doors.

A place is back as LA’s spa heritage. An artesian well, Oxford Springs, discovered in a wheat field near Beverly and Western in 1910, still supplies water to the Beverly Hot Springs spa. Until the city introduced water mains in 1915, the quarter-million gallons that flowed out of the well every day supplied the locals’ need for hot water, and for a time the water was tapped under the Angelus Club label as “Wonder Water,” with the slogan “Nature’s own formula. “

The Bimini Baths closed in 1951, and the following year the property was sold to a Chicago man who announced he would turn it into a gym for wrestlers, boxers and the general public – a gym, in other words. But in 1956 it was an insurance company office and the large swimming pools were drained and used for storage. At that time, the Angelenos were building their own swimming pools and jacuzzis by means of funds, and they no longer needed a bourgeois natatorium.

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