Green River Hot Springs
Originally published in the BDHS newsletter, January 2010
By Ken Jensen
Being a relative newcomer to Black Diamond and a self-proclaimed history buff, I’m constantly peppering Archivist JoAnne Matsumura, President Keith Watson, and others with questions about the area’s history: Where was Mine No. 7? How did trains turn around in Franklin? Where was the town of McKay? Some of my queries can be resolved simply by checking out an old publication; others by checking in with an old-timer. Some take a little more digging.
Matsumura suggested such a challenge. A little-known town—a town a bit outside the usual Black Diamond Historical Society purview—but one of great interest to Matsumura (she collects postcards from the once remarkable hotel) and Vice President Don Malgarini (he spent summers there whiling away his childhood): Green River Hot Springs.
Located in what’s now the City of Tacoma watershed and just a stone’s throw from the former town of Lester (of which much has been written), I thought this would be topical, considering the Northern Pacific Railroad traveled to Green River Hot Springs via Eagle Gorge—home of the famously leaking Howard Hanson Dam.
For those of you unfamiliar with the area, from near-present-day Kanaskat-Palmer State Park, the rail line snakes its way to Stampede Pass and then up and over to Easton, Ellensburg, and beyond. Small towns dotted along the line were originally built by the railroad as construction camps. Eagle Gorge, Humphrey, and Nagrom (Morgan spelled backwards) later provided the timber. Lester, originally known as Weston, and Easton were established as helper stations where extra engines were used to “help” the steam locomotives over the steep pass. The introduction of diesel engines in the 1940s, along with Tacoma’s desire to protect its water supply from pollution, signaled the beginning of the end for these towns.
Green River Hot Springs was located some 60-odd miles from Seattle between Nagrom and Lester. A railroad station, built in 1886, was originally named Kendon by Northern Pacific officials. The construction of a bathhouse and hotel followed suit in 1888 to make the 132ºF, white sulfur hot springs available to the public. But it was Dr. J. S. Kloeber who would eventually build the fabled Green River Hot Springs Hotel and Sanitarium, also known as “The Kloeber,” in 1900.
The hot springs—27 in all—were said to have curative powers and were situated within 100 yards from the main building. Remedy seekers would flock to the hotel for the treatment of “both acute and chronic cases of rheumatism, stomach disorders, nervous troubles, sleeplessness, skin eruptions, and all diseases of the blood,” claims a 1905 Enumclaw Courier ad. It further described the hotel as “the most modern and complete in its appointments of any in the Northwest.” The hotel was served by four passenger trains daily in each direction.
The hotel and sanitarium were modern indeed, even by today’s standards. As depicted in the Northern Pacific publication Pacific Coast Resorts, “The hotel is steam heated, electric-lit, and open year round.” There were 100 guest rooms, baths, hot rooms, steam rooms, and vapor and rubbing rooms with attendants. The sanitarium also had bowling alleys, billiards tables, and a tennis court and featured fishing, shooting, and hiking. There was even a full string orchestra.
Room prices were $1 to $3 per day or $5 to $20 weekly. The “expensive” rate included a connecting bathroom.
Dr. Kloeber ran the establishment for a decade, finally selling his interests in August 1910. Having married Miss Anna Rubish in 1908, Kloeber moved to Yakima County, beginning a second, successful career as a farmer.
Shortly after the sale, the hotel and sanitarium burned to the ground. And not for the first time. “The hotel … has been twice destroyed by fire and the last time seemed to be final as no steps have ever been taken to rebuild,” reported the Ellensburg Capital in 1913. Sadly, the train station also burned in 1923, thus bringing to a close the short history of the town, hotel, and springs.
Or did it?
Mention Green River Hot Springs to Don Malgarini, though, and the memories begin to flow, much like the Green itself. “As a kid, we’d catch the train at Kanaskat, get off at Hot Springs, and then fish our way back down the river. Times were different in those days,” he said. “We’d just wave down the train with a white handkerchief and pay our four bits.”
Camping was another favorite pastime and the site of the old hotel was still a prime spot. On one such excursion to Hot Springs, a couple of campers asked Malgarini and his friends if they could head up to Lester and get some bread and supplies. “Just then, we see a train pull up and stop, so we jumped on an empty flatcar for the short ride,” Malgarini said. Purchases in hand, he and his cohorts started hoofing it back to Hot Springs. However, one of the more brazen members of the group decided they’d make better time if they’d take a shortcut. “So we cut across this field and then, from out of nowhere, here comes this bull chasing us,” he chuckled. “We ran as fast as we could and lost all the food in that field. Boy, were those men mad at us!”
I asked if there was anything left of the hot springs, even back in his day. “Nah, just a bathtub-like formation in the rock. That’s about it.”
Satisfied with Malgarini’s description—but not really—I decided to drive up the Green River Headworks Road to the guard shack to see if the City of Tacoma conducts tours of the watershed. I was politely told that, no, the public wasn’t given tours, but the guard/gatekeeper did give me the watershed manager’s phone number.
“Have you ever been to Green River Hot Springs?” I asked her, somewhat tentatively.
“Yep,” she said after a quick drag from her cigarette. “I went back there on my first day on the job.”
“So, is there anything to see? I’d really like to take a couple of photos,” I said.
“No, the springs aren’t there anymore,” she replied.
Being stubborn, I guess, I called the watershed manager a week later anyway. But his answers were pretty much the same: There’s nothing to see—just water seeping out of the rocks; the area’s been planted over; there’s snow on the ground. Sorry.
But when I hear others reminisce about trips to Lester, about the town of Baldi, now partially beneath the Howard Hanson reservoir, and about families, now long gone, who made a hard-scrabble living in the Upper Green River Valley—how I’d love to take a journey up through all those former towns—if only to imagine what once was.
And I bet I’m not the only one who feels that way.