Tahoe health seekers: The history behind region’s oldest hot springs resorts
Special to the Sun-Bonanza
Read more in Tahoe Magazine
This article is adapted from the winter 2016-17 edition of Tahoe Magazine, a joint publication of the Sierra Sun, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe Action. The magazine, which features loads of features and advertisements about all that the Tahoe winter has to offer, is on newsstands now across Lake Tahoe, Truckee and Reno. Go to bit.ly/2ig2Qys to read it online, and be sure to pick up a copy today!
KINGS BEACH, Calif. — Like many resort areas, the Truckee-Tahoe region is replete with luxury spas and salons that relax clients and brighten their day.
Since its first settlement, Lake Tahoe has attracted health seekers searching for a salubrious mountain climate in which to revitalize their spirit and calm the soul.
Long before the 20th century, entrepreneurs were taking advantage of effervescent soda springs, crisp air and thermally heated hot springs to establish health resorts around Big Blue.
Among the better known were the Rubicon Springs on Tahoe’s West Shore, along with Brockway Hot Springs and Dr. Bourne’s Hygienic Establishment on the North Shore.
Rubicon Springs opened in the late 1800s with a small hotel and a few cottages near a carbonated spring, but drew few visitors due to its isolated location.
WHERE WATER TASTES LIKE GUNPOWDER
The Brockway Hot Springs, located near the California-Nevada state line, are caused by a nearby fault line where granite overlays warm lava. In 1863, around the time that Truckee and Tahoe City were first being settled, the Sacramento Daily Union noted the commercial potential of the hot springs, observing that “at a comparatively trifling expense, baths and other accommodations could be provided here to meet the wishes of the most fastidious visitor.”
In 1869, stage operator William “Billy” Campbell and George Schaeffer, a Truckee-based sawmill entrepreneur, graded a new road from Truckee to Lake Tahoe. Their wagon route ran south through Martis Valley (near the current route of Highway 267) and then over Brockway Pass to the lake. Campbell took title to about 63 acres of land surrounding the hot springs and built a bathhouse. By the end of summer, Campbell had erected several cottages near the mineral springs and began accommodating tourist traffic.
Campbell’s Hot Springs became one of the first commercial resorts at Lake Tahoe. Among its many amenities were soda and sulfur water pumped into the bath house, hot water in all the rooms and pleasant accommodations. Newspapers of the day reported that the temperature in one of the springs was 137 degrees.
Cold, fresh water was added to lower the heat for bathers. The hotter water was used for cleaning laundry, as it was slightly mineralized and very soft, which made it excellent for washing bedding and linens. Visitors who tasted the water after it had cooled stated that it had “a faint taste similar to gunpowder.”
In the 1884 publication “Pacific Tourist,” Editor Frederick E. Shearer described Campbell’s resort: “The water boils out in several places in great volume. The hotel is comfortable; the charge $3 a day; the entire lake is seen from the house, and the baths are an advantage to be had nowhere else on the lake.”
In 1900, Campbell sold the place to Frank “Brockway” Alverson for $3,500, and the name changed to Brockway Hot Springs. A casino was added in 1917 and a golf course built near Kings Beach. Through the 1900s, ownership changed hands several times until 1970, when the old buildings were demolished for the construction of the Brockway Springs Condominiums.
A cherished amenity at the Brockway condos is the cozy year-round swimming pool located just yards from the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe. The water in the swimming pool water is always toasty warm, heated directly by the subterranean springs that are still hot and active.
ABSTINENCE FROM STIMULANTS … FOR A LONG AND HEALTHY LIFE
Just a few miles west of Brockway is Carnelian Bay. Initially called “Cornelian Bay” for the pretty, semi-precious red and yellow carnelian stones found on its beaches, this small bay was renamed Carnelian Bay in the 1880s. A popular pastime for visitors was to fill their pockets with the translucent, jewel-like stones that littered the beach. Even today, a sharp-eyed person can still find colorful carnelians along the shoreline here.
It wasn’t just the views and sparkling carnelians that drew 19th century visitors. In 1871, Dr. George M. Bourne established a health spa in Carnelian Bay. Dr. Bourne, who had run successful health clinics in San Francisco and Sacramento, decided that Tahoe’s pleasant summer climate and beneficial sun and healing waters would do wonders for his patients.
So he opened “Dr. Bourne’s Hygienic Establishment,” where he prescribed “pure mountain air, fresh vegetable juices and abstinence from stimulants, hot and cold mineral baths and trout fishing for a long and healthy life.” Dr. Bourne advised his guests to take invigorating walks along the beach by tempting them with the thought of finding sparkling gems during their stroll.
By 1874, health seekers were flocking to Dr. Bourne’s spa, which he had re-christened the “Cornelian Bay Sanatoria.” He was so convinced of Lake Tahoe’s health benefits, he petitioned to change Tahoe’s name to “Lake Sanatoria.”
During the summer season, Dr. Bourne was busy with his patients, but in winter the “Hermit of Cornelian Bay” spent the long cold months alone in his cabin known as “Castle Keep.” The steamers “Tahoe” and “Nevada” serviced Carnelian Bay during all four seasons so the hermit was not completely out of touch.
He spent his time writing and keeping a detailed record of snowfall, air and water temperatures and the rise and fall of the lake. Data from the doctor’s effort to quantify Lake Tahoe’s winter climate were published monthly in the Truckee Republican newspaper (nowadays, that newspaper is known as the Sierra Sun).
Dr. Bourne died in the 1880s, and rancher James Cleland acquired most of his holdings, which included the doctor’s sanatorium, known as the Cornelian Bay Hotel. By 1890, the stage and wagon road that connected Tahoe City with Campbell’s Hot Springs (Brockway) passed through Carnelian Bay and the small community was considered one of the lake’s first permanent settlements. A few years later, the Flick brothers purchased Cleland’s frontage properties, which included the hotel, a post office, general store, cottages and a wharf.
The three Flick brothers were probably best known for the fact that they were all born on Christmas Day — William in 1841, Joseph in 1847 and Nicholas in 1851 — and all died in the month of April. Flick Point (the land spit to the east of Sierra Boat Co.) was named for this trio of bachelor pioneers from Ottawa, Illinois.
Dr. Bourne may have been right about longevity through Tahoe’s high altitude climate and bountiful fishing. When Nick Flick was interviewed in 1935, at the ripe age of 74, he said, “Yessir, we settled right here on Carnelian Bay, and outside of falling off wagons, we haven’t had a sick day since.”
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.