New Mexico’s rugged geography gestated pools of hot water luring the hopeful to their healing powers.
Blame it on tuberculosis.
Twenty-three privately owned hot springs operated in New Mexico from the late 19th century through the 1980s. Health tourists flocked from the Midwest, the East Coast and even Europe to soak away their complaints in the state’s mineral-rich springs and breathe its fresh, clean air.
These patients sought cures for everything from respiratory illnesses to arthritis to polio.
“It varied from, ‘We can cure eczema’ to cancer,” said Alicia Romero, curator at the New Mexico History Museum.
The Santa Fe museum is showcasing “Curative Powers: New Mexico’s Hot Springs,” an exhibit of nearly 90 photographs documenting the evolution of how these springs were used and developed.
“It’s a matter of the geology and the geography,” Romero said. “The hot springs tend to occur when there’s an opportunity for ground water to come into contact with deeper water and then the (Earth’s) magma. Then it travels back upward and either pools or, in other parts of the country, becomes geysers.”
Old Faithful notwithstanding, New Mexico’s springs tend to correlate with the twists and bends of the Rio Grande and the Gila River. Native Americans first discovered and used them for bathing and consumption. Some were located in sacred spaces connected to oral history central to the community’s identity. Spanish-speaking colonists renamed the springs ojo calientes – hot springs – and used them to bathe and wash clothes. A dip or a drink from the springs seemed to treat any number of ailments.
Later, developers marketed the thermal baths as salves, if not cures, for tuberculosis and rheumatism.
“In large part, we can take it back to the health tourism of the late 19th century – T.B.,” Romero said. “Some resorts were claiming to cure cancer. Some resorts were claiming to cure alcoholism. I don’t know if science would agree to any of those claims today.”
Many of the resorts hired doctors who penned pamphlets touting the springs’ curative powers for everything from acne, ulcers, bloating, malaria, diabetes, syphilis and gonorrhea.
The exhibition explores well-known resorts such as Taos County’s Ojo Caliente, as well as lesser-known hot springs. Museum visitors will also see dramatic changes in the clothing (or lack thereof) as guests took to the waters across the decades.
At first, these resorts offered little restrictions in dress.
“The photos we have seen show the women in their best Victorian clothing with parasols and the men in their top hats,” Romero said. “Then by the 1960s the hippies came and everybody was nude.”
In the late 19th century, “Soak to your health” became the motto of people seeking natural respite from physical conditions. Many espoused a climatology theory that the natural environment would cure all kinds of ailments.
Hot springs visits waned by the 1950s. By the 1960s, abandoned resorts and untouched hot springs located in national forests surged in popularity among hippies and back-to-nature fans. By the 1980s, New Age idealists and enthusiasts frequented the waters as a refuge from the demands of daily life. Some temporary visitors became permanent residents.
In Truth or Consequences, the building of the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children in 1937 saw hot spring water piped in to help children suffering from polio.
“They had a lot of support from FDR (President Franklin D. Roosevelt),” Romero said. Built as a Works Progress Administration project at a cost of nearly $1 million, the hospital was relocated to Albuquerque in 1981. Today it is the New Mexico State Veterans’ Home.
Long before Ojo Caliente became one of the most well-known resorts in northern New Mexico, Tewa-speaking natives called the area Posipopi or “green springs” for the algae that grew on the surrounding rocks. The area is an ancestral and sacred site to pueblos. Comanches, Utes, Apaches and Navajos visited the springs as well. Ojo Caliente gained prominence following the 1846 U.S. annexation of New Mexico. By 1893 businessman Antonio Joseph had bought up most of the tracts.
Joseph was the first developer of Ojo Caliente as a commercial resort. The Mauro family took over from the 1930s until 2000. By then, attendance had swelled to an estimated 100,000 annual visitors.
Health tourism remains an attendance driver.
“I don’t think it’s changed too much, although people aren’t coming for TB,” Romero said. “Even if it’s not a cure, you can connect with nature in this immersive kind of experience. You can soak in this pool of minerals and it will help you relax.”