Many people ask Del Eytchison the same question: "Aren't you afraid that building is going to fall on you?"
Eytchison, manager of the Boise Warm Springs Water District, works in a small, slanted building nestled against the hillside on Old Penitentiary Road.
The building is the office, well and pump house - the nerve center - of the private water district.
District leaders refurbished the well house a few decades ago. They left the derricks used to drill Warm Springs' original 1890 wells in place. The derricks became framing for the new building. That explains the odd slant.
It's fitting that history should be so visible in the very shape of the building, considering what the water district meant to the city and beyond.
The system uses naturally hot water - "right from Hades," the Idaho Statesman wrote in 1890 - to heat houses in Northeast Boise. It was the first system of its kind in the country. It's one of four hot-water networks that serve Boise today.
Italy, New Zealand, Iceland and other countries developed geothermal heating systems around 1904, according to historians Merle Wells and Arthur Hart in their book "Boise: An Illustrated History." Those countries used Boise as a model.
Today, along with a small office space just big enough for a few desks, there are three pumps inside the building on Old Penitentiary Road.
Two operating pumps sit atop 400-foot-deep wells. They pull about 250 million gallons of 170-degree water out of the ground every year, sending it through a network of pipes to 295 customer-owners. Among them are two longtime Boise institutions: the Idaho Children's Home on Warm Springs Avenue and the old Assay Office on Main Street.
The third pump, locked away in a large closet, is just for show. It's a black metal hulk, taller than a tall man, like something from a "Titanic" stage set. You can see places on the pump where workers attached levers to operate it manually.
This is one of the district's earliest pumps, built by General Electric in 1892, said Eytchison.
"I've heard that G.E. only made two of these," he said, "and one of them is here."
LONG HISTORY IN THE GEM STATE
The entire state has a rich geothermal history. Trappers used Burgdorf Hot Springs as early as 1862. Challis, Givens and Guyer hot springs opened in the 1880s.
Historic sources document native tribes using the natural hot springs seeping around Table Rock east of Boise for therapeutic soaking for centuries.
The ground stayed warm and muddy even when snow covered the hills around it. Boise's earliest white settlers caught on to the salubrious effects of hot water. A "resort" opened just east of Warm Springs Mesa in 1867, a few years after the city was platted.
Judge Milton Kelly, publisher and owner of the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman, bought the springs in 1889. Kelly's Hot Springs was a popular destination for Boise's wealthy citizens. The resort drew the wrath of local temperance crusaders who thought it a scandalous place: Kelly's served cocktails. Some believed those crusaders were responsible for setting fires that twice damaged the resort.
According to one account, Kelly's was the first place pages looked for their missing lawmaker bosses when the Legislature was in session.
Bathers reached the springs via a dirt wagon track, the predecessor of the grand Warm Springs Avenue we know today.
It wouldn't be long until the discovery of hot water closer to town gave Boiseans an alternative to Kelly's. The wells that would supply geothermal heat to the city for the first time would also reduce Kelly's springs to a warm trickle.
HOT WATER FOUND
Boise had two rival water companies in 1890, the Artesian Water and Land Improvement Co. and Boise Water Works. A well digger described in historic documents as "Mr. Grumbling," approached Boise Water Works with the idea of digging a hot water well near Table Rock in the warm, muddy spot. The heads of Boise Water Works listened. They drilled. On Christmas Eve, they found 92-degree water at 100 feet. They kept trying. In January 1891, they drilled down 400 feet and found 170-degree water.
That year, Boise's two water companies merged into the Artesian Hot and Cold Water Co.
The company's board of directors is filled with names familiar to Boiseans: Eastman, Ridenbaugh, Falk, Lemp, Delamar, Moore and others.
The company started laying hot water pipe (wooden staves held by iron bands). The directors devised a brilliant ploy to use the newly accessible water in the most high-profile way. They opened the Natatorium not far from the hot water wells in 1892. One writer described the Nat as a "Moorish pleasure palace."
The Natatorium, with towering ceilings and a two-story copper slide, offered residents a huge pool of 98-degree water and a 40-foot lava rock outcropping for diving. Massive potted ferns hung from the ceiling. Visitors could enjoy Turkish baths, smoking rooms and considerable areas for lounging.
The Nat had a wooden floor that could be rolled out over the pool for dances. This was an age of superlatives. The largest dance floor in the city - host of lavish gubernatorial balls - was a manifestation of the first geothermal system in a booming capital city.
Natatorium glamour aside, residents were still wary about the reliability of geothermal heat, according to one account. About the same time, water company board member and First National Bank of Idaho founder C.W. Moore was building a new house on Warm Springs Avenue.
The stylish Queen Anne, which still stands at Warm Springs and Walnut, was the first house in the nation heated with natural hot water. It inspired other affluent Boiseans to follow Moore's lead and build their houses on the hot water line.
Geothermal heat was a catalyst for other developments. The Boise Rapid Transit Company built tracks connecting Downtown to the Natatorium.
White Park, the city's first public park, complete with skating rink, ostrich farm, miniature railway and something called "the fun factory," opened beside the Nat in 1910.
The area became so well-known that a 1943 Statesman article quoted humorist Will Rogers referring to Warm Springs Avenue as "hot water bottle boulevard."
FOUR GEOTHERMAL DISTRICTS
The original water district evolved with the times, extending its reach across the city.
The original line begins at the pump house where Eytchison works. It stretches west down Warm Springs, ending at 6th and Idaho in Downtown. Pipes extend to 2nd and State streets, and into pockets north and south of the avenue.
The Boise Warm Springs Water District is one of four geothermal heating districts in Boise.
The Boise Public Works Department operates the system that serves Downtown. Last fall, the system extended to parts of the Boise State campus.
The state of Idaho operates the system that heats the Idaho Capitol (the only capitol heated by natural hot water in the country) and several other buildings on the Capitol Mall. The Veterans Administration has its own system on Fort Street.
HOT WATER: YOURS FOR A DOLLAR
The Warm Springs geothermal system faced a crisis in the early 1970s, when high operating costs nearly forced it to close. A group of neighbors came together in 1974 to save it. Then-owner Boise Water Company sold the system, pipes and all, to the residents for $1. The Boise Warm Springs Water District remains resident-owned today.
The district adds about five new customer-owners a year. Income from heating fees isn't enough to pay for a lot of new pipes.
"We're going slowly," said Eytchison.
Patrick Frischmuth, chairman of the district, said the hot water supply is healthy. This hasn't always been the case so the city started reinjecting used water back into the aquifer in the mid-1990s. "That brought water levels back up to where they were, even before anyone started drilling," said Eytchison.
Residents treasure the geothermal heat. Frischmuth heats his 1905-era, 4,500-square-foot house at 70 degrees for just over $800 a year.
"There's nothing better than waking up in a warm house," he said. "No noise, no humidity, no steam radiator 'pings,' just warm water all the time."
In many ways, the district is still old-school. The oldest houses don't have thermostats. Radiators heat them to a constant 70 degrees - whether it's warm or cold outside.
"That's why you'll drive down Warm Springs on a warm winter day and see all those open front doors and windows," said Eytchison.
He and Frischmuth are trying to modernize the district, encouraging residents to install heat exchangers to use the natural heat more efficiently.
One historic aspect of the district may come full circle.
The Natatorium, sitting in the footprint of the former "pleasure palace," is now an outdoor public city pool. The original, turreted building met its demise after windstorms in 1927 and 1934 damaged it beyond repair.
The city is looking at reconnecting the Nat to the geothermal district to heat the water. Unlike the old days, the water in the pool would not come directly from the springs. Maintaining pH to current standards is too difficult, said Eytchison.
But heating the pool water geothermally would be a win-win, he said. The Nat would use the hot water heat in the summer, when residents don't need it for their homes. Boiseans would get to swim in warm water with more than a century of history behind it.
Anna Webb: 377-6431