BOISE'S BUILDING BLOCKS: Warm Springs — water that's 'right from Hades'

The historic Boise Warm Springs Water District is warming Boiseans, as it has done for more than a century

awebb@idahostatesman.comMay 12, 2013 

  • MORE ABOUT THE WATER

    According to a U.S. Geological Survey in 1989, the Boise area has two geothermal systems.

    The Boise Warm Springs Water District taps into the system on the east and southeast sides of Boise. The water in this system comes out of the ground at 170 degrees. It's about 30,000 years old, dating to the Pleistocene era.

    The other system is near Stewart Gulch, northwest of Boise. It contains 113-degree water that is about 15,000 years old.

    How geothermal heating works

    Hot water comes out of the ground and travels through a network of pipes into houses.

    In old houses, the hot water goes directly into radiators that heat up and warm rooms at a constant rate.

    In newer houses, hot water goes into a heat exchanger that operates like a conventional heating system. The hot water heats a coil; a fan blows air warmed by the coil into the house through ducts. In this case, a thermostat regulates the temperature.

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    In this, the 150th year since Boise's founding, the Statesman is looking at the stories behind some of the special areas and neighborhoods that make Boise what it is today.

    - April 14: River Street

    - April 28: Fort Boise

    - May 12: Warm Springs

    - May 26: Depot Bench

    - June 9: Pierce Park/Collister

    - June 23: South Boise

    Have a special story or memory about the Boise neighborhood where you live or grew up? Email awebb@idahostatesman.com.

  • WARM SPRINGS AT A GLANCE

    True to its roots, Warm Springs Avenue remains one of the most affluent streets in the city. Houses there represent a wide range of styles, from Queen Anne to Modernist, from bungalow to Mediterranean. The avenue is home to Adams Elementary School as well as Pioneer Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in continuous operation in the city. (The cemetery is one of the 150 Boise icons; read more on A7.)

    The Warm Springs area was home to fruit orchards in Boise's earliest days. The Territory of Idaho built its first prison (now the Old Idaho Penitentiary historic site) in 1870.

    Warm Springs Avenue joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The city designated it as a local historic district in 1996.

    Historian Barbara Perry Bauer will present "Exploring Warm Springs Avenue, its History and Architecture," at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 16, at the Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise. $5, free for IBG members. 343-8649.

  • ABOUT ANNA WEBB

    Anna is a Boise native. She is writing the Statesman's 150 Boise icons daily series. The series, featuring many of the city's most known and loved places and things, continues until July 7, when the city hosts a public birthday party in Julia Davis Park.

  • ABOUT DARIN OSWALD

    Photojournalist Darin Oswald has been with the Statesman for 14 years covering news, sports and documenting everyday life in Boise and the Treasure Valley. Born and raised in Idaho Falls, Oswald earned a journalism degree at Utah State University.

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."

GEOTHERMAL CATALYST

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

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