The southern portion of the Black Hills contains a reservoir of geothermal energy in which permeable rock containing water lies above a heat source. The heated water rises to a cap of impermeable rock, where fissures allow some of the warm water to flow to the surface as thermal springs. Early inhabitants of the plains region surrounding the Black Hills utilized these hot-water springs to ease bodily pains and treat illnesses. Local legend says the Cheyenne Indians became possessors of the springs, but a battle for custody of the waters took place on a peak overlooking the waters, now named Battle Mountain, adjacent to the city of Hot Springs.
In 1875, scientists Walter P, Jenney and Henry Newton studied this region, and this expedition was the first to produce definite information about the thermal waters in the southern foothills, now in the city of Hot Springs. Lt. Col. Dodge, who accompanied the 1875 expedition, discussed this southern steam in his 1876 publication:
“Many deep and narrow “box” canyons … unite to form a wide and deep gorge, perfectly dry until it reaches the foot-hills.
Suddenly, a fine large stream, carrying quite two thousand miners’ inches, springs from the bottom of the gorge, and, after a course of only twelve miles, joins the South Cheyenne River.
This stream is called by the Indians Minne-catta, or Warm Water Creek, the temperature of the water where it bursts from the ground being seventy-four degrees Fahrenheit, entirely too warm for drinking purposes.”
- Lt. Col. Dodge, 1875
In the fall of 1881, five men gathered in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, to form the Hot Springs Town-Site Company. These five men, Rudolphus D. Jennings, an internal revenue collector, Alexander S. Stewart, a receiver at the United States land office, Ervin G. Dudley, a sawmill owner, L. R. Graves, president of the First National Bank of Deadwood, and Fred T. Evans, freighter/transportation company owner. They had come to the Black Hills of Dakota during the gold rush of the late 1870s.
The five men planned to develop a warm-water resort at the southern end of the Black Hills in an area containing about seventy-five warm-water, mineral –rich springs. These five men and others who followed them built the town of Hot Springs based on the pursuit of health and pleasure, a town unique in the region.
For the five men of the town-site company, the popular and medical acceptance of warm mineral springs seemed to insure the success of the town they planned to build. Their hopes for a town were based not on gold, farm land, or cattle, but because of the presence of warm water, mineral rich springs, a natural feature much valued in this era. It was Fred Evans whose name would become most closely connected with the city of Hot Springs. The health spa businesses grew, physicians prescribed mineral water as treatments for their patients, and the region was indeed growing. In 1883 the community became more respectable when the new town became the county seat of Fall River County. Prior to 1883, Hot Springs and the surrounding area south to the Nebraska border were a part of Custer County, with the county seat located at Custer.
The new town of Hot Springs was thriving, but desperately needed an improved transportation system so the trip to the city could be made more easily. A partial solution to this problem was reached in 1885, when the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad reached Buffalo Gap, within thirteen miles of Hot Springs. In 1886 Fred concentrated his considerable energies on the health resort business at Hot Springs. The original five members of the Hot Springs Town-Site Company reorganized into the Dakota Hot Springs Company, with Evans its president, Dudley its vice-president, Graves its treasurer, Jennings its secretary, and Stewart its superintendent. One of the company’s first actions was the construction of the Minnekahta Hotel, a two-story frame structure. The hotel was advertised as the “most complete hotel in Dakota”. The company’s effort captured the attention of investors in Iowa, and in the fall of 1887, these investors bought the controlling interest in the Dakota Hot Springs Company, and Evans replaced Stewart as superintendent of the company, with complete power.
By 1887, the health resort business was developing steadily, with several bathhouses. Plunge and vapor baths were given from 10 AM to 6 PM during the season at a cost of twenty-five cents. In the fall of 1887, Hot Springs was chosen as the site for the Black Hills Methodist Mission College. In the spring of 1898 the Grand Army of the republic chose Hot Springs as a location for a territorial soldiers’ home. In the years between 1882 and 1889, the new town had grown from a cluster of cabins to a promising community, and from a tiny health spa with a handful of clients to a burgeoning resort welcoming dozens of people each week. These events heralded the years of greatest growth for Hot Springs.
Many structures were constructed of Lakota sandstone obtained from quarries outside of town. The architecture of these buildings was adapted from the Romanesque style, featuring arcades, round arches, and heavy ornamentation. These buildings are well preserved, and are a large part of the down business district today. An election held on August 8, 1890 resulted in 127 people voting to incorporate as the city of Hot Springs. In 1890, the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad extended a branch from its main line running through Buffalo Gap to Hot Springs. The next year, the Burlington constructed a branch into Hot Springs from its main line, which ran through Edgemont to Deadwood. So by 1892, Hot Springs was accessible from all directions by rail.
The biggest development in baths was the Plunge, built by Fred Evans in 1891. The building was constructed of wood, iron, and glass, and covered a pool approximately seventy by two hundred feet. Various slides, diving boards, rafts, and other accessories were provided for the enjoyment of the guests. Evans Plunge is still operating at the same site. In 1893, our sandstone City Hall (still used today), and an impressive sandstone public school building (now the Fall River County Museum) were built. By the end of 1893 the population of Hot Springs was estimated at 3350, and the city had laid more than five miles of sidewalk and graded more than three miles of streets in the preceding three years.
Although bathhouses retained popularity, a new trend toward more scientific health care was developing. This trend utilized the waters, but also offered broader services. The most important of these facilities was Battle Mountain Sanitarium, a national hospital for veterans. Construction of the million dollar complex began in 1903 and was completed four years later. The building material was local sandstone. Battle Mountain Sanitarium opened in April 1907, and forty-eight veterans transferred in to become the first residents. This is now the Veterans Administration Health Care facility. In addition to Battle Mountain Sanitarium, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, and Nichols Cancer Sanitarium, the Hygeo-Medical Sanitarium and the Hot Springs Sanitarium and Hospital also served the medical needs of Hot Springs residents and visitors in the early twentieth century. Over the next several decades Hot Springs became known as “The Veteran’s Town”, caring for veterans at the Veterans Administration Health Care facility, (still in the original sandstone building), and the State Veteran’s Home (on a campus including the original sandstone building). The community still embraces and cares for veterans at these facilities, and by including the veterans in the everyday lives and activities of Hot Springs residents.
Hot Springs has its unique history, which is only touched on above. Its colorful growing pains and conflicts are part of the fascinating history of Hot Springs, a city of warm water and warm people.