Hot Springs and Bathhouses
The Spa Casino and Resort
Palm Springs, CA

The recent successes and future plans of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians rely on the Tribe’s steadfast belief in something bigger.

For more than 2,000 years, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has viewed the natural hot springs located below the present day hotel at Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs to be a place of power and healing.

Agua Caliente Bath House. Photo taken in '53

However, it was not until a United States government survey in 1853 that the spring took on new meaning — as a place for tourism and profit, based on the healing properties of the waters and the area’s dry desert air.  What they the Tribe didn’t know then was that the healing waters would also prove to be the key to their economic success.

In the late 1880s, the first of three bathhouses was built, drawing visitors from far and wide to soothe their ailments in the natural mineral waters. Over the next 100 years, the Tribe would lease and sometimes manage the property, as it grew from a dusty spring-fed stream into a gleaming Hollywood hangout.

The late 1950s marked the start of the Agua Caliente Tribe’s push for more control and flexibility in the use of their lands for profit.  In 1959, a tenacious, all-woman Tribal Council successfully lobbied Congress to allow the Tribe and its members to grant long-term leases, up to 99 years.

The Spa was the Tribe’s first long term lease and opened on January 21, 1960.  It was built by a group of investors called the Palm Springs Spa, Inc., led by its President, developer Samuel Banowit.  The 30,000-square-foot Spa cost $2,000,000 to build and includes 36 mineral tubs, 23 massage/treatment rooms and two outdoor mineral pools. The original cost of a bath was $3.00; a massage was $5.00.   The Spa Hotel opened three years later, in 1963.

In 1993, after creating an 11-member development authority and obtaining a loan from the Bureau of Indian affairs, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians purchased the hotel for $9 million.  Two years later, they opened a modest “casino” which was little more than a tent with 200 slot machines and 12 gaming tables.  It was the start of Agua Caliente’s booming casino business.

Today, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns and operates two casino-resort properties:  Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Casino • Resort • Spa in Rancho Mirage.  The Tribe also owns and operates the Indian Canyons Golf Resort and the Tahquitz and Indian Canyons Hiking Trails in Palm Springs.

An old photo of The Spa and Hotel. While the landscaping has changed, The Spa's signature colonnade remains.

The Spa at Spa Resort Casino still has a deep connection to the past with a full-service salon and spa that is a sanctuary for the mind, body and soul.  The Spa’s signature experience the “Taking of the Waters” featuring a contemporary take on what’s drawn millions of visitors to this spa over the past 50 years—a dip in the natural hot spring waters.

Taking of the Waters offers a journey for the senses in four therapeutic stages.  Steam, sauna and eucalyptus inhalation are designed to clear the body and mind of toxins.  The final stage—a private soak in our mineral springs—will send you drifting into serenity.

TIMELINE EXCERPTS FROM HISTORICAL TEXTS: (From Agua Caliente Cultural Museum)

Bathhouse #1 Built: Late 1880s (1888 or 1889)

“Palm Springs was so different than what it has become in the 1990s that it is difficult to envision: a Cahuilla community of some 70 people housed in nine dwellings clustering near the hot springs, which they were allowed to use only certain hours of the day; not more than a dozen homes of non-Indians along a dusty desert road where Indian Canyon Avenue runs now; Mrs. Murray’s hotel, and a rustic building over the hot springs where her guests, mostly tubercular, could bathe.”  (Source: Tahquitz Report)

“On May 30, 1889, Elizabeth Murray signed the first lease for the use of the springs. This lease required the Murrays to make improvements to the site, including a separate bathing compartment for the Cahuilla, and to pay an annual rental of $150. In exchange for this income, and the improvements, the Cahuilla agreed to curtail their use of the springs, though they did “reserve the right to bathe in the boil or spring spout at any time in the morning until 7 o’clock, and exclusively between the hours of 12M and 1 o’clock P. M.” This lease would run for three years, expiring in 1892.” (Source: Evolving Ecoscape)

“Just across the street, Dr. Murray and wife have a small hotel that is used as a health resort. This is seven miles across the dreary desert from a small station on the Southern Pacific Railroad, called Seven Palms. There are no people living there but the station employees; it is about twenty or twentyfive miles to Banning, the first village of any importance. Dr. Murray and wife have had a three years lease of this spring, for which they have paid $500. The Indians are allowed to bathe at reasonable hours. We do not believe the Murrays have realized one-half the rent they have paid from the baths. They desire to renew their lease at one hundred dollars a year, when it expires. Their proposition is transmitted herewith and marked Exhibit E. The whites, as well as the Indians, ought to have such benefit as may come to them from the use of these waters. We recommend that the proposition of the Murrays be accepted, under suitable rules and regulations, that will secure to the Indians, as well as the whites, bathing facilities.” (Source: Mission Indian Commission document, 1891) – note: assuming that the bathhouse was built the same year as the first lease was signed, this agrees with “1888” as first bathhouse year

“At the end of 1902, the Indians, desperate for more water and aggravated by Wright’s seven month delay in distributing Murray ’s $100 lease fee to them, managed to reclaim a water supply for themselves by refusing to renew the Murrays ‘ lease of the hot springs . The lease had not led to a useful benefit to the Indians. They intended to build a reservoir on Section 14 to facilitate irrigation (Murray 12/31/1902). The Indians did take over the operation of the bathhouse, which remained in demand as a health spa, and provided some cash income.” (Source: Tahquitz Report)

Bathhouse #1 Repaired: 1906 (assumed)

“But at mid-decade there was a dispute over whether the bathhouse income should be divided among them or used for repair of the facility. One group, led by Captain Marcus Belardo, wanted to use the money for repair of the bathhouse, and an opposing group, probably because there were so few other opportunities to acquire an income, wanted it distributed. Belardo had the keys to the bathhouse, but the funds were held by successive bathhouse attendants. Special Inspector Chubbuck negotiated a compromise whereby the funds held by two of the attendants were distributed, and those held by another, supplemented by money extended by Wright, were to be used for repair (Chubbuck 5/18/1906).” (Source: Tahquitz Report) 

Bathhouse #2 Built: 1910s (1914 or 1916)

“The second bathhouse was built by the Indians in 1914.” (Source: Frank Bogert, First 100 Years, Chapter 5) Note: shows photo of bathhouse confirming appropriate structure

“The original bathhouse stood until 1916 when the Indians built their own.” (Source: Frank Bogert, First 100 Years, Chapter Note: book contradicts itself

“Such disputes ensured that Cahuilla supervision of the hot spring and bathhouse would prove short-lived. By 1909 Indian Agent Clara D. True had taken “the management and collecting for the spring out of [Cahuilla) hands” and, given the absence of viable alternatives, set Agency Farmer Adrian I. Maxwell to collecting the 25~ fee from the bathers. (Welwood Murray was not in any condition to offer assistance; the Murrays’ hotel had closed in 1909, and he was  preoccupied with challenges to his claims on the cold spring and with his wife’s worsening health.) The Cahuilla, lacking any alternative, reluctantly accepted the situation, and tried to use the Agency’s renewed interest to improve conditions on the reservation; the next decade saw the construction of a new bathhouse and other similar projects. Their patience was eventually rewarded; by the 1930s control of the bathhouse was back in Cahuilla hands.” (Source: Evolving Ecoscape)

“The bathhouse, a source of income to the Tribe as well as a place to bathe, was in poor repair by 1911, and the Indians with Sullivan’s assistance began to plan for its repair. They proposed to buy materials with money laid aside from bathhouse fees, and from what the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company had paid for a right-of-way across the reservation. As usual, there was a delay before the OIA would agree to release the money. Now and later it was customary that all tribal income was managed and calculated by the Indian agents not the Indians to whom it belonged. It was considered prudent not to allow Indians to “manage” their own business affairs. As time went on, there were more and more complaints about the condition of the existing bathhouse. Tribal income was threatened, and there were serious safety concerns. In May, 1912, Sullivan urged the CIA to release the money, as the Indians had kept accounts and were well aware that the bathhouse earnings were enough to pay for the new building, but it was probably this awareness that led to their being described by Sullivan as “sullen, ugly, and unmanageable,” (5/8/1912) rather than as sensible entrepreneurs. The money was apparently forthcoming.” (Source: Tahquitz Report)

“The Hot Springs again received attention by the OIA. The Agua Calientes still had control of the hot springs , but a new bathhouse was needed. “At the present time there is an aggregation of wretched shacks of a most uninviting character. A member of the Tribe is assigned as caretaker and a small fee is charged the patrons of the establishment” (Vaux 7/3/1925). The bathhouse, whatever its condition, was offensive to some members of the Palm Springs community, but it was used enough to be a source of considerable income to the Tribe. The income was traditionally controlled by the successive captains, who apparently used it as leaders would have in traditional times. It should be pointed out that the springs were within the traditionally owned by the Kauisik lineage. Captains in the 1920s had each used from $400 to $500 of the bathhouse monies for their own purposes. One of them had used $100 to bring home a boy who got into difficulty in Mexicali , another donated $500 to the MIF, and still another paid the funeral expenses for Marcus Belardo and his wife. No doubt other uses-— personally religious and welfare were also funded by these monies. Ellis, ever the accounting, controlling bureaucrat, was frustrated because there was no written record of either the bathhouse income or the withdrawals by the various captains. He recommended the appointment of “an honest white man, who could keep accurate records, and the installation of a cash register. This, however, would undoubtedly meet with opposition on the part of the Indians” (Ellis 4/12/1928). It was a complete failure to understand Agua Caliente ways on his part, an example of the many interferences due to ignorance and in prejudice against any form of Indian autonomy.” (Source: Tahquitz Report)

Bathhouse #3 Built: 1930s (assumed)

“In the meantime, the bathhouse at the hot springs, having been cleaned up and refurbished, was attracting such Hollywood notables as Dolores Del Rio, Robert Taylor, Bruce Cabot, Ralph Belamy, and Charles Farrell, and as a result attracted the attention of the editor of the “March of Time” news movies, who sent a photographer to film it (DS 4/9/1937).” (Source: Desert Sun article)

“Despite their great financial assertiveness Indian wealth was not realized so in order to increase tribal income, Quackenbush kept the Indian Canyons open during the summer of 1937, and kept the canyons and bathhouse open at night until 10 p.m. (LL 5/15/1937). (Source: Limelight News)

“I want to submit pictures of the Indian bathhouse, and say in that connection that in 1936 and all periods previous to that the bathhouse was quite impossible, which accounts for some of the increases in income that we made in ‘the bathhouse because of improvements in the appearance of the place. Previously the bathhouse in wet weather was standing in a pool of mud and in dry weather it was the middle of a sand storm. Since the Government took over we renovated the whole place. ‘We enameled the baths and we have an attendant that cleans them after every bath with clorox solution, and we have hauled in manure and soil and made a beautiful lawn and really beautified the whole place as it is shown by these pictures which indicate the surroundings of the bath and now the hotels are recommending the baths to their patrons which they did not do in 1936.” (Source: Harold Quackenbush at Federal Hearings)

Bathouse #3 Destroyed: 1957

“At the request of the operator of the famous Palm Springs bathhouse, his lease was terminated, and the BIA, which had had its office there, moved to a new location. The Springs Trailer Park was served an eviction notice, and lessees of homes and other businesses on Andreas Avenue were placed on month-to-month permits. An eight acre site was cleared in this way so that a “spa” hotel could be developed (DS 5/2/1957). (Source: Desert Sun)

1957: third bathhouse (bathhouse #3) is destroyed to make way for the Palm Springs Spa and the Spa Hotel, following the the tribe’s successful legal battles for a 99-year lease: the first in U.S. history which opened the door for long term development of Indian lands. Prior, discriminatory zoning only allowed for short-term leases which frightened away investors and left Indian lands undeveloped. In 1957 the bathhouse was torn down and Indian Avenue was widened. The spring was capped so as to redirect the hot spring waters from under Indian Avenue to the new Spa facility. Many studies were done so that the flow of the hot spring waters would not be disturbed/disrupted.

The Spa opened January 21, 1960.  It was built by a group of investors called the Palm Springs Spa, Inc., led by its President, developer Samuel Banowit.  The 30,000-square-foot Spa cost $2,000,000 to build and includes 36 mineral tubs, 23 massage/treatment rooms and two outdoor mineral pools. The original cost of a bath was $3.00; a massage was $5.00.

THE GEOLOGY OF THE SPRING

The spring is located in on alluvial fan emanating from the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, which is a very unusual place for a spring to be located because alluvial fans are typically very porous, and allow water to easily percolate into the subsurface.  Recent investigations of the spring have found that a bedrock ridge extends eastward from the mountains, and is at a relatively shallow depth of about 800 feet under the spring.  The location of the Palm Canyon Fault or some other zone of higher permeability is believe to intersect the bedrock ridge under the location of the spring, and be responsible for the spring being at this location.

The spring is believed to have been at this location for longer than the alluvial fan.  The spring has been able to work through the sand and silt deposited during flood events after rain storms, keeping it from being buried.  The upward movement of the water lifts the fine sand out of the throat of the spring, and the silt material packs the sidewalls of the spring orifice, maintaining the seal.  The spring water maintains its’ upward pathway through the alluvium due to the other pathways being sealed off by the silt.

The water quality is very good, somewhat better than the surrounding aquifer, with very little dissolved solids.  The most notable feature is the odor created by a very small concentration of sulfur in the water.  The water has very little dissolved oxygen.  The bubbles are mostly nitrogen dissolved into the water when it percolated into the ground.  The water also has a slightly elevated silica and fluoride content (a few parts per million above the preferred target concentrations for drinking water) but much less than most hot springs would be expected to have.

Detailed testing of the isotopic composition of the water indicates the water coming out of the ground today infiltrated into the ground about 11,000 years ago at an elevation of about 7,300 feet.  That would make it melting snow-pack from the last ice age from the top of the San Jacinto Mountains .  The pathway the water has taken to reach the spring involved flowing to a depth of about 1,200 to 3,800 feet below sea level, where it was heated to 142 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before flowing back to the surface.  The discharge water is a very stable 106 degrees Fahrenheit, at a flow rate that ranges from about 25 gallons per minute in the spring to about 18 gallons per minute in the fall.  The change in flow rate is believed to be due to a drop in hydrostatic head as water levels in the mountains decrease over the summer, and then increase as water levels recharge from winter storms and snowfall.

The pools for the original spring were a few hundred feet in diameter located at the current location of Indian Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way .  More than one orifice was reportedly present.  The spring area was modified in the late 1950s with the widening of Indian Canyon Drive .  A spring water collection ring was placed over the main spring orifice, located under the sidewalk along Indian Canyon Drive just north of the Tahquitz Canyon Way (between the curb and the landscaping for the Spa Resort).  The collection ring has an open top located about 2 feet below the sidewalk.  The spring is still active.  Water from the spring is pumped into underground storage tanks for eventual use in the Spa Resort.  These pumps are controlled by floats that sense when the storage tank water level is low.  Another pump is used to dispose of excess water into the storm sewer.

For more information about the Spa Resort and Casino, visit their Website: www.SpaResortCasino.com

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Lynn Bremner is the author of DesertRoadTrippin.com, a blog about desert road trips and tips. She started the blog after moving to Indio, CA where she now resides. Now a true desert dweller, Lynn has added in some of her own views on desert living. The heat does not keep her indoors in the summertime. She is out running, golfing or taking short day trips to some of the local points of interest. After years of traveling along the dusty, desert trails with her father, she has come to appreciate the beauty and solitude of the desert landscape. Her father’s passion for prospecting, desert lore and exploring the desert parks took their family to many interesting places, mostly in California, Nevada and Arizona. Lynn now writes about her desert road trips and intertwines a little bit of desert living into the mix.

1 COMMENT

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