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Little remains of back-woods luxury spa at Wilhoit Springs.

During the heyday of hydropathy, the remote mountainside resort was Clackamas County’s No. 1 tourist draw; its waters actually had scientifically provable therapeutic value

Wilhoit Springs Mineral Water label
The label from a bottle of Wilhoit Springs Mineral Water, marketed locally
and in Portland. [Bigger image: 800px wide] (Image courtesy Dunton
Family Farms)

Wilhoit Road is a narrow, lonely county road that runs south out of Molalla and makes a beeline for the side of the Cascade Mountains. About 15 miles later, it gets there, and dead-ends into a pair of driveways.

One of those driveways is the entrance to a modest, mostly unimproved county park that almost nobody more than 20 miles away knows exists. Yet this quiet, tucked-away place was once one of Clackamas County’s top tourist attractions: Wilhoit Springs.

A place to “take the waters”

Wilhoit’s heyday was around the turn of the 20th century, when many people believed that water — especially strong mineral water — had special medical power.

Entrance to Wilhoit Springs, near Molalla, Oregon
The unassuming entrance to the park; the sign is a relatively recent
addition. Until it was installed, visitors just had to know this driveway
led to a county park. [Bigger image: 2400px wide] (Photo: Finn J.D. John)

“Hydropathy” (hydrotherapy) spas and resorts proliferated in Europe, and millions of people went to them to “take the cure” for a week or two.

In many cases, it worked — people whose medical complaints stemmed from exhaustion found a couple weeks of lounging around a steamy pool and taking frequent aromatic baths very therapeutic indeed. They came home refreshed, rejuvenated and “cured.” And as for other complaints — well, the improved circulation caused by soaking in hot water was bound to temporarily relieve some of the symptoms of things like arthritis, chronic pain and congestive heart failure.

Two springs with heavy mineral loads

Foundation of bath house and soda springs wellhead at Wilhoit Springs
All that remains of the bathhouse at Wilhoit Springs is the foundation and
the wellhead. The deck has been built recently to enable visitors to get
access to the water more easily; the minerals have stained the spillway
bright orange. [Bigger image: 2400px wide] (Photo: Finn J.D. John)

For hydropathic purposes, the water that bubbled out of the ground at Wilhoit and flowed into nearby Table Rock Creek was particularly attractive. In one spot, it was noticeably thickened by rust-colored minerals; in another, it was light and effervescent.

It was with this in mind that a developer named Frank McLeran bought the property from the pioneer who’d perfected a land claim on it a few years before, in 1866. McLeran got right to work. Within a dozen years or so he’d built a big hotel, a bathhouse and several other structures, along with a post office — he talked the postal service into approving that in 1882. And this was at a time when Wilhoit Springs was 30 or 40 rutty, bone-jarring wagon-road miles from either Salem or Oregon City.

By the turn of the century the place was a huge hit. The hotel had burned down and been replaced with a rustic palace built of logs, and it was joined by an array of cabins, a band pavilion, a store, several gazebos and even a bowling alley. People poured into the place from cities all over the West, and indeed from beyond as well, to take the Clackamas County cure.

Bottled waters for sale

A row of dilapidated guest cabins were still on site in 1960, when Ben Maxwell made this photo.
These tiny cabins, photographed in 1960 by Ben Maxwell, were built to
house guests at Wilhoit Springs. The last of them were destroyed in a big
windstorm two years later. [Bigger image: 800px wide] (Photo: Salem
Public Library)

McLeran also bottled the water and sold it locally and in Portland. On the label, the water’s per-gallon mineral content (as measured in 1869) was proudly listed:

338 cubic inches of “carbonic acid gas” (carbon dioxide); 201 grains of salt; 87.57 grains of sodium carbonate (baking soda); 85.32 grains of magnesium carbonate (the active ingredient in popular laxative Phillips Milk of Magnesia); 32.23 grains of calcium carbonate (chalk; the active ingredient in Tums); 6 grains of iron carbonate (ore-grade iron); 3.4 grains of iron sulfate (a common form of nutritional-supplement iron); and 6.45 grains of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts).

Other sources also include sodium sulfate on the list. Sodium sulfate is a non-toxic sulfur salt with a distinctly disagreeable odor. Anyone who passed downwind of a paper mill before about 1985 knows that smell well; sodium sulfate used to be a key part of the pulping process. It’s not hard to imagine why that ingredient didn’t make the label.

"Cures the Appetite for Drink!"

In large enough doses, this array of minerals would provide real relief from heartburn, constipation, gas, sour stomach, certain skin conditions and iron-deficiency anemia. So it’s not surprising that the springs acquired a reputation for being medically therapeutic.

The sign at the entrance to Wilhoit Springs in the years before it became a park
This sign, photographed by Ben Maxwell in 1956 after the Schoenborn
family had bought the property, shows the rates charged to access
Wilhoit Springs. The day-use rates had not changed since the heyday of
the park, and the sign probably dates from the early 1900s. The small sign
underneath it reads “STOP/ Put fee under door/ If you do not wish to pay
stay out.” [Bigger image: 900px wide] (Photo: Salem Public Library)

Not every claim made could be supported by medical science, though. There were plenty of wild promises made on resort letterhead. Perhaps the most startling claim of medical benefit from the water appeared on a brochure from the resort printed during its 1890s heyday. “RELIEVES THE APPETITE FOR DRINK,” it proclaimed. “It is the much appreciated experience of many drinking men that this water will satisfy the craving for strong drink in a most remarkable manner. The victim of drink finds Wilhoit Water a most refreshing, enlivening and invigorating draught which leaves no sting behind and no distressing reaction. … For that particular nervousness after a period of excessive drinking, the water used freely is admirable in its effect to soothe and quiet body and mind.”

That last claim actually makes sense; as a hangover cure, the water’s mineral profile is close enough to Alka-Selzer to be quite credible. But as a sort of methadone for alcoholics, not so much.

Whatever the water’s effect on the “drinking man,” the combination of an intensely mineraled water with noticeable therapeutic effects and a thoroughly developed resort community and top-shelf restaurant, all set in a glorious flat clearing amid old-growth fir trees on the sunny side of a sparkling medium-size creek, was magical for many years.

The end comes for Wilhoit Springs Resort

Early in the 1900s, though, theories of medicine that weren’t provably scientific started to lose ground. After World War I, they lost it fast. Hydrotherapy was one of the victims of this trend, and “taking the cure” ceased to be thought of as a medical necessity. Outside visitors to Wilhoit stopped coming. The resort started to fade.

It all ended for real one day in the 1920s when a fire broke out in the log hotel. There wasn’t enough business to justify rebuilding it, and without it, Wilhoit was little more than a picnic area. The post office closed in 1928.

Until the big windstorm of 1962, there were still remnants of the old resort on the scene. A row of cabins with pointy gables, reminiscent of the architecture of Lincoln City’s Pixieland, sat empty and abandoned, surrounded by clusters of sword ferns. The old band pavilion, shingles stripped from its roof, stood skeletal in the field for many years as well. The property’s new owners, the Schoenborn family, welcomed visitors, but there was not much to see.

Reborn as a county park – like a secret one

By the mid-1970s, Clackamas County had acquired the place as a park, but you wouldn’t have known it to look at it.  It was like a secret park. All the structures were gone, leaving an overgrown field. All that remained was the concrete foundation of the bathhouse, with the soda spring’s well casing in the middle covered with a stainless-steel lid and an official-looking sign warning that the water should not be drunk — a sign the locals ignored, but which kept outside visitors from thinking much of the place. Perhaps that was the idea.

I grew up on Wilhoit Road ("Route 1 Box 348-B"), so I was a relatively frequent visitor in the late 1970s, although there wasn't much to do there. When I returned again to visit in 2009, I found much had changed. There’s a entrance sign now, for one thing, and the grounds are groomed with pathways and a deck built for access to the spring. There’s even a big pitcher pump at the old location of the mineral spring, for those who want to taste the thick stuff.

The water is probably best — and most charitably — described as an “acquired taste,” although frankly, I never did manage to “acquire” it. But I have found that it makes a fantastic mineral addition for home beer brewing, especially for a heavy India pale ale.

(Sources: Chapman, Judith & al. Images of America: Molalla. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2008; Walton, George E. The Mineral Springs of the U.S. and Canada. New York: Appleton, 1874; Leeds, W.H. The Resources of the State of Oregon. Salem: Oregon State Board of Agriculture, 1898; www.duntonfarms.com)