An Historical Guide
Belknap Lodge & Hot Springs is located in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains on the banks of the beautiful McKenzie River, approximately 63 miles east of Eugene, Oregon, and 6 miles east of the town of McKenzie Bridge. Belknap has long been a landmark in the area and can be found on most Oregon Highway maps. The lodge sits along a bend of the river about three-tenths of a mile north of the McKenzie Highway. The hot spring is located on the north side of the river across from the lodge and the water is then piped across for use in the hot mineral pools and for geothermal heating the lodge.
Belknap is famous for the extreme temperatures of the mineral water, ranging from 185-195 degrees Fahrenheit. The spring emits approximately 60 gallons per minute of the hot water containing many of the earth's minerals. The water is heated deep beneath the earth by running through caverns close enough to subsurface lava beds to significantly increase the water's temperature. Some of the minerals found in the water include iron, calcium, potassium chloride, lithium, and many other trace minerals. The hot springs is known for its mineral salt content and buoyant quality, and at one time was called "Salt Springs."
The attraction to hot mineral water has a proven history among mankind. Long before white settlers entered the Pacific Northwest, Native Americans frequented hot springs throughout North America. At Belknap, exact archeological dating has not been done; however, due to the types of the many artifacts found on both sides of the river, it is possible that native inhabitants used the hot springs at least seasonally for 8,000 years or more. At the time of western exploration, many established trails were in existence leading to most of the hot springs of the Northwest. Undoubtedly, the springs were used for medicinal healing and as spiritually sacred grounds. They were also used for other purposes, such as basket making and sweathouses. At Belknap there is evidence of a cedar tree with the bark peeled, indicating the making of bent-wood carrying baskets. It is believed the hot water was used to make the cedar bark pliable enough to form into baskets. Up until the early 1900's, the warm springs people continued to pass by Belknap as part of their annual migrations over the McKenzie Pass.
The first record of white exploration and discovery of the springs occurred in 1854 by a group of men known as the "McBride Party". The group included George Millican, John T. Craig, James Storment, and Joseph Carter, all of whom settled in the McKenzie River Valley. It was 15 years later in 1869 when Rollin Simeon Belknap discovered the hot springs and took claim in 1870 with plans to make a health resort and mineral spa. Originally from Middlesex, Vermont, RS. Belknap set off from Boston, Massachusetts to explore and look for gold in the Northwest Territory. He ended up in San Francisco in 1849 and later in Southern Oregon, where he fought in the Rogue River Indian War in 1855-1856. In the 1870's, RS. Belknap brought his family to the hot springs and began development of a mineral spa resort.
At the time of RS. Belknap settling, the springs were called the "Pools of Salome" and "Siloam Springs" and were often referred to as the "Hot Salome Mud". Not long after, the hot springs became known as "Salt Springs". Records show a post office under the name of Salt Springs was established October 26, 1874, with Rollin Simeon Belknap as first postmaster. The resort continued to be known as Salt Springs until 1891 when, under new ownership, the name was changed to Belknap Springs in recognition of its first developer.
The idea to open a mineral spa was part of a trend to imitate the then popular mineral "spas" commonly found on the East Coast and in Europe. Most of the well known mineral spa resorts of the Northwest and in the Western Cascades, such as Foley, Breitenbush, Kitson, and McCredie, were first developed in the 1870's. The mineral spas of this era tended to cater to the more affluent in society, some more than others. For instance, Belknap's nearby "sister" spa, Foley, attracted a wealthier class of people than Belknap. However, no matter what class level, all of these spas capitalized on the therapeutic powers and medicinal quality of the mineral water in the same fashion as their Eastern and European predecessors. It was commonly believed that the waters had a "magical" quality and could cure many of the illnesses inflicting people at the time.
Like many other spas of the era, the use of advertising was influential in attracting people to use the resort facilities. On June 20, 1874, an advertisement placed by RS. Belknap in the Oregon State Journal stated:
To Those in Search of
HEALTH OR PLEASURE
The Undersigned, Proprietor of the
would call attention to those in search of health or pleasure to the properties and excellent situation of the above springs. They are situated on the McKenzie River, sixty miles East of Eugene City, surrounded by scenery beautiful and grand. The neighborhood abounds in game of every kind, and the streams with fine trout. The medicinal properties of the water have been tested by the cure of those who have visited them who have been afflicted with various diseases, particularly Female Weakness, Scrofula, Rheumatism, inflammations both external and internal, and general debility. Charges moderate. Good pasture nearby.
RS. Belknap, M.D. /
/John W. Sims, Proprietor
Although RS. Belknap was not a licensed medical doctor, the claims for the hot springs healing powers were widely believed in society during the 1870's. Due to the fact that as a result of frequent hot baths and a relaxed, scenic environment, most people returned home with a sense of feeling good, which led to further claims of the healing nature of the springs.
After further improvements in the 1870's, Belknap became a thriving and popular tourist resort with hundreds of summer visitors each year and remained a favored vacation spot into the 20th century. The 4th of July was the busiest part of the season, attracting large crowds who participated in games, parties, fireworks, and other celebrations.
Rs. Belknap sold the mineral spa resort in 1875 to Petre B. Settle and John Miller who are on record as the first legal owners of the resort. Thereafter, the health resort changed ownership frequently during the last part of the 19th century.
Up until 1913, when the first automobiles reached the spring, a horse-drawn stagecoach from Eugene was in operation regularly bringing tourists to the resort. Belknap was the last stop on the stagecoach route along the McKenzie River. The journey would take approximately 16 hours from Eugene. Because Belknap Springs was the last stop on the route, many people would stay at Belknap and then hike up into the high country of the Cascades to hunt, fish, and explore the beautiful country.
During the period of the 1870's through the early 1900's, it can be said that Belknap was in its first "heyday". Many changes in the facilities occurred at the resort as time passed. A log hotel was built along with many split log cabins and "tent" houses lining the riverbank. A long bathhouse was built with individual cubicles, each containing tubs built out of a large carved-out cedar tree with elegantly carved cedar spigots. Also added was a covered pool or "swimming tank". More than one bridge was built to access the springs located on the opposite side of the river from the resort and to act as a support for pipes or wooden flumes used to transport the hot water.
Over time, the resort frequently changed ownership up until 1907-1908, when John A. Hawk, a wealthy timber baron from Michigan, acquired Belknap as one of his many investments. The resort remained in his ownership up until 1924-1925, when his daughter, Helen A. Hawk, and her husband Frank P. Bigelow came to live and manage the resort. The records indicate Frank P. Bigelow eventually purchased the resort from his father-in-law and set forth to make improvements. Nonetheless, the resort remained in the Hawk-Bigelow ownership for years to come. In fact, it wasn't until 1975 that Betty (Bigelow) Smith sold the lodge, ending 68 years of ownership. Even now, surviving members of the Bigelow family own nearby land, including the property where the hot springs are located.
The Bigelow family was responsible for improving the resort into a large-scale operation. By the mid 1930's, many new structures had been built, such as a new suspension footbridge, an enlarged pool and steam baths, additional cabins, a dance hall, two restaurants, a store, and a post office. The current lodge now in existence was built around the old Belknap Hotel in 1933, adding even more accommodations. At the time, the majority of activities occurred close to the lodge, while the "upper" areas were known as Belknap Woods and were reserved mainly for cabin use and as a camping area.
Many factors on top of all the improvements made by the Bigelow family led to increased business during the 1920's and 1930's. The McKenzie Highway was greatly improved in 1928, allowing easier access to the popular resort. An Oregon Stages motor-coach from Eugene to Bend began a daily run with a stop at Belknap, bringing more tourism to the area. The "roaring" twenties brought such activities as live bands, minstrel shows, and large crowds during the summer. Even many famous people, such as Clark Gable and Herbert Hoover, visited the resort during this period.
The depression years brought a decline in business to Belknap, although the resort remained open and continued to have patronage during the summer months. Many fond memories still remain from people who visited Belknap in the 1940's, 50's, and 60's, even though it was not a thriving place like it had been in earlier years. Many of these memories include local school picnics and senior "skip" days, summer vacations, children crossing the swimming bridges to look at the springs, and perhaps to boil fish or eggs in the hot water.
Unlike many other Oregon mineral spa resorts such as Foley and Kitson Hot Springs, Belknap continues to survive to this day. Due to changes in transportation, medical practices and beliefs, and changes in society's leisure-time habits, many of the once popular health spa resorts similar to Belknap were forgotten and abandoned during the mid 1900's. Some burned down or deteriorated. Due to the Columbus Day flood of 1962 and the Christmas flood of 1964 and many other contributing factors, Belknap was closed for ten years beginning in 1968.
In 1975 James Nation, a retired U.S. Army Corps Engineer, purchased the resort with plans to restore the lodge and campground. The resort was re-opened three years later in 1978 with remodeled accommodations and remains operational to this day. In 1991 James Nation sold the resort to a California-based company who made further improvements to the historical facility with hopes of enhancing its rustic charm and historical heritage.
In 1995, the McDougal family of Springfield, Oregon purchased Belknap. Plans to preserve, upgrade, and add to Belknap's history and future are already underway.
With Belknap's long history and perseverance, the future of Belknap looks grand. Even changes in modem-day medicine again support the healthful benefits of the hot mineral water in treating many ailments such as arthritis, back injuries, and is commonly used for rehabilitative purposes. Soaking in the hot mineral water has also been shown to greatly reduce the stresses leading to many illnesses in today's society. Who knows, maybe Belknap will have its third "heyday" in the coming years.