There are a thousand stories to be told of a hot-spring playground hidden in one of the Selkirk’s most beautiful valleys. But one part of the story remains constant: the spring water is a natural glory that has always brought comfort to the body.
The Nakusp Hot Springs, nestled deep within the Kuskanax Valley, was once considered to be “a poor man’s spa.” Today, its clean, clear waters feed a unique, community-owned tourist attraction that draws local and international visitors alike. The story of the spa’s transformation covers eighty-plus years and includes plenty of intrigue.
Early days: The poor man’s spa
Early settlement of Nakusp, located on the east shores of Upper Arrow Lake, began in 1892. The townsite soon featured a post office, general store and sawmill and served as a hub for early mining operations in the Slocan Valley.
In those early years, the Nakusp Hot Springs consisted of three naturally fed thermal springs located 14.5 kilometres up the Kuskanax Valley from the townsite. The springs were unclaimed and a popular leisure destination for area settlers.
The first attempt to stake the hot springs site occurred in 1894 by Darragh and Lester. Even then, this wilderness thermal wonder was regarded by area residents as a God-given gift that should remain open to the public, free and unobstructed. After residents objected to Darragh and Lester’s claim, the government cancelled the men’s application and returned their down payment.
However, the site was staked, successfully, in 1897 by Ellen McDougald. Ellen and her husband Alan had come to Nakusp from California in 1892 and had purchased the Leland Hotel overlooking the Arrow Lakes from Mr. Rathwell for $1,000. Alan died in 1895, leaving Ellen and their three children to run the hotel and make a living. In 1897, Ellen staked the hot springs site, lot 8514, like a prospector would under the name of the Virginia Mineral Claim. Area residents protested Ellen’s claim, but as no development was undertaken for some time, people were free to continue to use the site without restriction.
Easier access to the springs came in 1912 with the building of a proper trail from town. (The trail is now called the Kuskanax Creek Trail.)
In those early years, when people had little cash and a scarcity of leisure time, the hot springs were considered a poor man’s spa. Hiking the trail on a weekend was a journey into paradise – one available even to children with lard-pail lunch in one hand and willow stick fishing pole in the other.
A park takes shape
In 1914, in response to continued public protest over Ellen McDougald’s claim, the provincial government made the hot springs site into a reserve by Order in Council. Ellen McDougald, now Ellen Gayford, fought the issue and won, gaining surface rights to her mineral claim. Buoyed by her victory, Ellen started a camp and attempted to charge for the waters’ use. This, however, required some administration, an expense that rendered her operation unprofitable.
In 1925, the Nakusp Board of Trade took action against the Gayford claim. A government survey was instituted to create a Class C provincial park and build a right of way through the Gayford claim to provide public access to the springs and park site. From then on, two of the three springs at the site were reserved for public use as part of the roughly 200-acre Nakusp Hot Springs Provincial Park.
Although the Gayford mineral claim still existed, it no longer restricted access to the springs. By 1928, the claim had fallen dormant because Ellen had failed to pay the taxes.
Early site development
The new provincial park was operated by the Nakusp Hot Springs Provincial Park Board. In 1928, federal Member of Parliament Bert Herridge was installed as chairman and Frank Rushton as secretary-treasurer. The Board’s job was to solicit funds throughout the area to improve the springs site. The Board raised $500 – an amount that was matched by a government grant secured by Sid Leary, provincial MLA – and used the money to construct a concrete pool and enclosure at the springs site.
Karl and Emil Newbrand won the contract to build the new pool, along with a community kitchen and some cabins. All materials and equipment had to be packed in by horse or on one’s back; however, Karl and Emil used sand from the creek for the concrete and made the forms from cedar shakes.
The springs’ first caretaker, Amos La Rue, was hired in 1929 at $300 for the summer. He enforced rules that were set out by the Provincial Parks Act, such as campfire permits and safety and cleanliness regulations.
The springs were becoming more popular with visitors from outside Nakusp, and many young area residents provided horse packing services for the new and growing tourist trade. Packers used the well-maintained trail, along which mile boards were erected. Packers paid a $5 levy if they used the corral that was built for that purpose. Casual trail users paid a 25-cent fee.
Pop Gensick and a near-tragic accident
In 1935, Louis (Pop) Gensick took over the job of caretaker. Pop was given no money for development, but he worked hard to keep the park site clean and hospitable.
In 1939, the Sid Leary family purchased the Gayford mineral claim through a tax sale. The Leary family did not interfere with the running of the springs, as they wanted to keep the springs for the community.
In 1939, Pop took his portable mill, piece by piece, to the hot springs and commenced to cut lumber for a series of small rental cabins. Later, he built an open, circular building at the springs site. Over time, signatures from visitors from all over the world were carved into the wood of this building.
About this time, the price for using the springs was one dollar per season per family and 25 cents per day for a cabin.
In the spring of 1940, Pop severely cut his hand and wrist on the saw of his portable mill. John Houston, who stayed with Pop during the winters, managed to get a tourniquet in place to stop the bleeding. Houston then decided to walk to town for help, even though he was crippled with arthritis and could barely walk. He set out in the dark with a flashlight and battled the snow covering the trail, crawling and slithering until he arrived at Pop’s son Paul’s cabin that night. Several volunteers went up with Paul and helped to bring Pop down on a stretcher that arrived the next morning. Even though his hand was saved, Pop suffered a reduction in mobility. Houston had saved his friend’s life, and for this he received a certificate from the Royal Humane Society.
Emil Juras managed the springs in 1942 and Albert Beck spent hundreds of volunteer hours to maintain the trail.
Pam Gillman (nee Herridge) was one of the horse packers operating on the trail during this time. She used the name “Pam’s Pony Express” and told many exciting and hilarious stories of her experiences.
The Village becomes involved
In 1957, the Leary family donated ten acres of land from the old Gayford claim to the town of Nakusp. There was a stipulation that the Nakusp Hot Springs Provincial Park Board, composed of Graham Elder, Bert Gardner, Heather Gates, Al Butt, Dave Johnson and Bert Herridge, complete a land survey at the cost of $375. Money was borrowed from the bank, and the public made donations to offset the expense.
At this point, the provincial government insisted that the donated land’s title would have to be registered under the Crown. Florence Leary wanted it registered to the town itself and requested that the ten acres be classified as a Class A provincial park. She was told that at least 45 acres were required to create a Class A park. The land title went to the province.
In 1964, Nakusp was incorporated as a village and was offered the opportunity to lease the springs site from the province. The Village accepted this offer, but faced some issues: the logging road into the area was poorly maintained, there were no caretakers, and the pools were regularly damaged by vandals.
In 1967 — ten years after Florence Leary’s original request — Nakusp Hot Springs Provincial Park was reclassified as a Class A provincial park.
Around 1971, the Village of Nakusp formed a committee to investigate the possibility of piping the hot spring water to a different location, one that provided better camping and the option to plan for a proper pool complex. The Mayor of Nakusp agreed that a town board would accept administration of the new spa complex, while all levels of government were approached to get financing for the erection of the new buildings and infrastructure.
By this point, a good logging road had been pushed through to the new site near the springs, so when grant money from the various governments came forth, access was made possible without too much additional cost.
In 1974, the pool complex was completed and opened by Premier Dave Barrett. It had taken eighty years of struggle, but the Village of Nakusp now had a first class spa that residents could enjoy and proudly offer to visitors from around the world.
Civic ownership and modern development
In 1992, the provincial government removed Nakusp Hot Springs’ Class A provincial park designation and transferred title for 168 acres of land containing the source of the springs to the Village of Nakusp. The Village leased the remaining 77 acres of land containing the pool complex from the government until 2003, at which point the Village purchased that parcel of land. Although the Village had to borrow the money for the purchase, savings on interest costs resulted in a monthly payment of only $250. The advantage of owning rather than leasing was that the Village could now attract developers who had not been interested in building on leased land.
In 2004, at a cost of $94,000, the road to the springs and the parking lot were repaved.
In 2006, a major and costly upgrade to the facility had to be done. The Village had difficulty financing the upgrade, which included a new pool liner, removal of unsound concrete, mechanical upgrading and more. Village residents even went so far as to approve a potential sale of the springs via referendum, but no serious offers came forth.
Instead, the Village made administrative changes to reduce site operations while still providing access. It was decided that the pool would be open for fewer hours so there was less staff to be paid, and visits to the pool would cost more. The changes were made, and, in 2010, for the first time, the springs made a profit.
In 2013, the Village bought the Cedar Chalets, four rental cabins at the springs that had been built in 1973.
In 2013, Madden Timber Construction Ltd. built a new footbridge over Kuskanax Creek near the hot springs, just a short walk from the springs. The bridge is absolutely stunning, and it won a Wood WORKS! accolade for its use of wood in a public structure.
In 2016, the chalets and pool complex were reroofed. Future campground improvements are planned to increase accommodation for recreational vehicles.
Reflecting back upon the history of the springs, one might lament its slow development. But after more than 80 years, nestled deep within the natural beauty of the Kuskanax valley, Nakusp has a unique, community-owned tourist attraction.
About the Author
Rosemarie Parent is a founding member and past president of the Arrow Lakes Historical Society. She currently serves as the Society’s secretary, mentors colleagues on accessioning and membership duties, and is working to develop the program for the 2018 BCHF Annual Conference. Rosemarie is a long-time resident of Nakusp.
 Arrow Lakes News, 20 March 1924.
 Milton Parent, Port of Nakusp (Arrow Lakes Historical Society: 1992), p. 14.
 Ibid., p. 65.
 Ibid., pg. 91.
 Arrow Lakes News, 19 September 1907.
 Arrow Lakes News, 24 February 1928.
Arrow Lakes News, 4 February 1928.
 Arrow Lakes News, 5 September 1935.
 Arrow Lakes News, 2 May 1940; Arrow Lakes News, 12 September 1940.
 Arrow Lakes News, 28 May 1942.
 Arrow Lakes News, 22 September 1966.
 Arrow Lakes News, 2 February 1967; Arrow Lakes News, 14 July 1971.
 Arrow Lakes News, March 1967; Arrow Lakes News, May 1968; Arrow Lakes News, 31 January 1973; Arrow Lakes News, 19 October 1974.
 Arrow Lakes News, 31 October 2002.
 Arrow Lakes News, 9 June 2004; Arrow Lakes News, 23 February 2006.
 Arrow Lakes News, 30 September 2009.
 Arrow Lakes News, 26 May 2010.
 Arrow Lakes News, 2 October 2013.