Hot history: A look back at the development of the Lakelse hot springs

Part one of a three-part series on the history of Terrace's infamous hot springs

  • Wed Jan 28th, 2015 8:00am
  • News

Hotel guests and Beatrice May and Bruce Johnstone in front of the original Lakelse hot springs hotel in the early 1920s. Below

By Kelsey Wiebe

Today, the mineral pools at Mount Layton Hotsprings Resort are not open to the public. The waterslides sag further each year, and half the buildings on the property have sat vacant since a regional economic decline in the 1990s, plastic tacked along the framed windows in the illusion that the halting of construction was momentary. Their present state belies the central role the hot springs played in the history and identity of the northwest region of British Columbia.

Located to the east of Lakelse Lake, the cluster of hot springs has been the subject of a series of commercial developments since 1910, beginning with a log-cabin bathhouse built by Bruce Johnstone.

But before that, the pools were long frequented by the Tsimshian people, the clay and warm mineral waters at the hot springs traditionally used for healing. Addie Turner, of Kitsumkalum, recalled in a 2004 interview that the hot springs were considered a kind of ‘native hospital.’ In fact, the word ‘Lakelse’ itself is an anglicization of Lax Gyels, the Sm’algyax word for the site of freshwater mussels.

Reports from the turn of the century show that mail carriers broke up their two- to three-week dog-sled routes from Kitimat to Hazelton by warming up by the hot springs pools. That’s how Hank Boss, the Dominion Government Telegraph operator at Kitselas in the early 1900s, learned about the Lakelse hot springs – from the mail mushers stopped at Kitselas. Sensing potential, Boss purchased half of Bruce Johnstone’s pre-emption of the hot springs property and remained a silent partner until he died in 1925.

Johnstone was similarly familiar with the hot springs land from working as a government surveyor and at the nearby Lakelse fish hatcheries before he pre-empted the land in 1906. The two men began clearing land with the expectation that Kitimat would be chosen as the western railway terminus, going so far as to build a roadhouse next to the hot springs in 1910 to house the anticipated rail traffic.

When the railway was routed to Prince Rupert, instead, Johnstone was undeterred – if disappointed. The lodge at the hot springs served as the first post office on the mail route from Kitimat to Hazelton. On mail day, trappers, settlers, hatchery men, and miners gathered at the lodge to await their letters and to hear news from the outside.

The original lodge was located about 1,200 feet from the main hot spring, so water was transported to wooden tubs in an open, gravity-fed ‘V’ trough made of two boards nailed together.

This first hotel was a two-storey log cabin with 14 bedrooms, a dining room, and a living room, with an adjacent bathhouse and guest cabins. It measured approximately 40 by 60 feet.

“You had the tub right there and the water was going by it so when you wanted water to come into the tub you’d just take out a board on the side and push it across there and the water would just come right into the tub,” David Bowen-Colthurst recalled in a 1970’s oral interview.

In 1912, Johnstone met Beatrice May Bradley during a winter furlough in Victoria shortly after constructing his first hotel. Bradley’s brother-in-law was the head of the British Columbia Fisheries Department. They were married in the fall of 1913.

At that point, Johnstone arranged to sell the hot springs property, and bought a home in Victoria. But the sale of the hot springs fell through, so the newlyweds returned to Lakelse Lake in 1915.

Johnstone sold Lakelse Hot Springs, as the business was then called, for a second time in 1921, and again tried to relocate to Victoria. Lloyd, the couple’s only child, attended school in Victoria from 1921 to 1928. In 1928, the sale once again defaulted, and the family resumed operating the lodge during the tourist season.

“It must have been a very lonely life for my mother,” Lloyd mused, much later.

Beatrice was well-educated, and hailed from a large lumber family in Ottawa. As a newlywed, she moved to Lakelse Lake with Bruce, and was quickly immersed in rural pioneer life.

During the summer seasons, she would wake up at 4 a.m. to bake pies, wash clothes by hand, and cook for between 12 and 20 guests. She occasionally had a part-time cook and waitress to assist her, but it nonetheless must have been an extreme adjustment from city life in Eastern Canada.

The Johnstone family kept around 15 cows as well as a vegetable garden to feed themselves and the guests at the lodge. Apparently, their garden was much more productive than Terrace settlers due to the minerals in the hot springs water. Today, current owner Bert Orleans pipes the hot springs water into greenhouses, continuing to use the mineral water to grow enormous organic vegetables.

Promoted as a health spa in newspapers across the United States and Canada, the lodge had a full register for most of the season, which ran May through October.

Johnstone catered mostly to people with rheumatism and arthritis and the spot was also frequented by commercial fishermen from Prince Rupert.

In 1991, Lloyd discussed the miraculous cures he witnessed during his tenure at the Lakelse Hot Springs.

“I remember one young fellow who had arthritis really bad. They packed him in on a stretcher. Dad didn’t think we could help him, but the fellow said we were his last hope. He came in August; two months later he walked out on snowshoes. In those days they didn’t have drugs, so people used the spa to get relief,” he said.

Visitors would come to the area by rail, then taxi from Terrace to the north end of Lakelse Lake.

The first car in Terrace in 1916 was a Stanley Steamer, bought by Ernie Large and his brother to ferry guests to and from the Lakelse Hot Springs – although, it was quickly returned because it was unable to maintain the proper level of steam on the steep hills out to the lake.

For communication, there was a single-wire phone system. When visitors were dropped off at the lake, they notified the lodge on crank telephone. A boat would then be dispatched to pick up the guests, who would then carry their luggage or push it in a wheelbarrow along a split cedar plank walk that spanned the half-mile between Lakelse Lake and the hot springs.

In the spring of 1929, Bruce Johnstone constructed a second hotel of vertical log construction on the lake shore. It measured about 70 by 40 feet, and featured 12 upstairs bedrooms. Downstairs, there was a large fireplace, dining room, living room, and a few extra bedrooms.

Newspaper ads indicate that the hotel fee of $4.25 a night included three meals and “fringe benefits.”

The lake shore bathhouse was about the same size as the lodge, but was constructed of horizontal logs. It featured a large fireplace and four to six seven-foot enamel bathtubs.

Frank Poe, a wealthy Illinois contractor who retired to Lakelse Lake, financed the construction of a wooden pipeline carrying hot springs water to the lake shore bathhouse between 1930 and 1931.

As a result, an uninsulated wire-bound wooden pipeline carried hot springs water approximately 5,000 feet from the main hot spring pool to the lake shore bathhouse. For the first 1,000 feet, the pipe was eight inches in diameter. For the final 4,000 feet, the pipe was six inches in diameter. It was entirely gravity-fed. By the time the water arrived at the bathhouse, it had cooled to a perfect temperature for soaking. (Sections of this pipe were recently transferred to Heritage Park Museum by the Kitimat Museum & Archives.)

In 1936, the Skeena River flooded, halting passenger trains from the end of May through late August. This destroyed Johnstone’s entire tourist season. Incidentally, Frank Poe had died the year before, and his estranged wife and daughter arrived that fall to settle his estate.

Lloyd estimated Poe’s investment in the pipeline at between $6,000 and $8,000. In 1936, at the height of the Depression, Johnstone was unable to settle the outstanding debt, especially because he had no income coming in for much of the 1936 season. Mrs. and Miss Poe were apparently uninterested in extending Frank’s goodwill. As such, Johnstone was forced into foreclosure and lost the Lakelse Hot Springs property.

At that time, Lloyd recalled, “he was a very bitter man.”

This is part one of three parts. More on the hot springs next week.

Kelsey Wiebe is the curator of Heritage Park Museum. More photographs and stories can be found in A History of Lakelse Hot Springs, Heritage Park Museum’s Community Memories exhibit, available online through heritageparkmuseum.com. The exhibit was funded by the Canadian Heritage Information Network, and assisted greatly by Merilyn McLeod, Alice Gellner, David Skoglund, and Ella Goodlad. Please contact Heritage Park Museum at 250-635-4546 or curator@heritageparkmuseum.com to share your own recollections and photographs.