Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)
By Jodie Theriot and Alaine Bracken
Becoming stiff and arthritic? Conventional treatment not helping your aches and pains? Imagine sinking into a large bath of natural mineral water, soaking and enjoying the 110-degree water. Can't afford to go to spas in Europe or even California? Drive a short 80 miles north of Las Cruces to "take the cure" in hot springs used by generations of several cultures.
The hot springs in what is now Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, occur along the Rio Grande rift. The fault allows molten lava or solid but still-hot igneous rocks at shallow depths to interact with groundwater, heating it to between 98 and 114 degrees and pushing it to the surface. The hot water circulates through a very small set of fractures in the underlying rock.
Artifacts found around the hot springs here date back more than 800 years, revealing that members of the Mimbres cultures came to these springs long ago. During the 1700s, the principal road from Mexico to Santa Fe, the Camino Real, passed near the springs. Legends say that they were unnoticed until an Indian introduced the Spanish to the springs. The chief showed them a large, flat movable rock placed over the main spring and told them of the great powers of the water under it. He told them if they bound wounds with the "white mud" or applied it to other conditions, it would cure them.
The Spanish established a mission in the area and named it Palomas Ojo Caliente or "Hot Springs of the Dove." The mission sheltered crews of the wagons taking ore from the mines to the west in Santa Rita. At times, the Rio Grande was so flooded the teams could not cross. The men enjoyed this time soaking in the soothing mineral waters.
This area was home to the Warm Spring Apache. They and other Native Americans believed the waters and mud to be endowed with strong curative powers. The Apaches did not allow weapons near the springs because they were a sacred place of natural healing. The area west of the river was considered a neutral site where all Indian tribes could bring their sick or wounded to soak in the water and apply the warm mud as salve for wounds.
Geronimo and his warriors were among those Indians from all over the area who traveled many miles to bathe their wounds in the springs. Stories tell of wounded warriors carried to the springs who, after two or three baths, got up and walked away.
Fort McRae was established nearby in 1864, and soldiers learned of the medicinal value of the hot springs from the Indians. Then in the 1880s, the stage and railroad lines brought white settlers in larger numbers to the area, opening up the trade flow from Santa Fe. The John Cross Cattle Company built the first actual bathhouse in 1882 for the comfort of its cowboys.
After Fort McRae was abandoned in 1884, the Sierra County Commissioners built a shelter over the spring named for Geronimo. Though the water still bubbled up in mostly sandy-bottomed pools, some were lined with rocks. As more people moved to the area, two cement pools were built.
In the early days of the town, springs gurgled out of the south hillsides with a blanket of white mud. The women, too, enjoyed the mud, believed to heal skin problems and beautify complexions. It was believed if a woman used the white mud as a face pack, she became beautiful in no time, the reason for so many lovely Spanish women along the Rio Grande.
The town of Palomas Hot Springs, so named because of the vast number of doves, or "palomas," in the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande, began in 1911. The town served as the supply center for the construction site of Elephant Butte Dam, completed in 1916. Otto Goetz, a local businessman who would later serve as mayor, helped obtain money in 1913 for operating a state bathhouse. In 1914, the town dropped the word "Palomas" and became just "Hot Springs."
With the building of the dam, roads and bridges came to the area. The town established a reputation of being a good vacation area. As automobile traffic increased in the 1930s, businessmen developed spas around the local springs. New apartments and hotels allowed residents and visitors to enjoy the soothing mineral baths. In 1935, Hot Springs was one of New Mexico's largest resort communities. In 1937, Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children opened in Hot Springs and offered hot mineral baths among its treatments for victims of polio and other disabling diseases.
The town changed its name once again in 1950. At that time, a radio show called "Truth or Consequences" hosted by Ralph Edwards offered to establish an annual celebration and nationwide broadcast in any city willing to change its name to Truth or Consequences. Hot Springs residents liked the idea of free advertising and voted to change the name. The town became Truth or Consequences on March 31, 1950. Edwards broadcast his 10th anniversary show live from the newly renamed town. A spring fiesta grew out of this event and still honors Ralph Edwards, who continues to visit each year.
Today, six bathhouses operate in the town of Truth or Consequences, a resort town for the unassuming traveler. Most of the bathhouses were built in the 1920s and 1930s. Three of the bath houses have natural flowing pools, where the mineral water pushes its way up to the top of the pools and naturally overflows out the pools and into a culvert that goes into the Rio Grande. Others have the water piped into the tubs. The proprietors of many of the bathhouses boast that people come from all over the world to enjoy the health benefits of these springs.
A study done in 1974 stated that the amount of thermal water discharged from the area is eight times that discharged by Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone Park, and the amount of heat brought to the surface is about two and one half times as great. About 2.5 million gallons of hot water pour from the ground along the banks of the Rio Grande daily, making these hot springs among the largest in the world. In 1909, a state engineer declared an area of 38 square miles to be the "Hot Springs Underwater Basin." In this vicinity the same amount of heat is produced as burning forty tons of coal daily.
The chemical characteristics of the water have not changed since the Department of Agriculture first tested it in 1939. It is rich in sodium, potassium, calcium chloride, a small amount of radium, and several other minerals. These thermal springs have been lauded for relieving stress and tension and curing or improving symptoms of arthritis, rheumatism, stiff joints, aches and pains, skin disease and poor circulation.
In Truth or Consequences itself, tourists can visit the Geronimo Springs Museum, operated by the Sierra County Historical Society. It has photos and artifacts on prehistoric and modern Indians, old military forts, mining, early day ranching and much more. The original springs that Geronimo visited were located at this site. So, add another reason to visit T or C, as locals call it, besides Elephant Butte Lake: the therapeutic waters of the mineral springs that have comforted natives and travelers alike for hundreds of years.