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A brief history of Ainsworth Hot Springs, now owned by Lower Kootenay Band

Lower Kootenay Band Chief Jason Louie says his people have been visiting the hot springs, known as ‘spirit waters’, for centuries...
A postcard of unknown origin

With last week's announcement that the Lower Kootenay Band is purchasing Ainsworth Hot Springs, we thought it was time for a quick rundown of the popular attraction's history:

A photo of Ainsworth Hot Springs taken in 1888 shows a natural water-filled basin, but there are no obvious signs of caves.

Research provided by Nelson Star editor Greg Nesteroff suggests that the caves may have started out as a small natural opening in ancient calcium deposits. But Nelson’s John Burns developed the springs as a commercial enterprise in the 1920s and at that time a first tunnel was enlarged. Soon after, according to reports, a local miner was hired to blast out a second tunnel and to connect it with the existing one.

The Ainsworth springs originate in the area of the Cody Caves, above and to the west. Water seeps to a depth of nearly two kilometres, increasing in temperature at a rate of 40 C per kilometre as it drops. The heated water collides with a lakeshore fault, which causes it to rise back up to Ainsworth. At the rear of the caves, the water emerges at about 47 C. The water flows steadily, completely changing the water in the caves and pools naturally six times a day. The cold plunge pool is fed by a separate stream.

Lower Kootenay Band (LKB) Chief Jason Louie says his people have been visiting the hot springs (known as nupika wu’u, or ‘spirit waters’) for centuries — “maybe 500 years” — as they roamed the Kootenay Lake area to hunt, fish and pick berries.

“We are left to assume that after spending the days clambering around the hills, a soak in the hot mineral water was enjoyed by many,” according to the Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort website. “This idyllic lifestyle would have continued until the first prospectors came into the area.”

The First Nations lifestyle wasn’t always “idyllic”, though. Louie says his band’s oral history includes tales of warriors crossing Kootenay Lake and engaging in battles with another tribe.

“Our people have always used the springs to get relief from things like arthritis and when they returned from battle our warriors believed the ‘spirit water’ had healing substances that treated their injuries,” Louie said.

The first written records about the hot springs area indicate that an Oregon prospector, George Ainsworth, applied for a preemption of the site that is now Ainsworth. It was first called Hot Springs camp and established on the strength of silver, lead and zinc discoveries in the area.

There is an earlier historical reference, though. In 1865 Edgar Dewdney was quoted, “When coming down the west side of the lake, after exploring the north end, at a point where Ainsworth camp is, we were surprised to find a white man. … He told us his name was Dick Fry. … Before leaving he showed me over the hot springs and exhibited several specimens of rich galena float.”

When John Burns completed the pool and cave development the Great Depression was underway. A succession of lessees operated the pool through the 1950s. At that time, the price of silver dropped and the mines were closed. The owner of the day, Yale Lead and Zinc. Co., sold the property, which by then included a lodge. Sam and Belle Homen bought the property in 1962. They retired in 1972, selling the resort to their daughter Joyce and her husband, Norm Mackie.

—With files by Greg Nesteroff, Nelson Star