WHEN “COLORADO’S SEA BEACH” SERVED NAVY VETS

By Caitlin Switzer

GLENWOOD SPRINGS–As today’s wounded warriors turn to Colorado for recreation and healing opportunities, many will undoubtedly head for Glenwood Springs to soak in the healing hot mineral waters amidst crowds of locals and vacationers.

After all, the public has been coming to Glenwood–a favorite annual retreat of the Ute Indians before they were removed from the area–to rejuvenate since Swedish settler and rheumatism sufferer Jonas Lindgren filled a hollowed -out log with hot mineral water in 1881. Word got out, and others began paying Lindgren 10 cents for the privilege of hauling their own water and using his tub to soak.

On July 4, 1888, Glenwood Hot Springs officially opened to the public, and has remained so to this day–except for three short years when wounded warriors had the place all to themselves.

The springs were officially closed to the public from 1943-1946,  just four years after wealthy Wyoming oilman and Hot Spring owner Frank Kistler had launched an ambitious plan to rejuvenate the once popular resort, which had suffered greatly during the Depression years, into a Rocky Mountain “beach” complete with imported sand and cabanas. Kistler, who acquired the Glenwood Hot Springs, Hotel Colorado and neighboring vapor caves for $165,000 in 1938, had billed his creation as “Colorado’s Sea Beach in the Mountains.”

However, by 1943 the United States Navy had other plans for the “Sea Beach.”

At the height of World War II, the Navy commissioned the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, Hotel Colorado and Vapor Caves for its own use, opening a U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital there on July 5, 1943.

According to Glenwood Hot Springs: 125 Years (Glenwood Hot Springs, 2013), “almost immediately injured serviceman began arriving by the trainload for therapy and rehabilitation in the hot spring facility. The stone bathhouse was converted to a clinic and laboratory, and two Quonset huts were built for hydrotherapy treatments.”

The location, apparently, was ideal. Naval writer Thomas L. Snyder’s “Of Ships and Surgeons” blog notes that the Navy’s medical department was in the habit of leasing resort hotels, and operating them for the “benefit of sailors and Marines recovering from the physical and psychic wounds of war.” The blog includes a description of the location from a 1944 “know Your Hospital” newsletter prepared by Lt. William X. Heelan:  “No military operations are conducted within a radius of well over 700 miles all line distance. It is off the route of all the flying lanes and the locality is well protected on all sides by the high and rugged Rocky Mountains of the Eastern Slope. Persons subjected to the shock of combat may here find relaxation and recuperation in the absence of nerve-racking elements.”

The hotel and hot springs also appeared to be ideal for the purpose of healing.

“It is a six-story edifice constructed of native matched red sandstone and pressed brick, with a slate roof, and contains 250 guest rooms,” Heelan wrote. “[It] has several unique features which are extremely valuable for its function as a rehabilitation center. It has three natural hot water springs which have served as a spa to health seekers for over fifty years… The world’s largest warm mineral water swimming pool is in conjunction with the hospital. … The water is supplied by Yampah, the largest of the hot mineral water springs, flowing 3,600 gallons per minute at a temperature of 127 degrees Fahrenheit.”

At least one of the wounded warriors ended up calling Glenwood Springs home. Writer, blogger and “professional tourist” Carri Wilbanks of  CatchCarri.com recalls the story of the late Tony Zelenka, who was stationed there in 1945. So appealing were the town and springs that Tony and Dory moved back to Glenwood with their family in 1967. Of the eight children that the couple raised in Glenwood, six still live there, Wilbanks notes.

“My husband was shot in the chest and the arm. He was even awarded two purple hearts. He came here every day to soak up until the day he retired,” Zelenka’s wife Dory told Wilcox. “He was so here so much I figured I may as well get a job here.” Wilcox notes that Dory did just that, working for the sport shop at the Hot Springs pool for 22 years

According to Glenwood Hot Springs: 125 years, the water not only served as a place to soak, but as a source of healing “cocktails” packed with natural boron, calcium, chloride, sodium, sulphate, lithium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, silica, zinc, fluoride, phosphate and nitrogen.

The book also notes that The Navy turned all three properties back over to Frank Kistler in 1946, and that a small hospital and clinic continued to operate out of the stone bathhouse until the early 1950s.

 Many thanks to Glenwood Hot Springs: 125 years authors Vicky Nash and Karin Gamba of Resort Trends, Inc. for assistance in researching this article.