San Juan Hot Springs in the 1890s (Courtesy the Orange County Archives).

San Juan Hot Springs in the 1890s (Courtesy the Orange County Archives).

San Juan Hot Springs

  San Juan Hot Springs has been known for centuries. Indians came here to enjoy the therapeutic values of the hot sulfur springs. The Mission San Juan Capistrano laid claim to the area, and in the 1840s they became a part of Juan Forster’s Rancho Mission Viejo.

  Various figures have given been giving for the temperature of the water that rises up in numerous places here. Early day Santa Ana newspaperman Dan Baker described it simply as, “as hot as Sheol.”

  As early as 1870, vacationers and invalids were camping at the hot springs. In 1878 a correspondent for the Anaheim Gazette provided this description:

  “The hot springs are situated about half way up a very respectable hill, and are grouped together in close proximity to each other, eight or ten in number. Some of the springs are warmer than others; in the warmest you cannot bear your hand. Having no thermometer I could not ascertain the exact temperature, nor did I learn what analysis, if any, had been made. However, the water is strongly impregnated with sulphur, and is said to cure acute rheumatism and cutaneuous diseases generally. It is also beneficial to old topers who have dissipated for years, boiling them out, and giving them a new lease on life, with greater facilities for consuming their favorite beverages. The length of time required to effect a cure must depend upon the disease and the number of baths taken, as well as the diet used. Ordinarily, thirty days, with proper treatment, will effect a cure. Few indeed, if any, receive permanent benefit from the use of these waters for any period of time less than one month, and then they must bathe twice a day. Patients should commence bathing with the water at low temperature, gradually increasing the temperature from day to day, until they get it as warm as they can well bear it. After each bath the patient should roll up in a double blanket and remain in for twenty or thirty minutes, and while in the blanket should drink from a quart to a gallon of the warm water, rub dry, dress, and if able, take a brisk walk of a few miles. The best time for bathing is early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

  “The camps and bath houses are constructed by visitors out of brush and tent cloths, and are of various dimensions and of motley hues. There were about one hundred campers here when I arrived, only two parties from Anaheim, the majority being from Santa Ana and vicinity. One gentleman was from San Jose, two with their families from Los Angeles, and one from the Flowery Kingdom [i.e. China]. As there is no store nearer than Capistrano and absolutely no accommodations at the Springs, visitors should bring everything that campers need, not forgetting necessary medicines, for in case of violent sickness, or a snake bite, the patient would probably die before medical attendance could be procured. Mr. Mendelson at San Juan sends an express out to the Springs twice a week to fill orders for campers and to bring their mail. This is quite an accommodation to visitors, and Mr. Mendelson deserves credit for the enterprise which he displays.”

  It was not until after the death of Juan Forster in 1882 that any permanent improvements were made at the springs. Michael Kraszewski, a longtime Capistrano merchant. leased the springs, and over the next few years built bathhouses, a small hotel, a restaurant, a store, and a dancing pavilion. “Mac” (as his many friends called him) charged guests $5-6 a week, meals included. He ran the springs until 1901.

  Other tourists stayed at Arbor Vale, on the George Morris homestead, north of the springs (now the site of the Lazy W Methodist camp). There were rental cottages, and Mrs. Morris did the cooking. The place even briefly had its own post office (1895-96), though postal officials turned down the four-word San Juan Hot Springs name, so it was known as Talega (Spanish for sack or a bag, but in this case used to describe the narrow canyon, open at just one end).

  By 1889, daily stagecoaches connected the springs with the Santa Fe railroad. The first auto road up the canyon opened in 1913, bringing even more tourists to the area. It eventually became part of the Ortega Highway, which opened in 1934.

  An number of lessees ran the hot springs in the early years of the 20th century, and at times they were advertised as San Juan Capistrano Hot Springs, or simply Capistrano Hot Springs, but most folks stuck with the older name.

  Leon Eyraud took over the resort in 1916, and made many improvements, erecting more guest cottages and a new general store. Ferris Kelly of San Juan Capistrano took over the springs in 1933, and seemed to be doing well, even in depths of the Depression.

  So it was with “surprise and shock” in October 1936 that local papers announced that Kelly was closing the resort. He claimed he could not come to terms with Santa Margarita Company (the owners of the Rancho Mission Viejo) on new lease. Reportedly, the County Health Department had ordered a number of improvements to the resort, and the dispute may have been over who was going to pay for them.

  There were about 75 buildings at the hot springs when it closed, including 58 cabins, the store, pavilion, dining room, and bathhouses. Kelly announced plans to move 27 of the buildings to the Mission Flats tract, above San Juan Capistrano, to be converted into homes. The other buildings were all offered for sale and removal. A few of the old buildings still stand in San Juan Capistrano.

  No one was happy to see the resort go, and there were calls to either create a state park at the springs, or add the area to the Cleveland National Forest. Bills to purchase the springs were introduced in Congress several times over the coming year, and in 1940, Congress even approved the purchase, but President Roosevelt vetoed the measure.

  In 1941, Eugene Starr bought 10,152 acres of the Rancho Mission Viejo (including the hot springs), running cattle for decades. In 1974, the County of Orange bought 5,500 acres of the Starr Ranch for $4.4 million and created Starr-Viejo Regional Park. South County Supervisor Ronald W. Caspers – a major proponent of the purchase – was lost at sea a few weeks later, and the park was renamed Caspers Wilderness Park in his honor.

  Bathers continued to sneak in to the hot springs during Starr’s ownership – sometimes with disastrous results. The County initially did nothing to stop them, but after barely a year announced that the springs were now closed, due to “nude bathing and other conduct deemed offensive.” In the '80s and '90s, concessionaires leased the area from the county and tried to make a go of it, but the springs were shut down again in 1993. There have been several proposals to reopen them since, but nothing has really come of it.