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Agua Caliente

Louis Killeen and friends at the Hotel Modesti outside Gila Bend.

Louis Killeen and friends at the Hotel Modesti outside Gila Bend.

In 1915, Louis Killeen outfitted two cars and left Phoenix for a two-day drive through the desert to Agua Caliente Hot Springs resort, the ruins of which still stand 30 miles west of Gila Bend, off Interstate 8.

The resort was built on the old Butterfield Overland Mail Line from Tucson to Yuma, and since there were no direct roads, Killeen had to cross washes and shovel himself out of sand on the way.

Agua Caliente’s springs may be the most historic in Arizona.  They were known to the local Indians long before the Jesuit Father Jacob Sedelmayer named them Agua Caliente del Santa Maria in 1774.  Franciscan explorer Father Francisco Garces visited them in 1775.

In 1851, the infamous Oatman massacre took place nearby, when Apaches murdered a pioneer family trekking to California and took two of their girls captive.

In 1865, famous pioneer and Indian fighter King Woolsey settled in the area and irrigated land near the springs, reportedly surviving three Apache raids that ran off 300 head of cattle.  His isolation ended when the Butterfield Line, which had closed during the Civil War, reopened its Agua Caliente station in the 1870s.  When a stableman murdered its agent, Woolsey tracked down the killer, who was hanged and whose body was left dangling for weeks as a warning to others.

The springs became a resort in 1898, when Althee Modesti opened a hotel and advertised the therapeutic value of its waters.  He was born in France in 1858 and remained there with his mother when his father emigrated to America in 1866.  In 1877, he joined his father to help run the family business in Yuma (on the corner of Maiden Lane and Third Street).  He learned both English and Spanish in a matter of months.

In 1880, he married Elisa Bustamente and achieved prominence in the ’80s and ’90s, alternating between the offices of Yuma County Supervisor and County Treasurer.

In developing his hotel at Agua Caliente, he built wooden bathhouses furnished with benches over the individual springs and advertised the water’s powers to effect the “cure of rheumatism and all blood diseases.”

In 1913, when the hotel register indicated that daily registration (including visitors as well as long-term guests) averaged 257, he charged a very reasonable $2 a day, plus another 25 cents for the keys to private baths.

A gasoline engine powered electricity for the hotel, which had also just installed a refrigeration plant.  G.S. Scott wrote an article noting enthusiastically that there “are one to a half dozen automobiles at the Springs all the time,” and predicted that, “with cars passing almost daily on the Overland Highway,” Agua Caliente would in time become one of the nation’s great attractions.

Andrew Pancrazi, a relative of Modesti’s who was known to visitors as Andy, leased the property and lived on it with his wife, who was called Mrs. Pan.  They were friendly and concerned hosts who provided simple fare.  Some of their suffering guests wished to remain anonymous; in 1902 one signed himself “John Dough from no Place.”  But others were prominent, including Gov. George W.P. Hunt, Carl Hayden, Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill.

Those staying for regular treatment usually remained from two weeks to a month, it being common experience that one often felt worse after the first week, but then improved as the treatments continued.

Treatment involved drinking large quantities of the water daily, hot or cold, and bathing at least twice a day, being careful to sweat profusely to purge the system of poisons.  A masseur’s services were available when needed.  Not everyone was helped by the treatments, but in general the springs enjoyed an excellent reputation for cures.

In 1934, Harvey Mott wrote that Agua Caliente remained a “bright green oasis, which has become a mecca of the West.”  But by 1939, the hotel had closed, probably a victim of the long Depression of the 1930s.

After World War II broke out, the U.S. Army opened a training camp on the site and used the hotel for officers’ quarters.  Increasing agricultural irrigation dried up the springs in the 1950s and the hotel was leased to an area rancher who used it to house migrant workers.

Many of the small houses that surrounded Agua Caliente in its heyday have been leveled, but a few remain of what was once a thriving community.

— Gary Weiand; photo courtesy Tom Killeen.

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