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Orr Springs History Mysteries

Researching a book on the Orr Hot Springs area I amass more information than I could ever possibly use in what I plan to be a small publication. While the who, what, when, where, why and how facts get arranged into chronological order it’s the odd poorly documented tidbits of information that keep distracting me.

Like Orr Springs and methane gas production. Somewhere, some time long ago in my mental inventory I heard or read the resort collected the gases bubbling up with spring water. In a 1915 photo I recently found is a 6’ high and round cement dome attached to the side of the outdoor “plunge” pool. Another comment I have buried in my research materials said the resort collected enough methane to run a mangle, a commercial ironing machine.

Who taught the owners of the springs how to capture natural gas and use it to run machinery? These were not highly educated folks, though Samuel Orr did serve as Mendocino County Treasurer from 1865-1867. They were 14 miles outside of Ukiah over Low Gap Road. Did a guest tell them about the possibilities of natural gas use? Did they create their own equipment? Did they ever use the gas for gas lighting areas of the resort? 

With methane there is perhaps a link to another history mystery. Under a current structure is a cast iron relic stamped Cyclops Iron Works San Francisco. It was in the 1938 hotel that burned down and it probably fell through the floor. Cyclops Iron Works produced commercial refrigeration equipment units that possibly had their own generators. What was this unit using to propel itself? Could it have been the collected methane gas? While old photos of the resort show the hotels, guests and amenities the nuts and bolts side of resort operation was seldom photographed.

And then there’s the 1901 Ukiah newspaper display advertisement proclaiming “Oil!-A New Enterprise In Mendocino County.” Gas was issuing from rock crevices and if you put a match to it a steady flame burned. There was oily scum on rocks and UC Berkeley Professor Le Conte said these were all high grade oil indicators. The owners of the springs were looking for $200,000 in investments at $1.00 a share to begin drilling an oil well. “This investment opportunity could not be surpassed!”

The offering must have been a total flop as nary a word was ever seen in print again about this scheme.

Then there was a proposed railroading the Orr Springs section (area). In a 1935 Ukiah newspaper the headline said “Narrow Gauge Railroad Will Run Mile And A Half In The Hills.” The tracks would run from the Whipple Mill, west of the resort area, south to then county road. It was impossible to haul lumber downhill from the mill during bad weather. The railroad would traverse the side of the canyon. To see this proposal in the midst of the Great Depression was unusual, but the mill claimed a payroll of $5,000 a month being paid out and wanted to keep everyone fully employed in winter. Again, nothing was ever seen again in print about this proposal.

Another wonderment to me was the three story hotel, and a smaller two story unit, that burnt down in 1867, probably no more than five years after the hot springs resort opened. In old photos I counted five windows on each side of the building, 10 windows per floor, times three floors for 30 double hung glass windows., The smaller hotel unit had littler rooms but all had windows, so there were close to 40 in that structure. That’s about 70 windows that all had to be hauled by wagon over bumpy Low Gap Road. The was a lot of money invested in a resort like this, and then rebuilt as fast as they could after fires. The resort would burn again in 1894, and again in 1904, and again in 1938.

One history mystery I came closer to solving was a photo of a Chinese man dressed like a cook holding a white child at the resort. Orr Hot Springs used Chinese cooks into the mid-20th century. It took delving into census records for the Orr and Weger families who managed the resort to find listings for who was in a “household.” Yes, the owner and wife and kids were listed but also everyone who boarded there. These included cooks, hostlers, carpenters, housekeepers, laborers and others. In the 1910 census Lim Chin, age 45, a cook, is listed living there. In the 1940 census Jim Sook was a cook along with a man named Dea, listed as Chinese.

Part of my writing a SHORT history of a place is focusing on the people and eliminating tidbits…so methane gas and Cyclops engines and a railroad a few miles away won’t make it into the book, but the Chinese cooks will. If any readers have personal knowledge of Orr Hot Springs before 1970, or photographs, and wish to share information contact me at ktahja@mcn.org. Expect a small book of Orr Hot Springs history next year.

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