A steamy fog rises from the scalding waters of Hot Lake.
From the roof of the century-old hotel overlooking the water, a red and blue neon sign – not unlike the one at the fictional Bates Motel – casts an eerie glow into the night sky.
The hotel stands alone, no other buildings visible save for the ruins of a collapsed old farmhouse next door.
A little creepy? Sure.
Anything this old, with a sheen of decay, could be read as slightly spooky.
But owner Michael Rysavy doesn’t buy the ghost stories. He looks past the peeling paint and sulfur smell and sees serenity at the Lodge at Hot Lake Springs.
“This is a place to come and rejuvenate,” he said. “It’s a place of healing.”
Michael and his wife Tamarah Rysavy are the newest owners of the historic lodge and soaking pools at Hot Lake, a sulfurous hot springs located about eight miles southeast of La Grande. After first purchasing the neighboring Grande Hot Springs RV Resort in 2013, the couple bought the Lodge at Hot Lake Springs in 2020 from Lee and David Manuel.
The Manuels had taken over the dilapidated property in 2003 and began restoring it, adding a history museum, movie theater, restaurant, gift shop and bronze foundry to revive the resort. David Manuel is a prominent bronze artist, who was commissioned to create the “Promised Land” pioneer family statue that once stood at Portland’s Chapman Square.
A replica of it, until the sale of the lodge, also stood at Hot Lake.
But the new owners are taking the hotel in a different direction, focusing on a simpler design aesthetic and the core appeal of the property: the water.
That’s something they know all about, because the Rysavys are hot springs people.
The couple met in 2001 at Bagby Hot Springs and soon discovered a shared love of Oregon’s warm waters. They publish annual hot springs guidebooks, traveling across the Pacific Northwest in search of the best soaking spots.
“I had this crazy addiction to hot springs, and my wife did, too,” Michael Rysavy said. “So immediately we were all over the state in a Subaru camping at all these secluded hot springs. It’s a very unique experience to be that deep in the forest and immersed in nature, literally.”
Michael was president of the Friends of Bagby Hot Springs, which in the 2000s worked to restore the nearly century-old wooden cabins at the hot springs on behalf of the Forest Service. In 2012, the Forest Service opted to contract with a private company to manage Bagby.
“The Forest Service said, ‘Good job Mike, if it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t be able to put this out for bid for a company to take over,’ so it was a little bit of a backhanded compliment,” Rysavy said. “We’d spent so much time volunteering and putting so much effort into that place, we decided if we’re going to spend that much time on a hot spring, it should be one that we own.”
The following year, they purchased the RV park on the west side of Hot Lake, where they’ve since added two yurts and upgraded the soaking pools. Michael Rysavy’s background is in real estate and construction, so purchasing the aging resort on the lake’s east side wasn’t so far-fetched a proposal.
If not ghosts, the lodge is certainly filled with echoes of the past.
The first hotel was constructed near Hot Lake in 1864, but things really got booming when the railroad, and its depot, came through in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, Hot Lake had a post office, restaurant, gymnasium and dance hall, along with cottages, a three-story hotel and bath houses.
The mineral waters pumped from the lake and piped through the resort were touted as a cure for anything from rheumatism to asthma to stomach issues. An advertisement in The Oregonian from 1912 claimed Hot Lake could treat “the really sick and semi-invalid; the tired and over-worried business man and the society woman.”
In its heyday, the resort was alternatively referred to as Hot Lake Sanatorium or Sanitarium, an old-fashioned facility for treatment of long-term illnesses. There isn’t really a modern equivalent, and the word can conjure images of tuberculosis wards. (In reality, tuberculosis patients were specifically barred from the resort.)
The line between spa regimen and hospital treatments was a lot fuzzier back then. Which is why when a brick addition to the hotel was completed in 1907, it included a white-tiled surgery room and hospital wards on the third floor.
But in 1934, a massive fire struck the resort, destroying the older wood portions of the building along with the gymnasium and bathhouse. The 1907 brick addition is what remains today.
Hot Lake never reclaimed its glory days, though it continued to operate as a center for therapeutic relief. Richard R. Roth, whose parents purchased the Hot Lake hotel in 1942 and ran it as a combination hotel and nursing home until 1972, has written four books on Hot Lake history.
After the Roths sold the site, several attempts were made to operate a hotel, restaurant or dance hall in the space, but all failed.
By the 1990s, the place was abandoned, the windows all broken out, and various land parcels had ended up with different owners.
In those lingering decades, the old hotel started to get a reputation for being haunted.
In his books, Roth tackled some of the myths — his research found that Hot Lake was never an asylum for mental patients. Nor was a piano owned by Robert E. Lee’s wife’s ever in the hotel, debunking stories about it supposedly playing on its own.
Has anyone died in the lake? It’s hard to say. In his abbreviated history of Hot Lake, for sale at the lodge, Roth doesn’t tackle that question. A gruesome article in the Nov. 18, 1911 edition of The Oregonian described the fall and subsequent scalding of a workman into the 190-degree lake, for whom death seemed certain, but there was no follow-up article about his fate.
A search of the newspaper archives also found a news brief from 1905, about a La Grande baseball player walking home from a treatment at Hot Lake who was struck and killed by a passing train, but there are no rumors of a ghost baseball player haunting the place.
The Rysavys, however, are not looking to cater to the ghost hunting crowd. The water is the star attraction, and some of the first upgrades they undertook at the lodge were to the five soaking hot tubs overlooking the lake.
The pools are for overnight guests only, and open 24 hours a day, but plans call for eventually adding more soaking pools and allowing day use passes.
A lighted pathway from the hotel to the soaking pools is also on the list, but for now guests are told to “take a left at the cat.” That would be Rocky VI, a six-toed cat that seems perpetually seated on the stoop of the hotel side entrance, meowing at any passersby.
Rysavy also plans to reopen the small movie theater with equipment upgrades later this year. Right now, there is no restaurant on site, but a pub is planned to open by the end of the year with views of the lake.
Because the couple travels extensively for their hot springs guidebooks, the Rysavys know what they’re looking for in hotel comfort and have picked out everything from the new mattresses to the complimentary shampoos.
They’ve replaced the furniture with chic mid-century style sofas and end tables, but kept some of the historic touches, including the aging penny tiled foyer in the old lobby. Guests still use actual keys, not plastic cards, to access their rooms.
The entire third floor is closed for remodeling, with no immediate time frame for when the work might be completed, but 15 rooms are available for rent in the 65,000-square-foot hotel. That leaves visitors free to wander the grounds without seeing hardly another soul.
“It’s a great time come visit because we don’t have hundreds of people, we’ve got 30, 35 people on site,” Rysavy said. “It’s a destination that allows social distancing and outdoor recreation. It’s really a hidden jewel.”
Someone with an active imagination might take the chance to wander the empty halls of an old sanitarium and conjure up scenes from “The Shining.” But while showing its age, the lodge has a warm and welcoming aura. The beds are comfortable, the view of the Blue Mountains from the soaking tubs spectacular, the staff friendly.
If the place is haunted, the ghosts must be quite content.
IF YOU GO:
The Lodge at Hot Lake Springs is located at 66172 Highway 203 in La Grande. For reservations, visit hotlakelodge.com.
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