Bell Island, Behm Canal

Bell Island, Behm Canal

by | Aug 30, 2021

Bell Island is the site of a historic hot spring on Behm Canal, in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska, about 49 miles (79 km) southeast of Wrangell and 40 miles (64 km) north-northeast of Ketchikan, Alaska. In August of 1793, Captain George Vancouver transited and named Behm Canal for Magnus von Behm, who was the governor of Kamchatka in 1779. The waterway is about 108 miles (174 km) long and separates Revillagigedo Island from the mainland. Vancouver later anchored in Port Stewart on the western shore of Behm Canal and sent Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey with a launch and a small cutter out to chart and further explore where his bigger ships, HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham, were too difficult to maneuver. Whidbey discovered the island that Vancouver later named “Bell’s Island” after one of his crew, Midshipman Edward Bell. The Tlingit people have inhabited this area for centuries and knew about the hot springs located on the southwestern tip of the island at the head of a small bight, and recognized the medicinal qualities of the springs and the mineral water. Ketchikan residents reportedly began visiting the hot springs, probably on the advice of local Natives, in the early 1890s, and by 1899, there was a small bathhouse and a tub. In 1902, the Ketchikan chapter of the Improved Order of Red Men decided to build a facility for its members at the hot springs with a new bathhouse, an outdoor cement pool, and a boardwalk 1200 feet (366 m) long and 3 feet (0.9 m) wide from tidewater to the hot springs.  The hot springs at Bell Island were soon recommended by local physicians for therapeutic purposes. In the 19th century, hot bath therapy for lead poisoning was common and was also recommended for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

In 1917, an inventory of mineral springs in Alaska was published based largely on reports from U.S. Geological Survey geologists and engineers who had been investigating mineral resources in the territory since the Alaska Purchase in 1867. They made incidental notes and visited 20 hot springs and observed several cool carbonated, sulfur, and iron springs. In southeastern Alaska hot springs are fairly common, and most of them appear to be associated with masses of granitic rocks, probably from the Mesozoic, that intruded into older sediments that occur throughout the region. These granitic masses cover large areas and the springs apparently issue along minor fault or fracture zones in the rock. A hot spring is produced by the emergence of geothermally heated groundwater to the surface. This takes place in two ways. In areas of high volcanic activity, magma (molten rock) may be present at shallow depths in the Earth’s crust. Groundwater is heated by these shallow magma bodies and rises to the surface through fissures to emerge at a hot spring. However, even in areas that do not experience volcanic activity, the temperature of rocks within the earth increases with depth. The rate of temperature increase with depth is known as the geothermal gradient. If water percolates deeply enough into the crust, it will be heated as it comes into contact with hot rock. This generally takes place along fault zones where shattered rock beds create easy pathways for water to circulate to greater depths. At Bell Island, the principal springs issue at the north edge of a small creek, about 1200 feet (366 m) from and 15 feet (5 m) above the high tide limit in a narrow cove into which the creek flows. The water rises from a narrow fissure about 45 feet (14 m) long in biotite granite cut by small veins of pegmatite. The water temperatures range from 125-175 degrees Fahrenheit (50-80 degrees Celsius). The water is high in mineral content, principally sodium chloride, although sulfate is also present. The total flow rate from the spring is 8 (36 l) or 10 gallons (46 l) per minute. Evidence of slickenside in the rock near the springs indicates that some faulting has occurred in the vicinity, and this may have created the well-marked fissure that creates the spring.

The first person to try a commercial venture at the hot springs was George Roe, a resident of Wrangell who had serious medical problems. In 1902, physicians told Roe that his unspecified ailments were incurable, so a local carpenter took Roe, who was unable to walk at the time, to the hot springs with a month’s worth of provisions. Several weeks later, another boat came out with more supplies and the crew was surprised to find Roe still alive. In 1902, the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve was established by Theodore Roosevelt in a presidential proclamation. In 1904, Roe filed a homestead claim for more than 100 acres (40.5 ha) that included the hot springs and continued to improve the resort, erecting a second bathhouse, several cabins, and a new boardwalk. In 1907, another presidential proclamation made by Roosevelt created the Tongass National Forest. In 1909, the property had a two-story residence, eleven cabins, a store building with three rooms, three bathhouses, and a boardwalk 4 feet (1.2 m) wide and 1,600 feet (488 m) long. When Roe died in 1914, he left 13 heirs who could not agree on what to do with the property. However, the homestead claim had set off a legal battle with the federal government over the use of land within the Tongass National Forest that lasted until 1918, when the courts ruled in favor of Roe’s claim to the site and Roe’s heirs were awarded the title to more than 100 acres (40 ha) of land around the hot springs. In 1923, Anna Herrington and H.J. Raymond from Juneau purchased the property, but Raymond apparently wanted the property to facilitate his illegal liquor trade during the prohibition. Another entrepreneur named A.C. Mercer had filed for a small homestead along the resort boardwalk and built a cabin that included a card room and a bar. Mercer was arrested three times before quitting the venture. In 1924, Herrington bought out her partner and own the entire property for the next 24 years. The cottages were remodeled and the baths renovated. A lot of effort went into improving the resort, but one of the biggest challenges was maintaining the boardwalk from the docks to the hot springs that rotted quickly in the wet climate. The Bell Island post office operated from 1932 to 1954. During World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard maintained a patrol boat and crew at the resort and also operated a radio station. After the war, more concerted efforts were made by the owners to publicize and market the benefits of the hot springs resort. In 1948, Herrington sold the resort to Walter Blanton and Jack Gucker. By 1960, local businessman Herb Schaub had purchased the resort and would own the property until 1973. Alaska Airlines leased the property and managed it from 1967 to 1970. After 1973, various owners operated the property. In 1980, the Seattle Times listed Bell Island as one of Alaska’s top 10 attractions with a deepwater dock, renovated hot springs, private cabins, and a pool 80 feet (25 m) long fed only by mineral water. In 2015, the property was purchased by a family from Ketchikan. Read more here and here. Explore more of Bell Island and Behm Canal here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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