Haunt the House: The Hot Lake Hotel

The Hot Lake Hotel may sound like the filming location for a low budget porno but trust us; this is the last place you’d want to be when you’re feeling frisky. Located on the banks of the Hot Lake in Oregon’s Union County, the hotel unsurprisingly received its fiery name from the nearby thermal spring lakes. Resting at the foot of a large bluff, the hot springs that make up Hot Lake were once popular among the local Native Americans, who believed that the thermal waters had healing properties. The lake itself was originally named Ea-Kesh-Pa by the Nez Perce people and the region was known as the “Valley of Peace,” since it was considered so integral that it was declared neutral ground and thus conflict between tribes was strictly prohibited.


Alongside its popularity among the native tribes, historians believe that Hot Lake was among the first thermal springs to have been visited by European settlers in the US. They were even documented by Washing Irving in his account of the Astor Expedition (1810-1813). Irving described it as a “great pool of water, three hundred yards in circumference, fed by a sulphur spring, about ten feet in diameter, boiling up in one corner.” While Irving’s description may not sound all that attractive, the lake was soon to become a veritable hot spot in the state of Oregon.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Oregon Trail formally brought settlers into the area and the land surrounding the lake was purchased by a sailor named Tommy Atkins, who used it as a cattle ranch. According to a piece published in The Oregonian in 1914, Tommy was supposedly cured of numerous ailments after accidentally falling into one of the thermal springs. Bear in mind that the lake has an average temperature of around 93°C (200°F), and you can understand why most historians believe this story to be a myth. That being said, taking a dip in the lake would certainly rid you of any ailments, since you’d technically be, well, dead.

bedsIn 1864, a Californian by the name of Samuel Fitzgerald Newhart arrived in the Grand Ronde Valley and constructed a wooden building by the lakeside, which bizarrely faced towards the bluff rather than the lake. Perhaps he wasn’t the biggest fan of the ominous steam and the pervasive odour of sulphur wafting from the springs! In spite of its age, this structure was similar to a modern-day shopping mall, as it contained a variety of businesses, including a post office, a barber shop, a dance hall, a bath house, and even a blacksmith. Innovative though it was, this frontier department store was virtually unknown until 1884, when a stretch of the Union Pacific Railroad was constructed near Hot Lake. It was the development of the railroad that put Hot Lake on the map and, in 1903, the old wooden structure was demolished so that construction could begin on a luxurious hotel.

In 1904, a man named Dr W.T. Phy became involved with the project and masterminded the addition of a brick structure that he intended to use as a hospital. Renowned architect John V. Bennes, known today for his work on the Oregon State University campus, was brought in to design the hotel-hospital (or should we say hotspitel) and endowed it with its Colonial-inspired appearance. By 1908, the main brick wing of the hotel had been completed and covered a colossal area of 65,000 square feet (6,030 sq. m.). This wing even contained its own Georgian-style U-shaped solarium, which faced the bluff and was intended for the hotel’s medical tourists. What made the hotel particularly pioneering for its time was its utilization of the nearby geothermal waters to heat its buildings, which made it the first known commercial property in the world to use geothermal heating.

the-hiotel-interior-photo-creditWhen the hotel finally re-opened, it comprised of a total of 105 guest rooms, a 60-bed surgical ward, a ballroom, a barber shop, a confectionary, a drug store, a news stand, reception rooms, laboratories, and a commissary. The hospital building also contained specialised soaking tubs that were supplied by the lake water, an operating room with an elevated observation deck, and a 1,500-guest dance hall. On top of that, the property produced its own vegetables, dairy products, meat, and eggs, making it almost completely self-sufficient. It thus came to be known as the “Town Under One Roof.”

Overall, the property cost a phenomenal $500,000 to build, which was an almost unimaginable sum of money to spend on anything in 1908. To put that into perspective, one night in the hotel’s guestroom would cost you around $2.50 at the time, and you could enjoy a meal within its dining hall for just 25 cents. It seems the gamble paid off, however, as the hotel was regularly grossing around $180,000 per year as of 1910. In fact, the resort was considered so integral to the region that the Central Railroad of Oregon built a dedicated 4-mile (6.4 km) section of railroad that led from Richmond directly to it in 1912. Not one to miss out on a good money-making opportunity, Dr Phy formally purchased the hotel in 1917 and renamed it the Hot Lake Sanatorium.

From then on, it became not only a resort for the rich, but also a hospital where ground-breaking experimental medical practices were carried out using geothermal waters from the springs. Dr Phy even added a modern X-ray facility to the hospital, so that patients could also be given radiation treatments. Dr Phy and his team were celebrated for their success in treating common health issues such as arthritis, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and venereal disease, which attracted the attention of the Mayo brothers and eventually earned the hospital the nickname the “Mayo Clinic of the West.” Behind the scenes, however, it was rumoured that Dr Phy was an ungodly and arrogant man, who frequently tried to seduce his female patients and refused to socialise with his employees. It seems the curative powers of the thermal waters weren’t enough to save him, as he suffered an untimely death in 1931 due to pneumonia.

The western wing in ruins

From then on, the hotel was marked for tragedy, as its western wing was engulfed by flames on May 7th 1934. The wooden structures were completely decimated, leaving behind only the 65,000-square-foot brick portion of the resort. Having been thus crippled, the hotel was never able to fully recover, and it was eventually only the hospital area on the third floor that was able to continue functioning. During World War II, the property was used as both a nurse’s training centre and a flight school. In an even darker turn, the hotel’s foyer was supposedly once used to house corpses of the infected during a winter typhoid epidemic, as the ground was simply too hard to dig their graves.

abandoned-and-haunted-photo-credit-640x457-1The property was purchased by A.J. Roth in 1951, who converted it into a nursing home and later into an insane asylum. By now, you can probably begin to understand why people believe the place might be haunted. It functioned in this capacity until 1974, when a change of ownership led to it being repurposed as a restaurant and nightclub. This vibrant transformation was short-lived, as it operated with little success for two years before closing down. Living on the second floor of the building, owner Donna Pattee, her husband, and the caretaker Richard Owens were some of the first people to speak out about the ghostly inhabitants that they witnessed wandered the grounds of the old health resort.

Undeterred by the resort’s spectral reputation, Dr Lyle Griffith purchased it during the mid-1980s and used one corner of the hotel as a bath house. By 1991, however, the facility had closed down entirely and remained abandoned for a staggering 15 years. Defaced by vandals and ravaged by the elements, the resort was but a shadow of its former glory. Those who were brave enough to set foot on the property reported seeing an apparition of a man lingering in the shadows, typically carrying a spade. He is said to be the spirit of an old gardener, who committed suicide by either hanging himself in the grand ballroom or leaping from the upper levels of the building.

Others recount seeing a small boy running across the hotel’s top floor, laughing and frolicking through the corridors. Witnesses say that he appears normal from the left side, but the entire right side of his body appears to be severely burned, leading many to believe he may have perished in the fire of 1934. Wait too long on the staircase of the second floor and you may spot the spectre of an elderly woman, who is often seen muttering to herself as she slowly climbs the stairs.

Credit: William Collins

Rocking chairs supposedly move of their own accord within the building and an old piano, which was formerly owned by the wife of Robert E. Lee, can sometimes be heard playing by itself on the third floor. All of these incidents, however, pale in comparison to the ghosts of the old asylum patients, who have been seen staring out of the upper level windows and whispering unintelligibly. As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, it is said that, on rare occasions, you can hear disembodied screaming and weeping emanating from the former operating theatre.

In fact, the hotel’s sinister reputation is so pervasive that there’s even a website, entitled Haunted Hot Lake, which is dedicated to accounts of ghostly encounters. According to one such spooky story, a group of high school girls were visiting the ruins of the hotel as part of a history project when they were overcome with the temptation to mess around. As they explored the third floor, one of the girls went down the hall methodically kicking each one of the doors open.

As they reached the door closest to the top of the stairs, the girl kicked the door open with glee, only to have it slam shut in her face. Stunned by what had just happened, the girls stood frozen in the hallway and looked in both directions to find that all of the doors were slamming shut one by one, leading right towards where they were standing. Fleeing from the scene, they didn’t stop until they reached the car park and stood staring at the building in disbelief. Convinced it was just a figment of their imagination, they decided to head back into the hotel but, before they could reach the front door, they heard what sounded like a thousand windows bursting open at once. As the old saying goes: haunt me once, shame on you; haunt me twice, and I’m getting the hell out of here.

An antique medical bed

It seemed that the Hot Lake Hotel was doomed to fade into obscurity, until it was miraculously purchased in 2003 by David Manuel. With the help of his wife Lee, David began the unenviable task of restoring the dilapidated building, which included replacing over 360 windows and rebuilding the roof. After two long years, the hotel was opened for public tours in 2005. A major setback came in 2008 when the former west wing of the building collapsed, but as of 2010 it has functioned as a successful bed and breakfast, complete with 22 restored guestrooms, a spa, an art gallery, a restaurant, and a small museum.

During her stay at the bed and breakfast in 2019, Megan Wells recounted how she was led into a small, darkened theatre, where a DVD of the property’s history and its owners played on a loop. She noted how there was no mention of the hotel’s haunted reputation, and the new owners were noticeably reluctant to discuss its dark past. In her room, she found a small diary for guests to share their experiences of the hotel, where she found an entry from one Susan Brooks who claimed she “spoke to the spirits here.” If that wasn’t creepy enough, the third floor of the building still contains several pieces of antique hospital equipment, and weathered signs on the wall advise visitors to “keep your voices low and be sweet,” a chilling remnant of its history as an insane asylum.


Modern-day Usage

In spite of its undeniable haunted heritage, the Hot Lake Hotel has only featured in two major pieces of media:

  • In 2001, the property was featured on an episode of the ABC documentary series The Scariest Places on Earth;
  • Local musician Laura Gibson used the hotel as a shooting location for the music video of her song “La Grande.”


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Haunt the House: The Hot Lake Hotel

2 thoughts on “Haunt the House: The Hot Lake Hotel

    1. I’m afraid that I’ve been very neglectful of this blog, so sorry it’s taken me so long to reply! I’ve not really had any time to update the blog as of late, but I will add Plsacha to the list. Once I get back into the blog, I’ll do a post on it!


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