Ena McGuire remembers the morning after the main building at Castle Hot Springs burned to the ground. The fire took place in December 1976, only days before the resort was to open for the season. Ena McGuire delivered the mail up and down the road the hotel was located on.

"I just could hardly bear to go out there," she says. "I had to go there the next day with the mail. When I went over that hill, I thought, 'I don't know if I want to see this or not.'"
Starting in 1936, Ena had worked at Castle Hot Springs, first as a postmistress and then in the gift shop, and later as a waitress. She and her husband were the caretakers during the summer, when the resort's isolation allowed them to skinny dip in the famous pools, and to walk around, literally, as naked as Adam and Eve.

"It was just like living in an Eden of some kind," Ena says.
Opened in 1896, Castle Hot Springs was the first resort in the state of Arizona and one of the most beloved. Located 50 or so miles northwest of Phoenix in the flood plain of Castle Creek, the resort's cluster of turn-of-the-century buildings and hundreds of swaying palm trees look like a mirage in the desert to the unprepared traveler.

The hotel has been unoccupied for more than a decade, and its interiors have been left to bugs and bats and cluttered with junk. But Castle Hot Springs, neglected all these years, has suddenly become an attractive investment, largely because of its proximity to Lake Pleasant, a scant dozen miles away. The completion of the new Waddell Dam has enlarged what had been a small body of water to a 10,000-acre lake with a 125-mile shoreline. A new boat ramp, new roads, an improved marina and a second marina in the works--there are even plans for a lakeside hotel--have meant a jump in the number of visitors to the regional park. The Maricopa County Recreation Services Department expected a million people at Lake Pleasant this year, but that seems to have been a conservative estimate. And the number can only increase. Already, traffic on the road running past Castle Hot Springs has increased, compromising the isolation that was always the key to its charm. More and more people have been stumbling upon the old hotel that, from the outside, at least, looks as if it could open tomorrow. Its grass is green, its bougainvillea pink, its buildings a cheerful yellow.

The old hotel came into existence because of a quirk of nature: From the hillside above it, 120-degree water gushes out of the ground at the exuberant rate of 400,000 gallons a day. The Apaches living in the area had long known about the springs, which they considered medicinal and possibly sacred. Once the Apaches had been encouraged to leave, white settlers took to the waters with the same enthusiasm. In the late 19th century, people had not yet been convinced that tuberculosis came from a bacillus, rather than damp nights or being a poet. For a number of years, "lungers" had been flocking hopefully to the Southwest for the nice fresh air and sunshine. The sick pitched tents around the Castle Creek springs, then someone was inspired to open a boarding house, and soon after, a couple of men with a nose for business trends started a hotel.

The resort at Castle Hot Springs was a stroke of brilliance, a harbinger of things to come and a critical factor in the development of tourism in Arizona. It proved that, properly packaged, you could sell nothing more complicated than scenery. And it demonstrated how little you needed to attract the very rich. When the social season slowed down back in New York or Philadelphia, society folks would spend a month or two at the springs playing tennis, riding horses and smelling the orange blossoms. Before it closed after the 1976 fire, Castle Hot Springs had the distinction of being open and successful for more than three-quarters of a century.

During those winter months, when the guests from the east arrived for their extended vacations, Ena McGuire worked in the dining room at Castle Hot Springs. She served fresh fish flown in from Washington, and fresh vegetables from the resort's garden. "We used to be awestruck because of all the fine clothes," she remembers. "They came to the cocktail parties dressed to the nines."

Ena cherishes the memory of the resort, and is grateful for the social graces and the taste for good food that rubbing shoulders with such guests instilled in a girl from Morristown. She especially remembers the Bell family, whose head was the vice president of General Mills, and how nice they were to her.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anna Dooling