The hot springs at Breitenbush were created by a combination of volcanism and glaciation thousands of years ago. Native Americans were the first humans to visit the springs. Although the Santiam band of the Kalapuya lived closest, numerous tribes in a radius of hundreds of miles visited the springs to hunt, fish, pick huckleberries, and use the springs for healing and ritual purification.
The first Europeans to visit the springs were Hudson Bay fur trappers out of Fort Vancouver, probably in the 1840s. In 1873 John Minto led an expedition up the North Santiam Canyon in search of a pass through the Cascades to eastern Oregon. Minto recorded in his journal: “We penetrated up the valley through about seventeen miles of narrow gorge … to where Breightenbush makes in from the north; found John Breightenbush, a one-armed hunter, and nothing else there ahead of us, and named the beautiful affluent for him.” And so the springs were named.
Judge John B. Waldo, Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, visited the springs in the 1880s and wrote in his diary:
“I have read Thoreau’s Maine Woods through at this camp
and am going over some of it a second time. He reads well
far off in this boughy and aromatic forest of the Cascade
Mountains where the foot of the lumberer he detested has
In fact, Judge Waldo was so moved by his visits to the springs and environs that he wrote to President Grover Cleveland: “There are educational uses in mountains and the wilderness which might well justify a wise people in preserving and reserving them for such uses… where, in communion with untrammeled nature and the free air, the narrowing tendencies of an artificial and petty existence might be perceived and corrected, and the spirit enlarged and strengthened.” The result of their correspondence was the creation of the Cascade Forest Reserve, from which came all of the national forests of the Oregon Cascades.
The springs were homesteaded in 1904. President Theodore Roosevelt granted the homestead patent to one Claude Mansfield, over vociferous objections from the then incipient U.S. Forest Service. In 1927, Merle Bruckman purchased Breitenbush. Bruckman’s father had made a fortune by inventing the first machine to mass produce ice cream cones, allowing Merle to purchase the land and build the lodge and other buildings, thus realizing his dream of operating a wilderness health spa. Merle operated Breitenbush for 20 years, then retired and sold the property in the mid-1950s. The property changed hands a number of times until 1972, when after two devastating floods the business was closed, strung with barbed wire and posted with armed guards. An era had come to an end.
In 1977, Alex Beamer bought the land after looking at old spas throughout the Cascades. Breitenbush was his choice to begin the building of an intentional community to operate a retreat and conference center at the hot springs. Several years were spent restoring the old resort and getting it ready to host guest again. People who wished to put their energies into this project were invited to come and join in restoring the facilities. In 1981 the Breitenbush community started hosting guests who participated in a variety of workshops, celebrations or personal retreats.
The Detroit Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest became the largest timber cutting district in the 48 states at precisely the time Alex and friends began the Breitenbush experiment. All 10 historic trails were abandoned or paved over. The sounds and sights of industrial forestry chainsaws and ever growing scars on the hillsides impacted heavily the nascent community.
Starting in 1979, the new residents of Breitenbush began questioning Forest Service plans for the area. By 1981, Dinah Ross had filed many timber sale appeals and recruited dozens to help her campaign for an end to logging and protection of the forests around the springs.
In 1984, the entire area of Devil’s Ridge was added to the Wilderness System by a vote of the U.S. House of Representatives, thanks to the tireless work of Dinah and friends. However, when the legislation reached the Senate, the area was removed from the protected list.
In 1985 the community purchased the land from Alex Beamer. Subsequently in 1989, a worker-owned cooperative corporation was formed through which the workers now own the business.
In 1986, the Reconstituted Man Timber Sale went forward in Mansfield Creek , the scars remain today in view of the Meadow Pools. Later that year, logging began on the North Roaring Devil Timber Sale, which saw cutting for the first time across the South Breitenbush River in the majestic forest at the base of Devil’s Ridge. The Community literally drew a line in the road and supported the blockade of the Cathedral Forest Action Group.
The Breitenbush Community and the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) filed suit. Before we won the precedent, setting Cumulative Effects lawsuit, the only bridge over the South Breitenbush was built, 1.2 miles of road was constructed, and 63 acres of ancient trees (some more than 700 years old) were clearcut.
Focus on the Positive
Community members and friends slowly reclaimed the trail network. Now, more than 20 miles of trail radiating out from the springs are available. It’s estimated that over 12,000 people hike the reclaimed trails each year, with the Breitenbush Gorge Trail and the Spotted Owl Trail featured in various hiking guides.
With the advent of the Clinton Forest Plan in 1993, most of the area above Cleator Bend is part of a 49,000 acre Late Successional Reserve (LSR). While the LSR doesn’t have the protection level of wilderness, no plans for future logging within it are on the table. As it had been for thousands of years, and continuing now with over 35+ years of the Breitenbush Community, our Mother Earth is the constant, tirelessly pouring forth her healing waters for all species to enjoy.