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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

When the last geyser in Pacific Northwest went still in Lakeview

Oregon’s last geothermal water-blaster, Old Perpetual, erupted for the last time sometime in the spring of 2009; a few dozen years ago, the state had two. (But now it's fixed again — see editor's note at end!)

Geyser Old Perpetual erupting in Lakeview at Hunter's Hot Springs
This 1930s-vintage hand-tinted picture postcard shows Old Perpetual
in one of the spectacular wintertime eruptions for which it became

Downloadable audio file (MP3)

Sometime in the spring of 2009, the only continuously erupting geyser in the entire Pacific Northwest fired its regular shot for the last time. (EDITOR'S NOTE: It's back! See note at the end of this article.)

Many Oregonians didn’t even know the Beaver State had a geyser. In fact, it has (had?) two — three if you really lower your standards of what a geyser is, and include Mickey Hot Springs in Harney County.

Both the other two geysers were wells that were drilled 50 to 80 years ago, with surprising results. And neither one is regularly active today.

A surprise for the well drillers

The first one was Old Perpetual, and it first erupted during drilling for Hunter's Hot Springs, a hydrotherapy resort there in Lakeview, in 1923. Every 90 seconds the thing went off, shooting scalding water 60 feet into the air. Every 90 seconds, for decades.

This was the best thing that could possibly have happened for the resort, which is still in business today. It was also big news for the town of Lakeview.

Hunter's Hot Springs geyser Old Perpetual erupting 1937
Hunter's Hot Springs in 1937. (Oregon State Archives, Department of
Transportation OHD0301)

Over the years the geyser was seen to fade a little as nearby agriculture ramped up.

It made sense: Pump more water out of the ground to spray on crops, and there’s less to blast into the air. No one worried much about it, and the geyser always came back to life in the fall just in time for the spectacular steamy-snowy wintertime eruptions.

By the end of the 20th century, the geyser had become almost entirely dormant for the dry part of the year, springing back to life every fall. Then, in the fall of 2009, it didn’t. It simply quit.

Suspicions center on new city building

Some locals suspect a new geothermal well which the City of Lakeview drilled near the hot springs has sapped its forces — the geyser quit erupting just a few years after the well was drilled, so the correlation is suspicious.

Geyser Old Perpetual erupting in summer
A very early photo of Old Perpetual, probably taken
shortly after it was drilled. (Ben Maxwell collection,
Salem Public Library)

And in fact, that sort of thing has happened before. In the mid-1990s a tomato company built a greenhouse operation on a piece of high desert near Crane in Harney County, just a stone’s throw from Crystal Crane Hot Springs, an old-fashioned soak-and-swim resort popular with the locals and with the few visitors who had discovered it. As soon as the greenhouse went in, the water temperature in the pools at Crystal Crane plummeted. There was quite a bit of resentment locally as a result — many people thought putting the greenhouses there was tantamount to an act of piracy. The greenhouse operation has since gone out of business and water temperatures at Crystal are back to normal.

In Lakeview, though, the city insists it had nothing to do with the geyser petering out, saying its well is far too deep to have affected the geyser’s water sources. Also, they’re quick to point out, geysers don’t last forever — even ones named “Old Perpetual.” That’s particularly true for geysers that spring from drilled well shafts.

Crump: Oregon's "other" dead geyser

Case in point: Oregon’s other large geyser, Crump Geyser, just a few dozen miles from Old Perpetual.

Crump Geyser got its start in 1959, when landowner Charles Crump made a deal with the Nevada Thermal Power Co., which was looking for geothermal sources for power plants. Crump suggested a spot and the company drilled deep — very deep — without results. When the well reached 1,681 feet, the drillers gave up.

This Google Map shows the location of Old Perpetual, near Lakeview.
To see a larger version of the map, click here.

A few days later, when Crump was there to look at the well and scratch his head and wonder why it was dry, the ground rumbled and a column of water nearly 200 feet high roared into the sky in front of him.

This was a big-league geyser, bigger than many of the geothermal monsters of Yellowstone National Park and Iceland — including Old Faithful. So for a short time, Oregon actually had two regular geysers, one of them world-class.

Vandals snuff out Crump Geyser

It was indeed a short time, though. In the early 1960s, some unknown person apparently decided it would be fun to drop some big rocks down the well casing and watch the water shoot them out. The rocks plugged it up, and it hasn’t erupted since. One of Crump’s other wells, drilled in 1954, did start erupting after the big one was plugged, but it was fitful and erratic and by the 1990s had petered out completely.

EDITOR'S NOTE, Aug. 21, 2016: I am writing this note on my laptop in Room 49 of Hunter's Hot Springs Resort, and I'm happy to report that early reports of Old Perpetual's demise (including mine, which you've just read) seem to have been a bit premature. A geyser is, of course, simply a hyperactive well, and well casings wear out or corrode, particularly with hot and heavily mineraled waters; so the owners of the resort had the geyser's well casing replaced. It worked like a champ, and the geyser roared back to life once again. It still stops in late summer due to the dropping water table —on this visit, I missed its last eruption of the season by about two weeks — but when the fall rains come, it will roar back to life once again. —fjdj

(Sources: “Perpetual Spouter is Born in Oregon,” Popular Mechanics, March 1960; Preusch, Matthew. “Lakeview’s iconic geyser …” OregonLive (The Oregonian), Feb. 21, 2010; www.nevadageothermal.com; Baskas, Harriet. Oregon Curiosities. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2007; Birkby, Jeff. Touring Washington and Oregon Hot Springs. Globe Pequot, 2002.)