Longmire's Soda Springs in Mount Rainier National Park
Beaver dams, lahars, people, and, of course, thermal geological shenanigans all play an ongoing role in shaping Longmire Meadow’s history. The springs bubble and flow into a meadow on the southwestern flank of Mount Rainier, near its base. The mountain builds part of the Cascade Mountain Range, which extends from northern California north through British Columbia, fairly close to the ocean (within 100 miles). It seems to reach far to the south within California, but this southern mountain range consists of the Sierras. That could be a different post altogether. Mount Rainier stands in north – central portion of the Washington part of the Cascade Range. Though the early part of its human history is local and involves east-west movement, the latter portion concerns montane travels rather than local ones.
I’m sure that Native Americans knew about the springs, though I don’t know enough about that particular spot’s prehistory to discuss it. I can tell you that sites have been found that have been thousands of years old on the mountain. In addition, the Naches Trail, which roughly follows the current Naches Pass, was historically traversed by Indians to reach Puget Sound from the east side of the Cascades.
Historically, mountain guide James Longmire’s horses, so the story goes, stumbled upon the springs when they wandered from his base camp. Longmire soon filed a mineral claim in or around 1883 under the Federal Placer Act. By 1885, he constructed a hotel at the springs and a rough road leading to it. He hired Native Americans to build a dirt road leading to the springs from Ashford, a town farther down the mountain to the west. They completed the road in 1896. Daily stages operated the route by 1909, though cars traveled to the park by 1907 (Christie and Reed 2008:57).
An advertisement for the Longmire Medical Springs in an 1890 Tacoma newspaper, Every Sunday, boasted that the spring water could cure numerous complaints. However, an early Park Service report claimed that the springs originated from numerous sources, and little pollution prevention occurred. There was no proven health benefit (Christie and Reed 2008:57). In fact, a trail sign at Soda Springs, depicted above, warns that the water may cause sickness (Mount Rainier National Park unknown date).
The springs contain a variety of substances, including toxic ones, and experience oscillating temperatures, but characteristics alter chronologically as well. A 1934 Park Service report indicated that water temperatures reached 85ºF (29ºC). In 1995, reports indicated that some were 82ºF (28ºC). A 2008 Mount Rainier geology manuscript indicates that the springs reach maximum sustained temperatures of 77ºF (25ºC). Other reports in 1964, 1979, and 1985, which also found temperature variation, suggested that they might be caused by flooding by beaver dams and travertine deposits (Christie and Reed 2008:57; Frank and Pringle 2008:39): the vicious travertine cycle.
The vicious travertine cycle is actually really cool: travertine, which appears in the warmer parts of the springs, results from one of the spring’s numerous compounds. Compounds throughout the meadow include iron, carbon dioxide (in the colder parts of the springs), sulphur, and carbonates. Some of these compounds even precipitate pyrite: ooo…shiny. By the way, at Soda Springs, which contains 99.6 to 99.8 percent carbon dioxide, numerous dead birds accumulate (Frank and Pringle 2008:39).
Longmire Spring’s source influences its characteristics. The springs bubble to the surface from thin sediments underlying Tertiary rocks (65.5 to 1.8 million years ago) within the Nisqually River Valley. However, these bubbles share components with higher altitude thermal springs, like Winthop and Paradise. Winthrop and Paradise, located closer to the volcano’s steam-heated hydrothermal system, contains hotter water. This water travels underground and downslope to Longmire. Shallow, cold ground water dilutes it during the journey. Also during its sojourn, the water enriches with calcium and chloride and loses sulfate (Frank and Pringle 2008:39-40). The Longmires shared the springs’ chemical compounds with visitors until they left in 1919.
Mount Rainier National Park eventually evicted the Longmires due to concerns over prices and conditions of facilities. The family sold Longmire Springs to the Park in 1919, which became the Park’s headquarters (Christie and Reed 2008:57).
Since that time, other geological facets appeared: lahars and floods. A youthful forest and boulder levees on Longmire Meadows south side indicate that a lahar inundated the area sometime before A.D. 1860, but it did not cover the entire terrace. Excavation at the old Longmire gas station revealed a stump root 15 feet below the ground surface. Tree ring studies of that stump suggest that a lahar buried the gas station area after A.D. 1686. Of course, geological hazards continue. A large flood in late-2006 impacted the area, particularly close to the Nisqually River (Christie and Reed 2008:57; Pringle and Norman 2008: 61-62). These hazards add to the beauty of the area. As of last week when I visited, everything looked exquisite.
If you would like to visit or learn other information about Longmire, here is the link the Mount Rainier National Park page regarding the area: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/longmire.htm.
Also, if you visit and want an easy reference guide to what you are looking at, here is a field trip guide that the USGS made for teachers: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Outreach/Publications/GIP19/journey_back_in_time.pdf.
Mt. Rainier Posts
Christie, Rebecca A. and Katherine M. Reed
2008 Longmire Springs. In Roadside Geology of Mount Rainier by Patrick T. Pringle, edited by Katherine M. Reed, Jaretta M. Roloff, Karen D. Meyers, and J. Eric Schuster, p. 57. Washington Department of Natural Resources, Olympia, Washington.
Frank, David and Patrick T. Pringle
2008 Stewing in its Own Juices – Mount Rainier’s Hydrothermal System. In Roadside Geology of Mount Rainier by Patrick T. Pringle, edited by Katherine M. Reed, Jaretta M. Roloff, Karen D. Meyers, and J. Eric Schuster, pp. 39-41. Washington Department of Natural Resources, Olympia, Washington.
Mount Rainier National Park
unknown date Tonic for all Ailments? Interpretive Trail Sign along Trail of the Shadows in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.
Frank, David and Patrick T. Pringle
2008 Part II: Road Guide to the Geology of the Mount Rainier Area. In Roadside Geology of Mount Rainier by Patrick T. Pringle, edited by Katherine M. Reed, Jaretta M. Roloff, Karen D. Meyers, and J. Eric Schuster, pp. 53-167. Washington Department of Natural Resources, Olympia, Washington.
Longmire’s Soda Springs in Mount Rainier National Park by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.