Lava Hot Springs History

South Bannock County Historical Museum


Trails, Trappers, Trains and Travelers

Long before settlers discovered the natural odor-free mineral water in this quiet valley, the Bannock and Shoshone Indian tribes gathered here to bathe, rest and worship the Great Spirit for the curative Powers of these springs and set the area a side as a neutral ground to be shared in peace by all tribes.


South Bannock County Geography

Numerous north/south running mountains ranges, separated by valleys in which flow creeks, streams, and rivers compose the geography of much of the Intermountain West.  These valleys provide natural corridors of travel between the Columbia River Plateau and the Great Basin .

Through time, because of this geography and historical circumstance, the valleys of the Portneuf River and Marsh Creek have proved to be perhaps the most important corridor of travel in the Intermountain West.  These valleys, which include south Bannock County , have been accorded the title “Gateway to the Northwest.”


Trails-Native Peoples

South Bannock County was and is the site of important Indians trails, trapper trails, overland trails, stage line routes, railroads and even interstate highways.  Thus, south Bannock County history and economy has been closely tied to travel and transportation.

Northern Shoshone and Bannock tribal groups passed through this area for several hundred years, prior to any arrival of European Immigrants on the shores of this continent.  The Shoshone, a migratory people who lived and traveled in small family groups, made an annual trek from the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest .  The geography of the region funneled native travelers through this area now known as southeastern Idaho .

The abundant wildlife found along the Portneuf River , the salmon runs of the nearby Snake River, and the local hot springs influenced the routes taken by migratory tribes.  These tribal groups, the Northern Shoshone, the Bannock and other tribes, traveled mostly by foot, migrating with the changing seasons.  On their journey through the Bannock area the Indians gathered seeds and nuts and hunted game, including rabbit and sage hen.  The impact of these migrating tribal groups on the South Bannock County area was small because their numbers were not great, nor did they remain there for long.


Fur Trappers, Traders, and Mountain Men, 1811-1861

The American Pacific Fur Company, 1811-1812, the two British companies, The Northwest, 1812-1821, and the Hudson’s Bay, 1821-1861, all developed systematic networks for trapping beaver and fur bearing creatures throughout the old Oregon Country, which included what is now the state of Idaho.  South Bannock County streams and creeks were worked by a number of men from these fur companies, as well as independent mountain men and Native Americans.  In 1818, Ross Cox of the Northwest Company declared the Portneuf region “a haven for fur bearing creatures such as beaver, wolf, fox, martin, badger, and bear.”

Osborne Russell, an American trapper who worked for The Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as independently, made many trips through south Bannock County area.  He remarked, “In the year 1836 large bands of Buffaloe could be seen in almost every little valley of this ( Portneuf River ) Stream,… at this time (1841), the only traces which could be seen of them were scattered bones of those that had been killed…”


Bob Dempsey – Local Trapper, Mountain Man, and Early Settler

Bob Dempsey was born in Ireland on December 25, 1825.  At age 14 he left and came to America .  Dempsey, known as a friend to the Indians, possessed great skills with horses. He trapped in various areas of the Rockies.  Between 1851 and 1861, he and his Native American wife, Margaret (a sister to Chief Tendoy, and great niece to Sacajawea), had eight children (note photo) and made one of their permanent camps about one and one-half miles west of Lava Hot Springs, where Dempsey creek flows into the Portneuf.  Before Lava Hot Springs was incorporated in 1915, the area was known as Dempsey.  Descendants of old-timer settlers in the Lava Hot Springs region tell us that Dempsey continued to maintain his camp on Dempsey Creek to which he regularly returned for a number of years before his death (near Twin Bridges, Montana), on 12 January 1909.



Travel and trade routes, established by Native Americans, existed for hundreds of years prior to the westward movement of the mid 1800’s.  The gold rush, fur trade, and westward movement inspired increased transportation routes throughout the western region. Wagon Trails, Stagecoaches and Pony Express routes crossed through south Bannock County from north to south and east to west.  The flood of miners, equipment and supplies in the summer of 1862, brought business for Ben Holliday’s Overland Stage Company which traveled regularly along the Portneuf River.  William Murphy completed a toll road, the Oneida Wagon Road Company, in 1864.  This profitable company was based in Oneida , just east of Arimo, and was known as “the “ Portneuf Canyon Road ”.

Major economic changes occurred in the late 1870’s with the extension of the railroad through south Bannock County .  During this period settlement expanded, towns developed, transportation of goods increased and tourism began.  Railroad entrepreneurs recognized the natural corridors of travel the Marsh Creek and Portneuf River Valley ’s provided between the Rockies, Great Basin, and the Far West .  In the 1870’s and 1880’s two train routes were laid through these valleys, The Utah & Northern Railway (U & N), was designed to connect Utah with Montana through Soda Springs.  In 1878 the director changed the U & N line to run from Cache Valley through Red Rock, and down Marsh Creek and the Portneuf River , into Pocatello.

The Oregon Short Line Railway was built to connect Wyoming and Oregon .  In 1882 its route through Lava Hot Springs was completed (note photo).  At this time the Utah & Northern Railway became part of the Oregon Short Line.  The U & N abandoned its former route along the lower Marsh Creek and connected with the OSL at Harkness, later named McCammon.



The late 1800’s and early 1900’s brought settlers who traveled by horseback and wagons.  They came for agricultural and entrepreneurial opportunities provided by the rich natural resources abundant in this area.  During this time the area, now known as Lava Hot Springs, was called “Dempsey”, after the well-know trapper, Bob Dempsey.  Later the area was dubbed “ Hall City ”, after homesteader John Hall.  Mr. Hall recognized the need for a town and filed the town site plot in 1911.  Later, Mr. Hall donated property for a school, and Methodist/Episcopal Church, an LDS Church and a Catholic Church.   On July 24, 1915 the village was officially incorporated and named Lava Hot Springs. Early roads were improved and a quality railroad station, complete with taxi and freight service, was built on the railroad tracks above Lava Hot Springs.  The railroad service to Lava Hot Springs encouraged an increase in visitors who came to partake in the diverse benefits of the natural hot water.  Soon hotels, apartments, restaurants, butcher shops, mercantiles and saloons grew around the unique hot water soaking pools to further attract vacationers to Lava Hot Springs, as well as make it a great place to call home.

Submitted by: South Bannock County Historical Museum, 110 E Main St, Lava Hot Springs, ID  83246

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