The Evans Plunge has been an important part of the small southern Black Hills town of Hot Springs for more than a century. Its warm waters have helped soothe those with physical ailments as well as provide a place for recreational activities to visitors and local residents alike.
We visited “The Plunge” after its recent Grand Re-Opening to talk to community members about their views on the popular water spot’s new owners: the city of Hot Springs.
Steam from the warm waters that flow through the town of Hot Springs can be seen on the coldest winter days rising from Fall River. These are the same waters that feed Evans Plunge – or The Plunge, as locals refer to it. The history of The Plunge predates the arrival of white men in the Black Hills.
Native Americans regularly visited the area for generations to access what were considered healing waters. Colonel W.J. Thornby claimed the large spring over which The Plunge was later built as his own in 1876. “Ownership” of the site traded hands several times until Evans Plunge – named after Fred Evans – was built in 1890, over a series of numerous small, sparkling springs and one Mammoth spring of mineral water.
Originally advertised and visited as a cure-all for a variety of illnesses - along with other mineral baths in the town of Hot Springs, the Evans Plunge eventually became a tourist and local attraction for the unique warmth of its waters through all seasons of the year.
The Plunge also remained privately owned and operated – until residents became concerned…and then angered…about how it was being run, says Hot Springs City Administrator and Finance Officer Harley Lux.
“The Plunge closed right after Labor Day and several residents were upset,” recalls Lux. “You know, that’s where they keep their arthritis and things moving along…so, from a health basis. So, they approached the city towards the end of that year and said ‘Hey. We think the city oughtta’ buy The Plunge and go forward.”
That year was 2012. Emily Campbell is the new director of The Plunge, but she’s worked here for 8 years. Campbell says business had been on the downturn for some time when the former owners decided to start closing the town’s only water recreation source during the off-season.
“In the past…when it was privately ownership…you know, there’s a group of gentlemen and they were getting old and starting to count their dollars a little bit more closely,” explains Campbell. “And The Plunge just wasn’t really brining in a lot of income and so that’s why they had chosen to close down for a couple of days during the winter. And that really didn’t make an impact, so they had decided to just leave it as a seasonal facility and only be open in the summertime where our main money is coming in through the tourism industry.”
The owners’ decision to close The Plunge during the winter months, says Harley Lux, is what began an independence movement in Hot Springs.
“Local residents didn’t like that,” Lux noted. “So, there was a group of them that approached the city and said, “Hey, we think the city ought to buy this.’ Well, the city fathers and mothers bantered it around a bit and said, ‘No. That’s too big a community decision.’ ‘Well, you’re voted to make those decisions for us. Maybe you should do that.’ So, there was strong feelings one way and there was also... ‘Well, the city shouldn’t even be in the middle of it.’ So, the city was pretty well split.”
Long story short, says Lux, when the council took no action a group of citizens petitioned the city and started an initiated measure on the issue. That led residents to the polls where the margin for the city taking over ownership and operations of The Plunge was just 11 votes.
It’s a decisions that Emily Campbell is quite pleased with.
“I thought it was a great idea,” says Campbell. “I…I tell everybody I voted yes. I knew that the owners were ready to be done with it and pass it on to the next person. And I just thought why not let the townspeople take over something rather than a new private ownership that might shut it down and completely do something else with it.”
The City of Hot Springs officially took over operation of Evans Plunge on July 1, 2013. After 9 months, Harley Lux is proud to say the city is still in the black. The Plunge was closed down for a 2-week major overhaul during the winter and had a Grand Re-Opening about a month ago…just in time for the start of this year’s tourist season. But Emily Campbell hopes the success of The Plunge impacts more than just her favorite water spot.
“There’s a lot of other business in town, as well,’ observes Campbell. “I would like to see more people pull together and the town as a whole rather than individual businesses.”
Harley Lux agrees, adding that it would be nice to see the success of The Plunge spill over to the rest of the town…bringing more visitors to other business and, hopefully, helping to fill the 22 vacant storefronts that currently exist.
There’s also a desire in Hot Springs to work more closely with the residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation… not only to increase and prolong visitor stays to both areas, but to include a greater presence in a place considered sacred by the Lakota...the warm waters of Evans Plunge.