As I drive down the rural, desolate road that leads to the Hot Lake Springs Hotel in La Grande, Oregon, my car whips back and forth from unusually high and unobstructed winds. I am buzzing with energy, knowing that I am about to spend a night alone in a hotel that was featured in a 2001 episode of The Scariest Places on Earth.
Afraid I’d missed a turn at some point, I am amazed when the Colonial Revival hotel looms into view, seemingly out of nowhere. The grandiose gates that encompass the three-story building’s stately brick facade and giant white columns feel intimidating, as if I am entering a private residence that I haven’t exactly been invited to visit.
The building itself commands so much of my attention that I nearly overlook the nearby eight-acre Hot Lake, which is endowed by underground springs bubbling up a half-million gallons of water every day. The average temperature of the lake is a toasty 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Brisk winds carry steam off the lake and the thick scent of sulfur adds to the ominous mood as I pull luggage from my car. I suddenly notice how eerily empty the parking lot is.
The innkeeper is quite surprised I’ve made a reservation to stay on the property alone, and warns me that due to the heavy winds, she plans to lock the front gates. They will not be accepting any other guests—as it turns out, I’m one of only a handful of people who are staying the night.
Hot Lake’s haunted history
I am led into the hotel’s theater, a small, dark room located on the first floor, equipped with church pews and a pull-down screen. Visitors are invited to sit and watch an introductory DVD which plays on a constant loop and tells the history of the property and its owners, Lee and David Manuel.
Before the 1800s, Native Americans used the lake for its healing properties. They called the property the “Valley of Peace” and dubbed it neutral ground where conflict between tribes was prohibited. In 1864, the original building was erected. It housed an entire town under one roof, including a blacksmith shop, post office, dance hall, barbershop, drug store, and bathhouses.
In the early 1900s, the property was purchased by Dr. W.T. Phy and renamed the Hot Lake Sanatorium. The third floor of the building was turned into a hospital and nicknamed the “Mayo Clinic of the West.” Dr. Phy and his team were praised for their innovation in treating health issues such as arthritis, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and venereal diseases (especially syphilis).
According to David Manuel, Dr. Phy had a reputation for being an unholy and rude man. Rumor has it that Phy made his employees serve him meals through a window so he wouldn’t have to socialize with them. Phy was a known womanizer who fraternized with his patients at the hospital. The sanatorium closed soon after Phy’s death in 1931.
In 1934, more than half of the original structure was destroyed by a fire, which began a long period of decline for the property. After being utilized as a flight school and nurse’s training center during World War II, the property became a nursing home in the 1950s and was rumored to have also functioned as an asylum. New owners opened a restaurant and nightclub, but it closed after two years. Soon after, rumors began to swirl that the property was haunted.
The hotel—now plagued by ghost stories—sat abandoned, exposed to both vandals and the elements, for nearly 15 years, until the Manuels purchased the property in 2003. (After investing millions into renovations, they recently sold the hotel.)
Accounts from guests who claim they’ve had supernatural experiences at Hot Lake Springs are notably missing from the hotel’s welcome video. But former guests have reported seeing the ghosts and hearing the screams of the hospital’s former patients. Some say the hotel is haunted by an old gardener who died by suicide on the property, and others have claimed to hear a piano, located on the second floor, playing on its own.
The witching hour
Whether you believe in supernatural activity or not, I can report that staying overnight—virtually alone—at a 100,000-square-foot property in a desolate part of Oregon is creepy, to say the least. During my stay, I have complete access to almost every room in the building without fear of disturbing any (living) being, and I take full advantage of this freedom.
Each room is outfitted with a diary for guests to share their experiences at the hotel. While many guests claim to have had supernatural experiences, others aren’t entirely sold on the presence of ghostly spirits. “I spoke to the spirits here,” one Susan Brooks writes. “One tells me why he lingers the Earth and who killed him. If I could tell someone it would change history.”
The next stop on my self-guided tour is the third floor, which includes guest quarters and a museum that showcases antique hospital equipment from the building’s notorious sanatorium days. Signs on the wall leading up to the third floor warns guests to “keep your voices low and be sweet.”
I fall asleep, but at 3:22 a.m. I am startled awake because my bed is shaking. Is it the spirits of Hot Springs Lake or just a train passing by the property? Regardless, the disruption spooks me enough that I never fall back asleep.
Lee joins me for breakfast and, as a devout Christian, she says she has no interest in discussing the hotel’s supernatural reputation because it conflicts with her beliefs. In fact, the Manuels stopped responding to incoming Facebook messages altogether when the notifications became too overwhelming. The majority of people were writing to either report, or inquire about, paranormal activity on the property.
“It was impossible for us to keep up with the responses,” Lee says.
If you go
The Hot Lake Springs Hotel offers both cool and hot water, and welcomes overnight and day visitors.