Wilbur Hot Springs emerges from 2014 fire transformed – and not

Malia Elsner of Santa Rosa relaxes in one of three flumes at Wilbur Hot Springs early this month. The resort is 83 miles northwest of Sacramento.
Malia Elsner of Santa Rosa relaxes in one of three flumes at Wilbur Hot Springs early this month. The resort is 83 miles northwest of Sacramento.

Flames engulfed his building, his passion, essentially his life’s work. Smoke and chaos reigned. Firefighters worked to douse the blaze, which already had taken the second and third floors and threatened to spread. Distraught guests, their Saturday brunch interrupted, milled and fretted outside, fortunate to be safe, certainly, but saddened to see their possessions and peace of mind lost. And, wait, were two guests missing? They couldn’t still be inside, could they? No, he soon learned, they were just out hiking in the nature preserve. A relief, a blessing.

Only then, on the bright, brisk morning of March 29, 2014, the occasion of his 75th birthday, did Richard L. Miller, owner of the popular Wilbur Hot Springs resort, decide to gather guests and staff, including his wife, Jolee, and daughter, Sarana, in a circle. They held hands. They looked to Miller for guidance.

“I remember,” Jolee said, “that Richard had the presence of mind and heart to say, ‘It’s just a building. No life was lost, and it’s still my birthday, so you know, let’s just sing and be grateful.’ It was a poignant moment, very bittersweet.”

So that’s what the group did. They serenaded Miller with “Happy Birthday,” while the historic 1910 hotel he bought in 1972 and lovingly restored over the decades crackled and smoldered.

“Next time,” Miller said at song’s end, “not so many candles.”

The fire, which burned well into the evening and was believed to have been caused by a heater failure in a guest room, gutted the main building but mercifully spared the bubbling hot-spring pools and the 1,570 oak-studded, hilly acres where people have long flocked for rest, rejuvenation and refuge. That same day, Miller and family took stock. Losses were big, and they were uninsured. They figured out how much money they’d need to rebuild, and how much money they had in the bank. The figures, frankly, didn’t pencil out. Little matter – they started rebuilding, almost immediately.

“There was never any doubt in my mind,” Miller recalled. “I mortgaged my life.”

Six weeks later, with no fewer than 180,000 pounds of debris hauled away, the wrought-iron gate to this Colusa County resort re-opened, and guests once more could soak in the soothing springs, a natural mineral bouillabaisse of sulphate, chloride, sodium and mood-stabilizing lithium. But it wasn’t until March 29, 2015 – the symmetry entirely intentional – that construction was completed on the restored hotel and grounds and life, Wilbur-style, returned to normal.

There are noticeable changes, initially a shock to some longtime Wilburites who pretty much considered the place darn near perfect in its previous incarnation. The hotel is now one story, its library and reception area reconfigured. Replacing the rooms are stand-alone cabins a stone’s throw away. Four private massage rooms, overlooking the creek next to the fluminarium (water flumes 20 feet long and 4 feet wide of increasing temperature, 98, 105 and 110 degrees), have been added. The kitchen, dining room and refrigeration area has greatly expanded to better suit the resort’s popular Guest Chef’s Weekends and give more room to guests who bring their own food to prepare.

One initially balking at the change turned out to be Miller himself. He is 6-foot-5, without his fedora, but comes off as avuncular rather than imposing. He was able to be swayed by those in favor of the reconfiguration, instead of identical restoration, of Wilbur.

“It was the right thing to do,” Miller said. “It took me a while, but I like it.”

Miller’s wariness may have stemmed from the scores of letters and emails he said he received, more than 1,000, urging him to re-open, and quickly. People even sent in money, unbidden. Would they cotton to the change?

General manager Andrea Speedie said the response, and the booking numbers, point toward an emphatic “yes.” Wilbur’s uptick also can be attributed to the closure of Harbin Hot Springs 48 miles southwest in Middletown, destroyed in September’s Valley wildfire.

“Wilbur’s a very unique place,” said Speedie, who has held the managerial job only for four months. “I’ve found the guests to be fiercely loyal.”

Fervent following

And vociferous in sharing their Wilbur stories. Weddings have taken place there, including Miller and Jolee’s in 2013. Margo Miller and Jerry Eliaser, of Sebastopol, had a kosher, pre-marital mikva (purification bath) at Wilbur. Several couples contacted say they return each year on their anniversary.

The Rev. Ken Barnes, 76, a retired pastor at a church in Kensington, remembers visiting his grandfather, a cattle driver living near Cache Creek, and discovering the springs and ramshackle outbuildings in the 1940s. Later, he met Miller and started coming as a guest.

“My brother and I would swim, explore the mine entrances, catch turtles in the creek which flows past the hotel,” he said. “We would go in what we called the Haunted House which is now the restored hotel.”

Joe Weatherby, of San Francisco, dates his Wilbur experience to Miller’s early days, when rooms were lit by oil lamps. The compound is now entirely solar-powered, and its kitchen and facilities thoroughly modern, but Weatherby returns to Wilbur for its homey vibe and the tranquility he finds in the water. It fits him, temperamentally.

“As soon as I unpack and move (his) car, that first shower and dip into their miraculous water pulls the stress of driving from my neck and back instantly,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place for me to escape the city for a few days. It’s only when my car hits the freeway on the way home does the stress resume its place in my neck.”

Sacramento couple Gary Schiff and Danyelle Petersen, who have stressful jobs as an estate liquidator and Realtor, respectively, have visited four times a year for 15 years. It’s their time to decompress.

“We have met people from all over the world while soaking in the waters,” she said. “The nice thing is if you are looking for a quiet experience, it happens. If you are looking to meet people and talk, it happens.”

For Renie and Jay Schober, of Santa Cruz, it’s all about experiencing the blood-pressure calming Wilbur “vibe.” Well, that and the water. The couple often will hop on the complimentary mountain bikes and explore the property, which includes a geyser and a Wishing Tree, where people leave notes.

“It’s an awesome way to see the area,” Renie said. “We bring water and snacks, spend a few hours exploring the old mining ruins that surround Wilbur and maybe find a new hot spring. You never know. We always have fun.”

Medicinal waters

It was the water at Wilbur that first drew Miller as well.

Wilbur has a long history as a hot-springs retreat, dating to when the Wintun Nation used it as a healing ground. Legend has it that, in 1863, Gen. John Bidwell had a man fall ill while mining for gold nearby, and the stricken worker was cured by soaking in the waters. Throughout the mid- to late 1800s, the area thrived as a resort, the first owner being Ezekial Wilbur in 1864. But by the turn of the century, Wilbur had seen better days and, by the time Miller entered the scene, the resort was run-down.

A doctor of clinical psychology, Miller in the mid-1960s left a teaching post at the University of Michigan to relocate to San Francisco and open a practice based on gestalt therapy. Along the way, he experienced hot springs on a trip to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and became an avid student of balneotherapy, the use of mineral baths for medicinal purposes. He searched for a hot springs of his own, venturing north from San Francisco, and found that Wilbur and Harbin were both for sale.

He chose Wilbur.

“Because of the water,” he said. “In all the world, there’s no waters like these. It may be the most medicinal water on the planet. The other places around are great, but they’re basically just hot water.”

According to U.S. Geological Survey reports, Wilbur’s water contains three ounces per gallon of 17 dissolved minerals, many said to contain properties beneficial to health. There are 390 parts per million of sulphate, which has been used as an antibiotic; 9,810 ppm of sodium chloride, used by some to treat arthritis; and, of course, the 8 ppm of lithium, the powerful psychiatric compound long used to treat patients with bipolar disorder or depression. Wilbur’s lithium levels may be low, but potent enough, Miller says, to serve as a mood stabilizer, entering the system transdermally (i.e., by soaking in the water).

A 2009 review in the International Journal of Clinical Practice of studies gauging the therapeutic effects of balneotherpy found that “balneotherapy may be truly associated with improvement in several rheumatological diseases. However, existing research is not sufficiently strong to draw firm conclusions.”

Miller, however, tells those skeptical of the healing power of hot springs to look at his results, which he has presented at meetings of the American Psychological Association, among other groups. He offers compelling anecdotal evidence of Wilbur’s healing properties.

In fact, during the height of recreational cocaine use in the early 1980s, Miller started a program called Cokenders Alcohol and Drug Program, treating addicted patients at Wilbur via talk therapy and the lithium-infused water. Miller said that, in 10 years, he successfully treated 1,500 patients addicted to cocaine, heroin and alcohol without a single one having to be hospitalized or placed into traditional drug rehabilitation facilities. (He still treats addicts, but at his private practice in Fort Bragg, not exclusively at Wilbur.)

Back then, it was an interesting time at the hot springs, especially that one week a month he’d close the resort to regular visitors in order to treat addicts from all walks of life.

“Doctors and lawyers, CIA, Navy SEALs, plumbers, electricians, garbage delivery guys, dealers – everybody,” he said, voice rising. “I’m not exaggerating, OK? The dealers in those days, they’d show up in a $20,000 Rolex watch. You know those guys. None of our rooms had locks. Somebody could’ve come in and stole a Rolex. We never had one theft in 10 years from these addicts. I attribute that to the place.

“I had a guy show up here – no exaggeration – he showed up from Texas in a stretch limo. He had a trunk full of drugs. … Some of them were (initially) resistant, but within three days, four days, they were all different people. It’s the water – and a lot of love. I come from a place of love in my treatment. This isn’t phony love. This is the real McCoy.”

He paused, finally, to take a breath, then spoke softer: “My life is about health. And Wilbur is an expression of my work. This is a health center. For me, Wilbur is a pioneering HMO. It’s where people come for prevention and cure. So to not (rebuild) Wilbur would be like cutting off my arm. I couldn’t not do it.”

Wilbur, actually, isn’t finished building. The way Miller sees it, the hot springs is both unchanging and ever-evolving. Speedie was hired to explore the prospect of holding more special events and concerts at the nature preserve, far from the fluminarium and the solitude and silence cherished at that part of the property.

Miller knows better, though, than to mess with what makes Wilbur special to so many people, himself included. He met Jolee, after all, in the dining room here and immediately fell for her.

The date: March 29, 2011, the occasion of his 72nd birthday.

He was asked if he wonders what might happen this coming March 29. He grinned.

“Good question,” he said.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Wilbur Hot Springs

3375 Wilbur Springs Road, Wilbur Springs, CA

Directions: Take Interstate 5 north to the Highway 20 exit in Williams. Head west on Highway 20 for 19 miles. Just past the Highway 16 junction, turn right onto Bear Valley Road and travel 3.9 miles. Take a left on Wilbur Road and travel 1 mile to the main building.

Note: The flume area is clothing-optional.

Contact:; 530-473-2306