A five-week drilling effort reached a spring of geothermally heated groundwater at Hot Wells. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

There is a hot well at Hot Wells once again.

The site in Southeast San Antonio where sulfur springs were first discovered in 1892, giving rise to a glamorous hotel and bathhouse, came full circle when a five-week drilling effort reached a spring of geothermally heated groundwater.

Water could be seen bubbling up beneath a drilling rig on Thursday, caked mud all around and the foul odor of sulfur hanging in the air. It was a welcome sight for the developer and visitors to the area.

“I think Hot Wells without flowing thermal water is like an art book without pictures,” said James Lifshutz, a local developer who owns the property and ordered the well dug. “That’s what it had been for 100 years so we’re bringing it back.”

In 2015, the county acquired four acres of the former resort for Hot Wells Park, which opened to the public in April. Visitors can view the bathhouse ruins, learn its history, and access the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. But the original hot springs that fed the bathhouse pools during the resort’s heyday were capped as a condition of the county’s acquisition of the property.

Lifshutz now has big plans for the remaining Hot Wells property, six acres to the north and eight acres to the south, and the springs figure into those plans. “These healing waters are what Hot Wells is about,” he said. “I cannot even conceive of the project without it.”

The first step in bringing his vision to life for a new Hot Wells, he said, was to see the park opened. Drilling for a well came next. He declined to share the cost of the drilling, but confirmed he’s been working on it with agencies such as the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the San Antonio River Authority, and the San Antonio Water System.

Now that the well is dug, Lifshutz intends to spend the rest of this year on designs and permits for a development that will include a traditional San Antonio ice house along with soaking pools fed by the spring’s therapeutic waters. There will be a “hospitality” component as well, which could be cabins or a hotel for overnight guests.

Water flows from the opening in the ground. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“The ice house will be accessible from the hike and bike trail as well as the park and it will be designed to take advantage of the natural setting and the river and the availability of the thermal waters,” he said. “So the idea is that somebody coming to the park or off the river will want to relax and have a cold beer and soak their feet in the healing waters.”

That concept will be developed in the north section of Hot Wells where the new well has been dug, and near a wooded refuge where local artist and caretaker Justin Parr has operated a studio since 2012 and will remain.

Lifshutz said he hopes to break ground on the project in the first quarter of 2020 and see it completed later in the year. For now, he has no definite plans for the south side of the property. That area is said to be the site of deserted tourist cottages mostly consumed by vegetation.

Lifshutz said he had been stopping by the drilling site every morning during the last few weeks to check on progress, and got the phone call this week that the drill had reached the depth of the springs, 1,800 feet below the surface.

John Scheel, who lives nearby, said he has been watching the drilling progress. “I have been kayaking down there for a year and I was happy to stumble upon it,” Scheel said, adding that a geologist on site told him the water coming from the well was 99 degrees and flowing well.

By Friday, a valve had been installed to stop the flow of water – and the rotten-egg smell – until the development work begins.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.