Archaeological evidence shows that the first human use of geothermal resources in North America occurred more than 10,000 years ago. Paleo-Indians used hot springs for cooking, and for refuge and respite. Hot springs were neutral zones where members of warring nations would bathe together in peace. Native Americans have a history with every major hot spring in the United States.

1807 – As European settlers moved westward across the continent, they gravitated toward these springs of warmth and vitality. In 1807, the first European to visit the Yellowstone area, John Colter, probably encountered hot springs, leading to the designation, “Colter’s Hell.” Also in 1807, settlers founded the city of Hot Springs, Ark., where, in 1830, Asa Thompson charged $1 each for the use of three spring-fed baths in a wooden tub, and the first-known commercial use of geothermal energy occurred.

1847 – William Bell Elliot stumbles upon a steaming valley just north of what now is San Francisco. Elliot calls the area “The Geysers,” and thinks he has found the gates of Hell.

1852 – The Geysers is developed into a spa called The Geysers Resort Hotel. Guests include J. Pierpont Morgan, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.

1862 – At springs located southeast of The Geysers, businessman Sam Brannan pours an estimated half million dollars into an extravagant development dubbed “Calistoga,” replete with hotel, bathhouses, skating pavilion and racetrack. Brannan’s was one of many spas reminiscent of those of Europe.

1864 – Homes and dwellings have been built near springs through the millennia to take advantage of the natural heat of these geothermal springs, but the construction of the Hot Lake Hotel near La Grande, Ore., marks the first time that the energy from hot springs is used on a large scale.

1892 – Folks in Boise, Idaho, feel the heat of the world’s first district heating system as water is piped from hot springs to town buildings. Within a few years, the system is serving 200 homes and 40 downtown businesses. Today, there are four district heating systems in Boise that provide heat to more than 5 million square feet of residential, business and governmental space. Although no one imitated this system for some 70 years, there now are 17 district heating systems in the United States and dozens more around the world.

1900 – Hot springs water is piped to homes in Klamath Falls, Ore.

1921 – John Grant drills a well at The Geysers with the intention of generating electricity. This effort is unsuccessful, but one year later, Grant meets with success across the valley at another site, and the United States’ first geothermal power plant goes into operation. Grant uses steam from the first well to build a second well, and, several wells later, the operation is producing 250 kilowatts, enough electricity to light the buildings and streets at the resort. The plant, however, is not competitive with other sources of power, and it soon falls into disuse. Also, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is created.

1927 – Pioneer Development Co. drills the first exploratory wells at Imperial Valley, Calif.

1930 – The first commercial greenhouse use of geothermal energy is undertaken in Boise, Idaho. The operation uses a 1,000-foot well drilled in 1926. In Klamath Falls, Charlie Lieb develops the first downhole heat exchanger (DHE) to heat his house.

1948 – Geothermal technology moves east when professor Carl Nielsen of Ohio State University develops the first ground-source heat pump – for use at his residence. J.D. Krocker, an engineer in Portland, Ore., pioneers the first commercial building use of a ground water heat pump.

1960 – The country’s first large-scale geothermal electricity-generating plant begins operation. Pacific Gas and Electric operates the plant, located at The Geysers.

1970 – The Geothermal Resources Council is formed to encourage development of geothermal resources worldwide. The Geothermal Steam Act is enacted, which provides the Secretary of the Interior with the authority to lease public lands and other federal lands for geothermal exploration and development in an environmentally sound manner.

1972 – The Geothermal Energy Assoc-iation is formed. The association includes U.S. companies that develop geothermal resources worldwide for electrical power generation and direct-heat uses.

1973 – The National Science Foundation becomes the lead agency for federal geothermal programs.

1974 – The U.S. government enacts the Geothermal Energy Research, Dev-elopment and Demonstration Act, in-stituting the Geothermal Loan Guaranty Program, which provides investment security to public and private sectors using developing technologies to exploit geothermal resources. 

This article is provided through the courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Program.