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The Strange and Mysterious Town of Zzyzx

Driving along lonely Interstate 15 in San Bernadino County, in the state of California, in the United States, you may come across something strange as the desolate arid wasteland of the Mojave Desert passes by. There on the side of the highway your attention may be caught by an odd road sign reading “Zzyzx road,” the pronunciation of which might elude you just as much as its inscrutable purpose. If you were to take a detour onto this shabby, rugged little rural road you would find yourself meandering 4.5 miles through the dusty scrub to eventually be deposited in an area perched on the edge of a bone dry lakebed that is littered with the decrepit ruins of what appears to have once been some sort of prosperous spa resort, with now dilapidated buildings, weed-choked lots, and the muddy remnants of the hot springs still there. You have found yourself at Zzyzx, a strange, off-the-beaten-path town with a history just as bizarre as its name.

The town lies in an area officially called Soda Springs, a natural mineral spring which was a quarry in prehistoric times, a water stop for Native Americans and Spanish explorers, a U.S. military garrison from 1867 to 1870, a wagon stop, a railway, and the location of numerous salt mines over the years. It is already a fairly interesting history, but things get even more so with the coming of an eccentric, oddball individual by the name of Curtis Howe Springer.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1896, Springer got his start selling sheet music for an evangelical service, after which he moved to Chicago, became a minister, and took to touring around giving self-help and healing lectures where he proclaimed himself to be a medical doctor, referring to himself with such important titles as M.D., N.D., D.O., Ph.D. and throwing around the names of prestigious universities he had attended, including several that he just made up. This was not the only of his tall tales, as he also claimed to have been a boxing instructor in World War I, but it was his most profitable, as he would always ask for donations after his lectures and try to sell private courses in psychoanalysis. It was all very impressive considering that he was not a doctor at all, and had no experience whatsoever in psychoanalysis.

He began to extend his questionable activities by calling himself “the last of the old-time medicine men” and shilling various homeopathic remedies that he claimed to have designed with his expertise. These amazing remedies were claimed to prolong life, rejuvenate the body, and cure everything from baldness, constipation, and hemorrhoids, to more serious conditions like cancer, all of which became hot sellers among gullible people looking for a quick fix for their woes and none of which actually did a damn thing. Springer became a popular radio evangelical minister in 1934, which helped propel his many bogus products to the masses. He soon was outed as a fraud by the American Medical Association, who would later label him the “King of Quacks,” and he was booted from the air, but this did little to stop the charismatic Springer. He simply moved to another station and continued on untouched, with people unbelievably still buying up his products and sending him generous donations despite his being a certified con-man and several warnings put out to consumers from the American Medical Association.

If anything, Springer’s business became even more successful, and he opened a series of health spas throughout the 1930s and 40s, that were eventually closed down because he apparently did not like to pay taxes. Undeterred, Springer and his fiancée Helen moved out West in 1944, filing a mining claim on 12,800 acres of federal land in the Mojave Desert in Southern California, but mining was not their true aim. In reality, it was to open up an ambitious health resort at Soda Springs, where they envisioned people coming from far and wide to shell out good money for and array of bogus treatments. They called their resort Zzyzx, according to them the last word in the English language and “the last word in health.”

Remains of the town of Zzyzx

The construction of the the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa was taken up by a contingent of homeless men Springer managed to recruit from Skid Row in Los Angeles, and it started as a mere 20 tents set up on a patch of barren desert land measuring eight-by-three-miles. The first thing they did was set up some fake hot springs by installing massive boiler water heaters to heat cross-shaped pools of water, and after that went to work building the 60-room hotel, spa, radio studio, makeshift zoo, church, private airstrip, and even a castle that the resort would eventually boast.

When the resort was opened, Springer claimed that his hot springs provided various medical and healing benefits, and he actively hawked a range of “healing salts,” bottles of magical oasis water, life-prolonging “Antedeluvian Tea,” elixirs, pills, balms, salves, and everything in between for exorbitant prices. The whole place was of course an elaborate scam, but people showed up in droves, and Springer was so charismatic and such a good liar that everyone was none the wiser that it was all a sham. In the meantime, he continued his popular radio show, which would eventually be syndicated on 221 stations throughout the US.

For decades things were going very well for Springer, and the ruse lasted until in the 1960s, when word started to reach the Feds of how much he was scamming people and profiting off of sickness out on government land. In 1974, the U.S. government decided they had had enough of these antics, and accused Springer of squatting on federal land and false advertising. It was a case that the conman could not win, and he was not able to worm or manipulate his way out of the stiff fine, 49-day jail sentence, and eviction that the charges would invoke. Springer was kicked out of his little desert utopian society, and the land would go on to be acquired by the Bureau of Land Management and donated to a consortium of California State University campuses for use as a desert research center called the Desert Studies Center.

Springer would end up moving to Las Vegas, where he retired and lived out his remaining days until his death in 1985 at the age of 88. To this day much of the original Zzyzx resort still stands, gathering dust and slowly devolving into a feral state to the point where it is now veritably a part of the desert itself. The area is mostly used by the Desert Research Center, and interestingly enough has become a conservation area for an endangered fish called the Mojave tui chub, which Springer had stocked into his pools, where they have thrived even as they have died off practically everywhere else. Maybe those hot springs have some magical quality after all? Curiosity seekers of course come in, and these are mostly tolerated as long as they don’t interfere with the fish or any ongoing desert research being carried out. You can see it yourself if you are so inclined to go.

Although it may at first seem to be just some sand-coated ruins on a forgotten road off some desert highway, the town of Zzyzx certainly has an intriguing history to it. It is a testament to another time, lost out here in the desert wilderness, with the only inhabitants remaining the memories of its earlier years. Built on a bed of lies and quackery, it is an oddball little piece of history still lying out there in these badlands. It is the ghost of the dreams of a skilled liar and charlatan, which prospered for decades, yet now rests in rubble, yet it still manages to remain a quaint, mostly forgotten bit of strange history.