The Boilers: Saving an ecosystem that exists nowhere else on earth

A unique ecosytem has formed in the Boilers that can't be found any other place on the planet, Washington, Utah, June 11, 2014 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News

WASHINGTON CITY – Many growing up in Utah’s Dixie have heard parents and grandparents talk about “the Boilers,” a Washington City pond that was once a local hotspot for cooling down. Transplants to the area may not be aware of this once-popular local gathering place and the fact that various nonnative species enjoy a unique ecosystem there. But one nonprofit group is working tirelessly to protect and preserve the Boilers in a way that will also potentially enrich the local economy.

“What we want to do is showcase what a unique ecosystem this is for the desert,” Nicole Warner, director of the Boiling Springs Ecoseum & Desert Preserve, said.

Many species of tropical fish have flourished in the Boilers, Washington, Utah, date not specified | Image courtesy of Boiling Springs Ecoseum & Desert Preserve, St. George News

Warner and her brother Braden Hancock are the driving forces behind the Ecoseum, which is what they have dubbed the vision that, they hope, will someday take the shape of a large conservatory on the Boilers property with botanical gardens, a restaurant, a greenhouse and, most importantly, preservation and protection for the historic Boilers and the unusual world of fish, plants and other life that has developed there, thrived there and can only be found there.

“There are certainly species that are unique to the Boilers in Southern Utah,” Warner said. “Nowhere else (in the area) are you going to find tropical fish living all year round.”

Between 13-16 species of fish have been identified in the Boilers – some that are recognizable and others that Hancock said seem to be hybrid species that have evolved there over the years. Among water life residing in the Boilers there are pacu, cichlid, crawdads, tropical turtles, a type of non-flesh-eating piranha, and Warner said they once saw an unknown foot-long, spiny, brown fish in the water.

“As early as the 1940s, people started throwing their fish into the pond, their aquarium fish,” Warner said.

And because of the unique conditions at the Boilers, those fish not only survived but have thrived and reproduced and built a huge community in the small pond.

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Video courtesy of Boiling Springs Ecoseum & Desert Preserve

The constant source of warm water feeding into the isolated environment of the Boilers has given sanctuary to species that could not have thrived anywhere else in Southern Utah.

“Life is interesting in the sense that wherever you have some life it will attract other life,” said David Jones, a biology professor at Dixie State University and an Ecoseum board member. “They’re going to eventually find their way to this wonderful little pocket in the middle of this wretched desert.”

“You put a bubble on top of that and you’ve got a great experiment,” he added.

Jones is taking part in the educational component of the Ecoseum’s development, and he said he looks forward to bringing students to the Boilers to study the unusual ecosystem that has evolved. Other DSU faculty members and students have already done surveys there, he said.

From a scientist’s point of view, you have a quasi-tropical ecosystem,” Jones said.

“As a biologist, it’s fascinating because it’s so different, because it’s so unique,” he added. “And you’ve created this strange ecosystem right in the middle of another ecosystem that is markedly different from anything around it.”

Background on the Boilers

The name “the Boilers” is derived from the pond’s water source; it is fed artesian-style by three natural warm springs that make the sand at the bottom appear to “boil” as the water bubbles up through it.

Once utilized by Native Americans, the Boilers became a popular swimming hole and vital water source for pioneers that settled Washington City, continuing as such throughout the ensuing decades.

As late as the 1990s, local residents continued using the Boilers recreationally, trekking to the site to swim and play in the water. The recreational use, however, didn’t end there, and the Boilers became infamous as a site for late-night parties and drug activity. Along with cans and other garbage discarded at the Boilers, syringes and needles began littering the property, and in 1999 Washington City declared the Boilers a biohazard and fenced off the area to the public.

But two years ago, Warner’s nonprofit group began its grassroots campaign to restore and preserve the Boilers and nearby Millcreek Canyon as historical landmarks and important natural assets to the area. The group is now working through a development agreement with Washington City and has been actively fundraising and reaching out to the public in an effort to make the Ecoseum a reality.

A tropical turtle is dimly seen through waters that have become murky from runoff and pollution at the Boilers, Washington, Utah, date not specified | Image courtesy of Boiling Springs Ecoseum & Desert Preserve, St. George News

Jones said many who have grown up in Southern Utah have emotional ties to the Boilers, having swum there as kids and grown up listening to stories about the site. Not being from Southern Utah himself, he said he has a different perspective on what makes the Boilers valuable – not only historically and ecologically but also monetarily for the local economy.

“This is going to be an attraction,” he said. “People will come from all over the world, and they will stop by and they will see this. They will spend money in Washington.”

Because the Boilers is located very visibly next to Interstate 15, Jones said the Ecoseum will be an instant draw for travelers passing through the area. He said in other places, like Columbus, Ohio, he’s seen what a difference it makes, and what a boost to tourism and the local economy it is, when a city takes a run down area and transforms it into a conservatory or some other kind of attraction.

“It affected all subsequent development in the city, and the city sort of gained a new identity as a consequence,” Jones said. “My hope is that we can do the same for Washington and Southern Utah generally.”

Saving species

There is an urgency behind the Ecoseum team’s desire to protect the Boilers as soon as possible.

In addition to human dumping and littering that has occurred for decades – polluting the Boilers and the surrounding area – nearby construction has also become a catalyst for pollution, both through construction debris that has found its way to the site and loosened sediment from grading. Heavy flash flooding occurred last July that washed huge quantities of sediment and clay into the Boilers, Warner said, making the water so murky that species living in the Boilers could no longer be seen. Only within the last couple of weeks, a year later, has the water begun to clear up somewhat, and she said they’re finally starting to see some of the fish and water life emerge again. A fire also recently occurred on the property, she said, which damaged much of the plant life, further adding to the problem of sediment and debris washing into the pond whenever it rains.

The vision and hope of the Ecoseum is to create an infrastructure that will protect the historically rich place that is the Boilers, showcase the unique species living there, and create a landmark that will attract tourism to Southern Utah and put Washington City on the map.

“There’s so much that this could become the launching pad for, because our region does have so much to offer,” Warner said. “We’ve got this really rich history here and a totally unique opportunity, I think, to showcase that.”


  • For additional information about the Boiling Springs Ecoseum & Desert Preserve, ways to donate and opportunities to help, visit the Ecoseum website or call 435-705-1818

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  • Party Hearty July 6, 2014 at 7:39 am

    I heard this was the place mormon kids would go to drink and do drugs long before those “outsiders” came to the area.

  • Dixie Gal July 6, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Great story, Cami! I received a newsletter with my Washington City utility statement yesterday and it mentioned the Boilers, but I had no idea what it was, but thanks to your story, now I do! You wrote such an interesting story and I hope the fundraising projects for this site are a huge success!

  • Judy Williams July 6, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Sounds like what they really intend to do is restore it & create an exclusive spa where they can charge a lot of money.

  • marylou July 6, 2014 at 9:03 am

    I used to live in St. George and after being in Nv.( Henderson)for5 years I still miss it and visit often. Several friends and i have unanimously decided the whole state should have been declared a national park long ago.

  • Trash July 6, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Similar trash and garbage is left at Sand Hollow, Gunlock and Quail Lake by trashy people. At Sand Hollow is a spot called jumping rock. At the base of these rocks and in the rocks themselves is a bunch of litter left behind by kids who migrate there with their friends. They throw their plastic bottles, beer cans and soda cans and their other trash in the water. They are too lazy to clean up.

  • LOL'd July 6, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    looks like a mud hole and mosquito breeding paradise. Best to fill it in and be rid of it.

  • john olsen July 6, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    back in the 1970s those fish where there, I caught all kinds, guppies, swordtails, mollies, goldfish, bass ,pacoustimus,,tiger barbs,and numerous others.

  • Pioneerstock July 6, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    When we moved here 20 years ago, we entered the area from the north via I-15. One of the most memorable scenes from that summer day was the sight of kids swinging from a tree and dropping into the water and swimming in this “pond” as I thought it was then. It was a heart-warming sight, that we were coming to an area where kids still acted like kids and could enjoy activities such as this. I was saddened when it was closed down due to the problems mentioned. It would be a shame to fill it up and let it die. I just hope it does NOT become a fancy shmancy tourist spot that’s too pricey for the locals to enjoy also. Where the line between restoration and exploitation.

  • LOL'd July 6, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    back in 1941 we would let our oxen get in there to cool off

  • LOL'd July 6, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    but those fish were there since 1879

  • Jim July 6, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    We used to swim there a lot when I was a kid. We would walk the 5 miles there and back. It was AWESOME.

    Last time I tried swimming there was in the early 80’s. There was already glass in the sand. One of our group got a serious cut on the foot. It was sad. I haven’t been back.

    If there were a visitors center type place there, I would visit once or twice. But only to show the place to my kids and grandkids and tell them stories about what life was like in prehistoric times. It was a great place, back in the day, but it’ll never be the same.

  • jen stone July 7, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I wish everyone could leave with all the garbage they came in with ..

  • jen stone July 7, 2014 at 10:43 am

    I love places like that from my child hood and it makes me angry people trash it

  • Rock bound July 8, 2014 at 5:08 am

    This is a monumental land grab. The city should develop the property and allow access for free. This group wants to take the land for free, ask the government to help start the project, ask the public to donate additional funds to complete the project and then collect revenue ti line their pockets. The public is better served if Washington turns it into a public park.

    • NHW July 9, 2014 at 11:38 pm

      I represent this group, and I wonder where you get your information about our approach and intentions. This is not a private business to line greedy pockets after grabbing land away from Washington’s citizens, it is a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to preserve, restore, and protect the beauty and legacy of The Boilers and Millcreek for generations to come, creating job growth, economic development, and educational opportunities for our community. These historic places are were central to the development of our city, and they should never be for sale. This project would ensure that they will be held in public trust forever and that the city would continue to OWN them for the citizens benefit and use.

      Cities all over the country partner in this way with non-profits to manage and ensure that large scale parks, zoos, museums, and educational facilities are self perpetuating. This is because non-profits are far more nimble than government entities and far more altruistic than private enterprises, (also required to be far more accountable to the IRS in order to maintain their nonprofit status.) When these relationships are established they offer the best possible outcomes for the citizens they serve.

      To date myself and others have, without exaggeration, have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars from our own pockets and in-kind donations of professional services in an effort to bring this project forth.

      I invite you and anyone else to check out our mission, call and ask us questions, and at least understand what it is we are really trying to accomplish.

  • DIXIE MEN July 8, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    I bet a lot of babies were made there

  • John July 8, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    This might be a historic swimming hole for the old folks around here but just because a bunch of abandoned tropical pets were dumped here and survived, can we really call it a “unique ecosystem?”

  • Urah McQueer July 8, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Party Hearty is correct the locals did party here. Then the move ins came. Girls are raped here, people are killed here. Sure wish only the locals still lived here then we would have a party.

  • Brugh January 5, 2019 at 8:58 pm

    My question… why are most power substations located next/close to these springs?

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