As Oregon Trail emigrants approached the south canyon rim of the Snake River in the Hagerman area of southern Idaho, they saw a nearly vertical bluff of lava rock on the other side of the river and a dazzling array of springs gushing forth from the rocks. Thousand Springs was the obvious name. Eventually, power companies figured out how to use the water for hydroelectric power. Others figured out how it could grow fish--and still others figured out where the water came from.
In 1928 Jack and Selma Tingey moved to Idaho from Utah with an idea to raise trout commercially. They went to the Thousand Springs reach of the Snake River canyon. The canyon walls are hundreds of feet high in places, and from the north canyon wall poured--well, a thousand--springs of pure water. They were mysterious because the land beyond the rim of the canyon was desert for fifty miles. Its paltry annual rainfall couldn't possibly supply those springs. Also mysterious was the fact that the water remained a constant 58 degrees F. all year round.
By chance, this temperature was ideal for the rearing of fish. The Tingey's thought that "white tablecloth" restaurants elsewhere in the country would buy good Idaho trout. They were right, and the business, the Snake River Trout Company, prospered. The Tingeys captured the spring water and directed it into long rectangular pens, incubated the fish, and set about growing both the trout and the business.
The drive for efficiency led to inventions and innovations--an automated eviscerating machine, for example. Later came dry pelletized feeds, hydraulic live fish pumps, demand feeders, and other gadgetry. Employees of the company began their own operations, and Thousand Springs became the trout-growing center of the United States. Techniques developed here were later used in South Africa, Chile, Peru, Japan, Canada, Ireland, and other places.
The source of the springs is no longer a mystery. Beneath that dry desert beyond the canyon rim lie layers of basalt lava thousands of feet thick. Old volcano vents spread layers of magma over the desert for millions of years, with layers of sediment sandwiched in between. The rock fractured as it cooled, so it is porous and permeable, allowing water to flow laterally through it. Part of the water comes from irrigation runoff from the fields in eastern Idaho. And some of the water comes from rivers originating in the mountains of central Idaho. The rivers reach the desert and then promptly disappear. It's no mystery why they were named "Lost River" and "Little Lost River."
The rivers continue flowing underground through the fractured basalt. Fifty miles south, where the Snake River simply eroded a canyon down through the basalt, the water reappears, no longer "lost." Today, the springs help produce hydroelectric power. Idaho's trout industry supplies about 77 percent of the trout eaten in the United States--but not the white tablecloths.