The Story Of Zzyzx, The Eerie Ghost Town Along A Dead-End Road In The Middle Of The California Desert

Published April 9, 2024

Zzyzx was founded by a con artist in the 1940s as a spa where he could peddle his quack remedies — and its history is even weirder than its name.

Two hours outside of Las Vegas in the middle of the Mojave Desert, just off of Interstate 15, sits a road with a rather peculiar name: Zzyzx. But perhaps even stranger than that name is the history behind the abandoned settlement the dead-end road leads to. There, you’ll find the eerie, crumbling ruins of the Zzyzx Mineral Springs, once known as “Soda Springs.”

Throughout history, the site’s natural spring water served as a stopping point for many Native Americans, Spanish explorers, miners, and railroad workers. Then, a huckster by the name of Curtis Howe Springer caught wind of the springs’ alleged healing powers and saw the potential for yet another one of his get-rich-quick schemes.

Zzyzx

Albert Moote/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesZzyzx Road sign on the way to Las Vegas.

In the 1940s, Springer founded the Zzyzx spa around the natural spring, choosing the name so that it would always appear last in any listing, and soon enough, he was peddling a number of “miracle cures” using the spring’s water.

This is the story of Curtis Howe Springer and his oddly named road.

Curtis Howe Springer, The ‘King Of Quacks’

Curtis Springer was no stranger to grifting. In fact, he told so many lies in his time that there are only a few things about his life that can actually be confirmed: He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1896, and he told a lot of lies.

Curtis Howe Springer

Wikimedia CommonsCurtis Howe Springer, a grifter and huckster known for selling false miracle medicines.

Beyond that, the truth of who Curtis Howe Springer really was is a bit muddy. For example, according to Atlas Obscura, Springer might have served during the first World War as a boxing instructor. He might have campaigned against alcohol for politician William Jennings Bryan. He might have worked at a school in Florida. He might have attended college in Chicago.

At different points, Springer claimed to have done each of these, but there’s no way of knowing if any were true.

Even the degrees he claimed to own, which ranged from MD to Ph.D. to ND, were seemingly cherry-picked to fit whatever situation he may have found himself in. In fact, some of the schools that he claimed to have earned the degrees from were made up — and one of them he quite literally named after himself: “The Springer School of Humanism.”

By the mid-1930s, Springer had settled in Chicago where, falsely claiming to be a doctor, he took to the radio and began spouting nonsense, trying to sell “miracle cures.” Needless to say, these treatments didn’t work to cure anything.

His theories were so far off base that the first radio station he applied to reported him to the American Medical Association — and in 1936, they released a paper debunking a number of Springer’s claims titled “Nostrums and Quackery and Pseudo-Medicine.” Later, in 1969, the group even referred to Springer as the “King of Quacks.”

Springer eventually left the Windy City for the Steel City, establishing an unfortunately strong and successful presence on Pittsburgh’s airwaves. He touted miracle cures that could make anyone “internally, externally, and eternally clean.” And eventually, he decided to capitalize on this success by opening a wellness retreat near a small oasis in the Mojave Desert.

The Birth Of Zzyzx, The ‘Last Word In Health’

Springer filed a mining claim on 12,800 acres in the Mojave, meaning he didn’t actually own any of the land at all but was able to mine for anything he wanted and keep the proceeds. Of course, mining wasn’t his endgame here. He had his sights set on Soda Springs.

Around the natural spring, Springer established Zzyzx (named so it would be “the last word” in health) and opened a cheap hotel to draw people in and sell them on any one of his 27 different miracle cures. True to form, Springer also falsely claimed that the natural spring at Zzyzx was a hot spring — and secretly installed heating pumps to warm the water.

Suddenly, this natural spring wasn’t entirely natural anymore.

Desert Studies Center

Public DomainCSU’s Desert Studies Center, where Zzyzx once stood.

But as a testament to Springer’s ability to scam people, Zzyzx actually became a fairly popular destination. According to the Mojave Project, Springer advertised Zzyzx on his radio show, in newspapers, and in his newsletter The Elucidator, drawing in crowds of people from all over.

Zzyzx also had several buses and an eight-door Chevrolet utility vehicle that would shuttle guests to tourist destinations in Los Angeles.

The Demise Of The Zzyzx Wellness Retreat

Springer successfully operated business at Zzyzx all the way up through the 1960s, but unfortunately for him, his hustle came to an abrupt end on April 11, 1974 when he was forcibly removed from the land by the Bureau of Land Management.

Remember, Springer didn’t actually own any of the land around Soda Springs — he just had the right to mine it. But he wasn’t doing any mining, and the court also found that the mining claims he had filed didn’t include anything about occupying or developing the land.

In essence, Springer had just been squatting there for about 30 years.

He was given just 36 hours to evacuate the land. What’s more, the case spawned a litany of investigations into Springer, all seeking to expose him as a quack. But Springer wasn’t quick to give up. Even after his eviction, he continued to fight for Zzyzx. He moved to Las Vegas and wrote frequently for the Baker Valley News, including a lengthy editorial piece titled “The Legal Rape of Zzyzx,” which appeared in the Oct. 18, 1984 edition of the paper.

It was all in vain, though. Springer never got Zzyzx back, and for years it sat unused while officials debated its future.

Zzyzx Mineral Springs Today

As Zzyzx lay dormant, the Bureau of Land Management considered a few ideas for what to do with it, including bulldozing the site and restoring Soda Springs back to its natural state.

In fact, it seemed as if they were just waiting for the go-ahead to tear the spa down — bulldozers were already on-site, prepped to demolish the complex at a moment’s notice.

Eventually, however, the agency struck a deal with California State University (CSU) and converted the Zzyzx compound into the university’s Desert Studies Center, reopening Zzyzx Road.

CSU’s Desert Studies Center is still in use today, providing a space for students and researchers to study the desert’s ecology and geology. But there are also still a few remnants of the site’s Zzyzx days, including abandoned buildings, signage, and advertisements for some of Springer’s old mineral miracle cures, offering visitors a glimpse into the site’s bizarre’s past.


While Springer’s Zyzzyx Road offers a cautionary tale, it doesn’t hold a candle to these exceptionally dangerous roads around the world. Or, if you’re looking to learn about another infamous quack doctor, read the story of Dr. Henry Cotton and his horrifying miracle cures.

author
Erin Kelly
author
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
editor
Maggie Donahue
editor
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Kelly, Erin. "The Story Of Zzyzx, The Eerie Ghost Town Along A Dead-End Road In The Middle Of The California Desert." AllThatsInteresting.com, April 9, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/zzyzx. Accessed June 22, 2024.