Big Sky Oasis

Montana's hot springs were pockets of peace and luxury on the frontier.

HUMANITIES, January/February 2012, Volume 33, Number 1

Jeff Birkby, a geothermal energy specialist for Montana, was charged with the task of investigating water use of the state’s hot springs. But, in 1979, when he visited the springs concentrated in the southwestern part of the state, he became preoccupied with the region’s cultural phenomena. “I got interested in the old stories that the owners would tell me about miracle cures and the legends and myths and the importance of these hot springs socially,” he says.

Before white settlers traveled west, Native Americans gathered in the winter at the hot springs to absorb the healing benefits they believed came from soaking in the warm mineral water. Legend has it that the hot springs were neutral territory; members of different tribes who encountered each other at a hot spring would put down their weapons and bathe in peace. The springs were considered sacred, Birkby says. “There were stories of very infirm and elderly tribal members being carried to the waters and taking baths there.” When John Bozeman, one of Montana’s first settlers, drove his wagon train by what would later become Hunter’s Hot Springs in 1864, one of the men with him reported seeing more than a thousand teepees of the Crow Indians camped there.

Lewis and Clark were probably the first white men to encounter Montana’s hot springs when they camped near Lolo Hot Springs in 1805. Other explorers who passed through Montana, as well as trappers and miners, used the springs to bathe and wash clothes. As white settlers flocked to Montana during the gold rush of the 1860s through the 1880s, crude bathhouses and log cabins were built near hot springs and served as gathering places for miners and others passing through. The hot springs, Birkby says, “often were the early social gathering areas of the state, where people would come for a bath on a weekend. The miners would gather there and tell stories . . . and so they became the early social centers.”

When the railroad came to Montana, entrepreneurs found ways to take advantage of the hot springs, and the early bathhouses became luxury resorts, often advertising amazing medical cures to lure guests. Hot springs were used to treat ailments of all kinds, from arthritis to liver disease. The slogan of one resort in the town of Hot Springs was “limp in, leap out.” Physicians in Virginia City prescribed the hot springs to patients as a way to cure any number of illnesses. One doctor prescribed a man to be forcibly held in an uncomfortably hot spring as a treatment. As the story goes, “he was held there yelling and screaming, but within a week or two he was fishing with grasshopper bait on the Ruby River shore.” Another story tells of a man who was completely bald and had lost all of his teeth, but after soaking in a hot spring for a few months, he had a full head of hair and all of his teeth.

As Montana developed and residents prospered, Birkby says, “the resorts became sometimes extravagantly elegant.” One of the most extravagant was the Broadwater Hotel and Natatorium near Helena. Charles A. Broadwater invested $500,000 in the enormous hotel, which opened in 1889. The palatial resort, according to Birkby’s guidebook, Touring Montana and Wyoming Hot Springs, “fulfilled Charles Broadwater’s ideals of elegance and refinement. . . . Persian rugs covered the floors and French wallpaper lined the walls. After meals of up to ten courses served in the elegant dining room, guests could repose in parlors filled with Victorian furniture.”

These elegant resorts were especially popular from the 1890s through the 1920s, after which they encountered a string of problems. “Oftentimes the dreams of grandeur were much bigger than Montana itself,” Birkby says. Resort owners anticipated that large cities would develop and Montana would experience a major population jump with the coming of the railroad. When the population growth failed to meet expectations, Montana’s massive hot springs resorts began to struggle financially. Prohibition exacerbated these troubles, and several of the resorts were irreparably damaged by fires and the 1935 earthquake. Boulder Hot Springs and Chico Hot Springs Resort, built in 1891 and 1900, respectively, are the only lavish resorts that remain from this period. Today, a number of smaller, family-owned resorts exist, and there are springs on public land, which are open to the general public.

Birkby brings the social history of Montana’s hot springs to life in his speakers bureau presentation for Humanities Montana, “Soaking Up the History of Montana’s Hot Springs Resorts.” One of his favorite things about giving the presentation is talking with older Montanans. “When I show the slides of the old resorts, they often light up with memories of their own youth, splashing in the hot water at some of these now-disappeared Montana recreation spots,” he says. For him, the hot springs provide a way to look at Montana history from a different viewpoint. “You think of frontier Montana being very rough and difficult—which it was—but there were still these gems of resorts scattered around the state that provided a respite from the harshness of the frontier.”