As midwinter armchair adventures go, Jeff Birkby’s new collection of hot springs history warms up nicely.
“A hot spring was often the only hot bath you could get as a miner or rancher,” the Missoula author said. “They were some of Montana’s first hotels and restaurants. The Deer Lodge Valley had Warm Springs before it became the state mental hospital, and it was known for its multi-day Christmas parties. When it opened in 1889, the Broadwater in Helena was the most elegant resort we had in the whole state.”
One fascinating facet of Birkby’s “Montana's Hot Springs” book is just how many hot springs once dotted the Montana map. Archival photos of the Broadwater’s bulbous natatorium and steeple-topped hotel compete with dozens of other bathing landmarks from Saco to Paradise. They ranged from a couple of logs to help a bather leverage himself out of the hot mud to Moorish-themed resorts with room for 300 guests.
“We have about 120 known hot springs in Montana,” Birkby said. “Forty or fifty had some level of development. Today maybe 30 still have public access, and about 20 are commercially operating.”
Developing hot springs in the West took off shortly after the end of the Civil War. As Montana’s gold rush shifted into a more industrial phase, entrepreneurs started building resorts around thermal features. They counted on two factors: The European tradition of mineral baths for health and the social attraction of a friendly business.
Elkhorn Hot Springs in the Big Hole Valley spans the length of that history.
“The pools are 100 years old this year,” said owner Erik Borge. “Back in the day, they had separate pools for men and women, because they weren’t supposed to see each other bathing. Further back, a lot of people from the Coolidge ghost town were coming down for a swim.”
Hunter’s Hot Springs east of Livingston was well-known to the Crow Indians long before white settlement reshaped the landscape. It was tony enough to host both the Republican and Democratic party conventions. It also attracted a state tennis tournament with the lure of a court surfaced with a mixture of sand and molasses.
But the Broadwater never made a profit before it was wrecked in a 1935 earthquake. And although some Helena founders hoped they might soon exceed Seattle as a metropolitan center, Montana’s population never hit that critical mass.
In the last 20 years, the local food movement has thrown an unexpected lifeline to hot springs developers. When their resorts failed, many tried to put their water to other uses, such as electricity generation or structural heating. One outlet was keeping greenhouses warm to extend their growing season.
“But most of them couldn’t compete with the cost of Mexico’s tomatoes or afford to ship them to big coastal grocery chains,” Brikby said. “They needed local markets. Now there are several restaurants and markets in the Bozeman and Butte areas that are developing relationships with hot springs-heated greenhouses. I’m encouraged by that.”