What's the story behind Montana's hot springs?
What's the story behind Montana's hot springs?
Freddy Monares: Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio driven by your curiosity about Montana.
I’m your host Freddy Monares.
This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We’ll answer questions — large or small — about anything under the Big Sky. Subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.
For our second episode, we’re tackling a Montana staple: hot springs. The state is home to more than 260 developed and natural geothermal sites, and you’ve probably soaked at some of them. From huge resorts that once entertained the state’s wealthiest residents, to off-the-beaten-path hot spots favored by locals, Montana’s hot springs run the gamut.
With all this hot water bubbling around, I wanted to know: Where did Montana’s hot springs come from, and where are they going? So we sent Montana Public Radio newscast host Austin Amestoy on the road to discover the answer.
Where was your first stop, Austin?
Austin Amestoy: Well, I don’t have access to a time machine, Freddy, but Chico Hot Springs is probably the next best thing. It looks about the same today as it did in 1900, when it opened its doors. For listeners who don’t know Chico, it’s this resort in Paradise Valley about 35 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.
FM: Take us there, Austin.
AA: The resort sprawls over hundreds of acres at the base of the Absaroka Mountains [pronounced ub-ZOHR-kuh]. When I went there in mid-August, the parking lot was filled with plates from all over the U.S. There’s a barn and stable for horseback riding, an old-school saloon where musicians play live, a gift shop, conference center, day spa.
FM: Wow, that’s a lot of amenities. But don’t I remember “hot spring” being in there somewhere?
AA: That’s right. Chico has two pools: one larger, warm plunge and a smaller, hotter tub. Even during the middle of the day when I was there, soakers were out in force. Little kids were jumping in and out of the warm pool, some older adults were doing water exercises, and a few couples were soaking their feet and enjoying drinks. The whole venue has this refreshing, earthy smell, and the peaks of the Absaroka mountains tower over everything in the background. Chico’s current owner Colin Davis says those pools are at the center of the whole operation.
“Of all the things that are here, the hot springs — I’d say they’re the number-one draw.”
AA: Chico is a bit of a rarity in Montana. It’s among just a handful of the state’s original, large-scale hot springs resorts. It’s hard to pin down how big the industry is today, but the state says about 670 hot springs employees earned more than $17 million in wages last year.
So, hot springs are no slouch in contributing to the Montana economy. But to understand how that business came to be, we have to go back a lot further than Chico. Any guesses, Freddy?
FM: Hmm. I want to say 1850s.
AA: Try millions of years. For the longest time, I thought Montana’s hot springs were all linked to Yellowstone’s magma chambers. But it turns out, the volcano only heats a few springs, like Chico in southwest Montana. Our state geologist, John Metesh, told me that springs further up the rocky mountain front, like Fairmont, Broadwater and Lolo, are actually heated by uranium decay.
FM: Woah, wait a minute — like that uranium?
AA: Yep, more or less the same stuff we use in power plants and bombs. Metesh told me there’s this huge lump of igneous rock between Butte and Helena that’s been around for about 65 million years. When it reached the surface, it brought with it lots of the goodies that brought miners to Montana: gold, silver, copper. But it also contains radioactive uranium, which generates lots of heat as it decays. When water that absorbs some of that heat makes it to the surface, you’ve got yourself a hot spring.
FM: OK, so I'm trying to wrap my head around this. If we’re talking radioactivity here, doesn’t that mean the water’s dangerous?
AA: Thankfully, no! Usually, the water’s only absorbing heat from the uranium decay, not any radioactive particles. But Alhambra Hot Spring near Helena wasn’t so lucky. The owners there used to sell the spring’s mineral water, claiming it had all kinds of “miracle cure” health benefits. That all ended after they discovered their water was actually radioactive, thanks to some bad geologic luck. The Alhambra hot springs closed for good after a fire destroyed the hotel in 1959 .
FM: That sounds absolutely terrifying. So if the scientific history of Montana’s hot springs is millions of years ago, what about the human history? Where does that begin?
AA: Well, it didn’t take much research to find the person with that answer.
“Whenever I come to a small town that had an old hot springs, I always say, ‘There’s a story I need to find before I leave this town.’”
AA: Jeff Birkby is Montana’s hot springs aficionado. He’s been traveling through the state and the West for more than 30 years, documenting the history of hot springs and compiling it into collections of photographs and field guides.
Birkby says Native Americans enjoyed hot springs in this region for thousands of years before European settlers started arriving in droves after the Civil War.
"And, initially, the Europeans would just use the water pretty much for a hot bath on a Friday night.”
Soon, most of the state’s large natural springs had been snapped up by homesteaders. By the 1880s, Montana’s most spectacular hot spring resorts were under construction.
“And from the 1880s to about the 1920s was, I think, the first surge and heyday of the elegant resorts we had," Birkby says. "Just these palatial hot springs with beautiful what are called ‘natatoriums,’ which are elegant swimming pools, basically. The one in Helena was bigger than a football field. Just beautiful. I think it had 10,000 square feet of glass, including half the glass was stained glass in the building. Just gorgeous."
Birbky’s talking about the old Broadwater Hotel and Natatorium there, which was an incredibly grand hot spring resort built outside of Helena.
"And a lot of these were built in anticipation of railroads coming in and these towns developing into the equivalent of Seattle or San Francisco. So the developers had quite grandiose plans, and unfortunately, many of them never reached that level of sophistication and size of the cities needed to support these large resorts."
FM: So, can we go visit the Broadwater Hotel today? What happened to that giant swimming pool?
AA: Yeah, according to Birkby’s book, the hotel and hot spring were both severely damaged in the 1935 earthquake that hammered Helena. But business never took off enough to support hot springs as grandiose as Broadwater, and the hotel finally closed in the 40s and sat empty until its contents were auctioned off in the 70s.
AA: The Montana Historical Society had some archival footage from the auction in 1974. Great Falls TV reporter Norma Ashby interviewed attendees. You can hear the auctioneer doing his thing in the background.
Norma Ashby in the archival footage: “We’re talking with Helena native Jeff Holter, and Jeff, how do you feel about what’s happening at the Broadwater Hotel today?”
Jeff Holter in the archival footage: “Well, it seems to be getting older, like a lot of us, and disappearing a lot of memories, which also happens to a lot of people as well as to buildings, and I’m sort of sad to see it go, but it’s sure going, and I’m afraid it can’t be helped.”
AA: The old hotel is just towering over them in the background. It looks like hundreds of people came out for the auction.
Norma Ashby in the Archival footage: “Do you plan to buy anything in the auction today?”
Jeff Holter in the archival footage: "No, I came out here to take pictures of the crowds and the rotten timbers that used to be young and non-rotten, and remind me of my very happy, early days when I was out here and learning how to swim."
AA: There’s a newer Broadwater Hot Spring near where the old one once stood, but there’s no trace of that huge, old pool or hotel left today.
FM: So what caused the end of Montana’s first hot springs heyday?
AA: Well, Birkby attributes it to a few factors. Things took a turn for hot springs in the 1920s and 30s.
"One was prohibition. With the banning of alcohol — a lot of them were supported on socialization, and that was a problem — and just the lack of population to keep them going. Plus, there was sort of a disaffection with hot water. There was a lot of move toward modern medicine, using drugs and pills."
AA: Birkby says the original resorts were almost always made of wood and weren’t well-protected against fire, so many of them burned — some were rebuilt and burned three times before they stopped trying! By the middle of the 20th century, hot water resorts in Montana were a shadow of their former selves.
FM: But that didn’t happen at every resort, right? We talked about Chico, and some other ones like Fairmont and Boulder are pretty old too, right?
AA: That’s right, Freddy. Some large and mid-size springs held on through the years, and now, Birkby says we’re headed into a bit of a hot springs renaissance in Montana. He says a lot of it can be attributed to Montana’s rapid growth in tourism and new residents. Montana’s old-guard resorts are all located near population centers that help sustain them. Bozeman’s one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, and a manager at Bozeman Hot Springs told Birkby they’re serving more than 1,000 people per day.
And no one is witnessing that growth quite like Tim Streets.
“I feel like there’s, overall, a renewed interest in hot springs over the past 10, 15 years.”
AA: Streets is the creator and moderator of the Montana Hot Springs public Facebook group. Streets says he created the group in 2019 to help people share their memories and experiences at the state’s resorts. Fast-forward to three years later, and that group: It has more than 50,000 members, with thousands more people joining each month.
FM: Wow, that is a large pool of people. Did Streets tell you who’s driving that growth?
AA: Yeah, he says it’s a good mix of Montana residents and out-of-state tourists. But he also says there’s been plenty of drama between members of those two groups.
“I get a lot of California-bashing and a lot of people calling everybody ‘Karens.’ You guys — you’re not 10. Let’s be adults."
AA: If it sounds like it’s playing out similarly to Montana's other growing pains, that’s because it is. Birkby told me he’s a little worried Montana’s hot springs are in danger of being “loved to death” as the state adds new residents and visitors.
FM: So, did you get any idea what the future of the industry might look like?
AA: Yeah, I did, Freddy. Right now, hot springs are still reeling from the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic and are trying to keep up with this surge in demand. But over at Chico, Colin Davis says the hot springs culture will keep soakers coming back, probably forever.
And that culture is evolving, too. I chatted with the owner of Pipestone Village and Hot Springs, which opened in June 2021 at the eastern mouth of Homestake Pass, near Butte. It’s the state’s first AirBnB-style approach to hot springs, with private cabins and tubs heated with water right from the ground. It’s a model that’s bringing Montana’s hot springs up-to-speed with the changing hospitality industry.
So, the story of hot springs in Montana seems to be picking up steam again. And every expert and owner I talked to agreed that as long as the hot water keeps flowing, the soakers will follow.
Did I answer your question, Freddy?
FM: You sure did Austin. Now I'm ready for a soak, though.
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Thanks to Colin Davis, John Metesh, Jeff Birkby, Tim Streets, Barbara Wagner and the Montana Historical Society for sharing information about the state’s hot springs.
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