By Hope Good
One of the most amazing natural features of Montana is its abundance of natural hot springs. The number of these springs in Montana and Wyoming is unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. These popular gathering places were eventually converted into bathhouses and luxurious plunges which hit their peak from 1890-1920.
Hunters Hot Springs
Hunters Hot Springs, nineteen miles east of Livingston, produces the largest flow of hot water in Montana (more than 1,300 gallons per minute) that flows from three principal springs and a dozen smaller springs. With temperatures averaging 139F, these springs had long been used for their healing powers by the Crow Indians.
In 1864, Kentucky surgeon Dr. Andrew J. Hunter observed an encampment of Crow tribal members bathing in hot water. Recognizing the potential opportunity of a lucrative theraputic spa and resort business, Hunter staked claims around the springs, traveling there often from his home in Bozeman. For the next four years, he practiced medicine and began developing the property.
Hunter’s family eventually thrived at the hot springs, and by 1873, he had constructed a hotel and bathhouses at the springs. Word spread about the facilities as guests came seeking the much-touted medicinal properties of the waters. Over the next twelve years, improvements were continually made including the addition of a two-story hotel in 1883.
Dr. Hunter’s resort flourished with claims of miracle cures. Hunters Hot Springs’ reputation expanded and the spa entertained guests and customers from across the United States and Europe. The Northern Pacific Railroad was just a mile and a half south from Dr. Hunter’s resort. His son-in-law, Frank Rich, eventually built another hotel approximately one hundred yards east to handle the overflow of customers. This was called the Rich Hotel, or the Lower House, while Dr. Hunter’s hotel was referred to as the Upper House because it was on slightly higher ground.
In 1885, Dr. Hunter sold Hunters Hot Springs to former Iowan Cyrus B. Mendenhall. Mendenhall expanded and improved the resort and continued to manage the property for ten years. A new frame hotel was built on the property, and by 1887, plans were made for an even larger hotel and plunge which would only be matched by the Broadwater Hotel in Helena in size and elegance. In 1897, the property was purchased at auction by wealthy Butte-based businessman James A. Murray who leased the property to Charles W. Savage, an hotelier based in Livingston.
The 454-foot-long elegant Hotel Dakota opened in 1909 with five separate wings to accommodate up to 300 guests. This stucco-covered building in a Moorish design had a two-story verandah that stretched more than 400 feet. The Dakota was luxurious, boasting steam heat, electric lights, and telephones in its rooms. The east wing contained the bathing department complete with a solarium, a 103-foot swimming pool, gymnasium, sweat room, and vapor baths.
The Dakota’s reputation as one of the leading social centers lasted merely 20 years. The automobile and the newly rerouted road to Yellowstone greatly reduced its numbers. Prohibition added to its demise as it was a social place where liquor flowed freely. A fire broke out at the Dakota Hotel in 1932 and it, along with many other structures, burned to the ground. The town never recovered and was gradually abandoned.
Wassweiler Hot Springs
Ferdinand and Caroline Wassweiler operated one of the first hot springs near Ten Mile Creek, just three miles west of Last Chance Gulch. The hot springs extended along a bed to the creek below Red Mountain.
Their first hotel and bathhouse opened in 1865. In 1869, the Wassweilers gained the title to the land and two hot water springs. But short of funds in 1874, they sold their hotel and water rights to Colonel Charles Broadwater who ran the Wassweilers’ hotel until 1889 when his grand Broadwater Hotel and Natatorium opened on the property a short distance away. The Wassweilers kept eighty acres and built a second hotel on the site in 1883. The bathhouse was eventually converted into cribs and ladies were imported to entertain miners and operated until 1904.
Broadwater Hotel & Natatorium
During the 1880s Colonel Charles Broadwater became president of the Montana Central, a branch of the Great Northern Railroad, which served as a means to bring vacationers from eastern states. His massive Broadwater Hotel and Natatorium was the most important example of Moorish architecture in the Northwest. It stood as a symbol of Helena’s wealth and progressiveness. It housed the largest indoor “plunge” in the world, distinctly decorated with colorful tiles and stained glass to create a romantic feeling. A rectangular nave covered the 300×100-foot pool which had a maximum depth of 12 feet. It included toboggan slides, observation decks, and waterfalls. Over one million gallons of hot and cold mountain spring water flowed through the system per day.
The spacious hotel was elegantly furnished and featured modern amenities, including steam heat, electric lights, hot and cold water in nearly every room, and modern bath departments. The grounds were lush with beautiful lawns, flowerbeds, fountains, and extensive landscaping.
By drawing people from all over the world, it rivaled other nationally known spas at the time.
Sadly, three years after the grand opening, Colonel Broadwater died of the flu, and the resort was never the same. Without his direction, it eventually closed in the 1890s. The hotel and pool continued to operate, but ownership changed hands many times. Challenges of the time, including World War I, Prohibition, and the earthquake of 1935, took their toll. The buildings were demolished in the 1970s.
Boulder Hot Springs
The Boulder Hot Springs landmark hotel (visible from Highway 69) originated in 1863 when gold prospector James Riley homesteaded and built a bathhouse and tavern to serve local miners. He enlarged the hotel at the hot springs in 1881 and touted the property for its healing powers.
Rancher A. C. Quaintance purchased the springs after his death in late 1881 and built a plunge. A separate structure housed a large dance floor, a stage for concerts and theatrical performances, a gymnasium, a billiard room, and bar.
In 1909, Butte millionaire James A. Murray purchased the hot springs and turned it into a luxury resort, catering to wealthy pleasure lovers. During this time, its architecture transformed from eclectic Queen Anne to its present Spanish Colonial style.
In the 1960s, it was called the Diamond S Ranchotel and was known for its Saturday night smorgasbords. The special night brought in as many as 500 people, with lines stretching out into the lobby.
In 1979, it became a site on the National Register of Historic Places. The site is still used as an operating hotel and spa today.
Chico Hot Springs
Located at the mouth of Emigrant Gulch, approximately 30 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, Chico was an early-day mining camp, dating back to the 1860s. The Chico Hot Springs resort is a couple of miles to the north of the townsite.
In 1900, Bill and Percie Knowles built Chico Warm Springs Hotel. The inn consisted of a plunge and a full service dining area. Mr. Knowles operated the hotel until his death on April 22, 1910. This left his widow in charge of hotel operations. Under her guidance, it continued to flourish. She hired a successful physician named Dr. George A. Townsend in June 1912. The doctor’s fame spread at such a rate that the resort needed additional boarding. By 1916, a hospital wing of 20 rooms was added on to the hotel. On July 1, 1925, Dr. Townsend left his services at the hot springs behind, and by the early 1930s, the hospital wing had been torn down due to decreasing business at the hotel. Even still, Chico Hot Springs has remained one of the most successful hot springs in Montana.
Corwin Springs Resort
In 1909, Dr. F.E. Corwin, a physician formerly employed by Chico Hot Springs and then the Electric Hot Springs Company, built an impressive 86-room Mission-style hotel and spa less than eight miles north of Gardiner. The hotel was advertised as a health resort piping 154F water from nearby La Duke Springs. A bridge across the Yellowstone River made the springs accessible to Northern Pacific Railroad passengers headed for Yellowstone National Park.
A fire on November 30, 1916 destroyed this beautiful hotel, but the plunge and cabins survived and operated into the 1920s.
Walter J. Hill, son of railroad baron James J. Hill, acquired the property by 1929 and rebuilt the pool as an open-air plunge. By 1931, Hill had named the area Eagle’s Nest Ranch and advertised the large swimming pool, modern cabins with 4-6 rooms each, a golf course, and a club house with living room and dining room.
The Church Universal Triumphant eventually purchased the property and it became a part of the 12,000 Royal Teton Ranch (purchased in 1981 from Malcom Forbes.)