Some Notes On Chico Hot Springs, Montana

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

This last weekend I had the opportunity to be absorbed by a delegation from North Dakota and gladly pulled into the gravity of Chico Hot Springs, Montana. Once there, and while sauntering around the complex, I finally paid attention to a shiny placard (just next to the entrance I had been through multiple times) that noted Chico’s National Register of Historic Places status. So that compelled me to track down the registration nomination, and this is what we have.

The hot springs at Chico exist because of geology.  Water is heated sub-terra, and this eventually makes its way to the surface, flowing into places within and beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park. At Chico, it arrives to the surface at around 112 °F. Water was first tapped and channeled at these springs as early as 1866 (10 years before Custer was shown mortality at the Battle of Greasy Grass — aka, the Battle of Little Big Horn). In 1900, a complex was built at Chico.

The historic buildings at Chico include the main hotel (1900) in the Georgian Revival style, an auto garage (1916), a smoke house (1915), a boiler house (1910) and horse barn (1916), pools, shower house and pool building (1917). Teddy Roosevelt visited the hotel in 1902 (he seems to be everywhere throughout the American West).

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

By 1969 a concrete-lined channel was added to divert hot spring overflow and regulate water temperature. Between 1900 and 2013, the owners of Chico added several structures to accommodate demand and growth. Before the Euro-American arrival on the scene, though, hot springs had been utilized extensively by Native America. The following is the description of how local Native America used the hot springs in and around Chico, this description from the National Register nomination for Chico:

…Springs, and in particular hot springs, were revered and often visited as places of spiritual cleansing and renewal. Water as a basis of life was important to Indian spirituality, as the Crow sang: bire daxua kok (water is your life).

Considering the experience had at Chico Hot Springs in 2013, it’s appropriate to say that this cleansing and renewal continues. The public placard next to the hotel lobby entrance at Chico reads as follows:

Generous verandas, period furnishings and healing waters invite the visitor to experience turn-of-the-century hospitality under the shadow of Emigrant Peak. The hot springs, long appreciated by native peoples, got their commercial start during the territorial period when miners stopped by to bathe and “wash their duds.” In 1876, an inventive settler tapped into the 112 degree water, piping it under his greenhouse to grow vegetables for local residents. A hotel was planned in the 1880s, but in 1892, there were still no facilities and families camped nearby to enjoy the springs. Percie and Bill Knowles inherited the property in 1894. They ran a boardinghouse for miners and in 1900, built the long-awaited hot springs hotel. Under Knowles’ active promotion, uniformed drivers ferried such guests as Teddy Roosevelt and artist Charlie Russell from the Emigrant depot to the springs. When Bill Chico NRHPKnowles died in 1910, Percie and her son Radbourne transformed the luxurious hotel into a respected medical facility. Dr. George A. Townshend joined the staff in 1912 and under his direction, the hospital and healing waters gained renown throughout the northwest. After the 1940s, new owners and new directions included gambling and dude ranching. In 1976, Mike and Eve Art began recapturing the once-famous hotel’s turn-of-the-century ambiance. Chico Hot SPrings, with its Georgian-inspired architecture and warm Craftsman style interiors, is one of Montana’s best preserved examples of an early twentieth century hot springs hotel and health resort.

I can only add that one ought to go to a hot spring within the continental interior of North America. It is worth your while.


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