Jeff Birkby is at Fact & Fiction March 1 to talk about his new book, Montana’s Hot Springs.
Jeff Birkby was raised in Iowa and like many a flatlander, was captivated by the natural wonders of Montana. “I’d never been to a hot springs before moving to Montana,” Birkby says. “It’s just a magical natural phenomenon to have hot water coming out of the ground! And you go, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s that about?’ It is amazing.” Birkby is now the proud author of the definitive guidebooks to the hot springs of not just Montana, but Wyoming, Oregon and Washington, and on March 1 he’ll deliver a lecture at Fact & Fiction to accompany his latest, Montana’s Hot Springs, a photo-and-text history of the state’s steamiest natural resource.
Montana’s hot springs have been a godsend to weary travelers, a lifesaver for freezing trappers and social epicenters for all. Native Americans made use of them prior to the arrival of European settlers, many of whom came from countries with venerable hot springs traditions of their own.
In the late 1970s, Birkby came to Montana for graduate school, then went to work for the state Department of Natural Resources. When a geothermal energy specialist position was created, Birkby applied, and it became his actual job to visit all the state’s hot springs. “My role was mainly to meet the owners on these ranches and farms and small little resorts in Montana,” Birkby says. “This was back in the ’80s, when you could drive up in a state vehicle and say, ‘Hi, I’m with the government and I’m here to talk to you.’”
For this book, he’s drawn on those years of traveling the state and historical research aided by Montana libraries and archives to illustrate what the springs we soak in today, like Quinn’s, Lolo and Chico, looked like more than 100 years ago, and to document resorts and spas that long ago were destroyed by fire or neglect.
Some ambitious Montanans built palatial resorts around hot springs during the state’s early booms in expectation of a Montana that never materialized. “A lot of them thought that Helena would be the next Seattle or Minneapolis,” Birkby says. “So they were building these structures in anticipation of the urbanization of Montana.” Helena’s Broadwater Hotel, with 6,000 square feet of stained-glass windows and silver-trimmed marble soaking tubs, stayed in business for just six years, the book reports, before briefly being used as a nightclub in the 1930s.
Running a springs even today can be a challenge, Birkby says. “The history of most of the resorts in Montana is a lot of owners, over many years,” he says. “Some have come with stars in their eyes, who think, ‘Well, I've got all this wonderful free hot water. I can make a lot of money.’ But if they don’t know the business, or how to market, it can be hard for them to have that resource.”
With all of Birkby’s knowledge of Montana hot springs, past and present, there’s one question he’s asked most frequently. “People say, ‘Where are the secret hot springs in Montana that no one knows about?’” His answer? “There’s no secrets with the internet.” Ours is a very different world from the one in Montana’s Hot Springs, but the goal is the same: getting into hot water.