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Lolo Hot Springs

by Charlene Porsild

Visited for centuries for medicinal and spiritual purposes, Lolo Hot Springs was first commercially developed in 1883. Above, an 1890s view by Missoula photographer Myrta Wright Stevens shows clusters of visitors posed among their tents and two log buildings that housed the "old" and "new" plunges. MHS Photograph Archives, Helena


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, Volume 53 Number 4(Winter 2003), 67-68; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2003

By the time the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the Paci?c, then turned around and headed back through western Montana for their ?rst hot bath in many a day, we can imagine that they probably smelled a little ripe. The site of this not-so-romantic plunge was Lolo Hot Springs.
There are several theories about the origins of the name for Lolo Trail, Pass, Creek, and Hot Springs. Some say Lolo was a corruption of Meriwether Lewis's surname, while others claim it was a corruption of LeLouis, a French-Montana the Magazine of Western HistoryCanadian trader in the region in the 1830s. The most accepted story is that Lolo derives from the name of another French-Canadian trapper, Lawrence Rence, who arrived in the area shortly after Lewis and Clark passed through. The story goes that Rence, who married into the Nez Perce tribe, became known locally as Lolo because the Nez Perces mispronounced his first name: their language does not contain the letter r. The strongest support for this theory is explorer David Thompson's mention of meeting a man named Lolo near the hot springs at Granite Creek on March 18, 1810.1
The springs are located along Lolo Trail, called the Kuseyne 'Iskit, or buffalo trail, by the Nez Perces. It was one of several routes over which the Nez Perces traveled to hunt buffalo in central Montana and Wyoming, and they frequently stopped at Lolo Hot Springs for medicinal and spiritual purposes long before scouts led Lewis and Clark there in 1805.
Lolo Hot Springs are situated below a spectacular granite spire, and the waters leave the rocks at between 106 and 111 degrees Fahrenheit. For the Corps of Discovery, this was a little warmer than they preferred. Stopping at the springs on September 13, 1805, William Clark, ever the scientist, "tasted this water and found it hot & not bad tasted. . . . In further examonation I found this water nearly boiling hot at the places it Spouted from the rocks."2
The following summer on June 29, 1806, the expedition returned and camped for two days near the springs before moving on to Travelers' Rest. Meriwether Lewis, embodying the empirical method, "bathed and remained in 19 minutes, it was with diffculty I could remain thus long and it caused a profuse sweat. Two other bold springs adjacent to this are much warmer, their heat being so great as to make the hand of a person smart extremely when immerced." William Clark noted that the water was so hot he was able to remain in the water only ten minutes. A Forest Service sign now marks the spot where they camped near the springs.3
Since that famous sojourn, Lolo Hot Springs has become a popular stopping place. John Work of the Hudson's Bay Company camped there in October 1831, the springs providing welcome respite for his large party traveling the arduous Lolo Trail as winter set in. On August 6, 1877, General O. O. Howard camped at Lolo Hot Springs while trying to hunt down Chief Joseph and the Nez Perces on their legendary flight from the U.S. Army.
As a commercial enterprise the site was first developed in 1883 by Mart Slocum, who built a roadhouse offering food, drink, and accommodation to weary travelers. After the Lolo Trail fell out of use, Slocum went into partnership with William Boyle and together they developed the springs as a resort for nearby Missoula. It was Boyle who recognized the potential for the springs as a recreational site, and the log hotel he built offered shelter, meals, and hot baths to Missoulians seeking a little comfort while ?shing, hiking, and picnicking. In 1888 residents and visitors to Missoula could travel the thirty-five miles to "Billy Boyle's Springs" by wagon stage. In good weather the trip took seven hours each way and cost five dollars round-trip. Boyle offered visitors a week-long stay (presumably the minimum required to recover from the agonies of the corduroy road) with room, board, and access to the baths for eleven dollars.4
After Boyle's death the property passed to W. A. Simons, who as proprietor witnessed the burning of the original log hotel and outbuildings in October 1900. It was a sad day for Missoulians, for the hotel's "destruction was complete, and with it there has passed into history one of the best known buildings of the western end of the state."5
By 1902 the resort was open again, under the management of Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Houston, who offered "large, ?ne spring wagons covered to protect passengers from the heat of the sun, but open on the sides to permit a view of the scenic route" that brought guests from Missoula three times per week. In addition to newly built cabins and a renovated hotel on nearby Granite Creek, the Houstons hired an on-site osteopath, Dr. J. C. Burton, to promote the springs' medicinal properties. Dr. Burton claimed that "after a careful analysis of the waters of the Lo Lo Hot Springs . . . I have decided that positive and permanent cures may be effected by the judicious use of these waters in connection with Ostepathic treatment."6
Dr. Burton's testimony and services did little to revive business, however, and in 1904 the Houstons sold out to Herman Gerber. Under the management of Herman and his wife Sara, the resort once again became a popular destination for soaking, hunting, ?shing, and hiking. For more than fifty years, the Gerbers operated the hotel and restaurant, and they added cabins, a dance hall, and new bathhouses. As the road steadily improved, so too did their business. "There were times at Lolo," remembered Sara Gerber, "when we would have as many as 500 tents on our grounds. Some of these campers and guests spent the entire summer, especially those seeking cures for health problems by bathing in the hot mineral water."7 After the Gerbers retired in 1959, Lolo Hot Springs went into decline and operated sporadically from 1964 until 1988 when Don Stoen, the current owner, purchased the resort and began energetically promoting it.
Lolo Hot Springs is located in western Missoula County, Montana, less than an hour's drive from Missoula. From Missoula, follow Highway 93 south ten miles to the town of Lolo, then take Highway 12 west toward Lolo Pass for twenty-?ve miles. The year-round resort offers an outdoor swimming pool (maintained at 94 degrees), an indoor soaking pool (105 degrees), motel, RV park, picnic area, restaurant, horseback riding, as well as extensive hiking, snowmobiling, and cross-country ski trails. For information, call (800) 273-2290 or visit www.lolohotsprings. com.
CHARLENE PORSILD is director of the Montana Historical Society Library and Archives.

1. Ralph Space, The Lolo Trail, 2d ed. (Missoula, Mont., 2001), 6.
2. Gary E. Moulton, ed., Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 13 vols. (Lincoln, 1983-2001), 5:203.
3. Ibid., 8:62.
4. Missoula (Mont.) Missoulian, August 16, 1888.
5. Ibid., October 7, 1900.
6. Ibid., June 15, 1902.
7. Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review, October 18, 1964.


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, Volume 53 Number 4 (Winter 2004), 22-35; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.

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