Soaking in hot springs is a treasured Montana tradition, pre-dating trappers and white settlers. Native Americans are known to have used thermal springs around the state for rest and healing. Later, settlers and miners began developing hot springs as their community plunge to be used for weekly baths. Others in the state were developed as resorts or healing centers.
Not much has changed. The original pool at NHS was built by early miners in the area. Lode mines were located in the late 1860s by miners who remained in the region of Alder Gulch after gold was discovered there in 1863. The town of Norris, business district for the mining industry, was named after it was founder, Alexander Norris, in 1865. The Northern Pacific Railroad built a spur line into Norris in 1890, which may have been used by travelers eager to soak in the healing waters.
Most of the know-how needed to engineer the pool were skills the miners used regularly in their lode mining operations. They situated the fir-planked floor directly over the bubbling springs and encased the sides in wood as well, essentially building a spring box without a lid. The 4 foot deep pool sloped gradually to a large ball valve, still in use today. Crank the T-bar open to empty, close to re-fill.
Alex Norris bequeathed much of the property in and around Norris to his descendants, the Wilson family, who ranched and mined in the area. The pool was fenced, a tiny bathhouse erected and the key was left at the hotel/bar next to the railway for use by local families without running water. It operated in this trusting way for years.
Fast forward to the 60s & 70s. The key to the pool has long been lost, but access to a hot dip was still possible for locals and MSU students willing to jump the fence. We still hear the tales from 60-somethings eager to remind us they’ve been soaking here far longer than we have.
In 1972, Doris & Mike Zankowski came from New Jersey and bought 21 acres that included the hot springs and pool. Responsible for adding cult status by featuring a weekly Nudie Night, they began charging $5 admission to the pool and enforced their particular brand of fun with a sidearm and billy club. Doris still lives in great health at the west end of the property soaks regularly, though she no longer hunts rattlesnakes or creates the emphatic signs associated with that colorful part of Norris Hot Springs history.
In the late 1980’s, Mike fell ill and Doris sold a portion of the property to a gentlemen that assumed that the only thing missing was beer. Artie was famous for offering the largest variety of brews available in Montana from a little trailer just outside the pool gates. Unfortunately, he only served glass bottles. His tenure was short-lived.
Doris re-gained ownership, but happily sold it again, (to me) in 2004.
My name is Holly Heinzmann and I have had a dream to own a hot springs in Montana since my first soak in 1978. My thinking was…. you could heat your buildings and public spaces, grow food year round in geothermal greenhouses, even make your walkways comfortable and freeze resistant FOR FREE, all the while enjoying the breathtaking beauty of Montana right from your very own pool.
Well, I was mistaken about the free part. But with a whole lot of help, I’ve been trying to make the rest of the dream come true – a work in progress.