Harmon’s Histories: Join us for an evening at Col. Broadwater’s magnificent resort

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The soup was puree of cauliflower, followed by boiled salmon with hollandaise. Entree choices ranged from “Spring Chicken, Saute a la Creole (to) Catelette de veal, aux fine herbes.”

The first 150 guests were seated for dinner at 6 o’clock as hundreds more waited. “The dining room force (was) composed of colored waiters, who went expertly about their task, attired in full dress suits.”

It was August 28, 1889. Colonel Charles Arthur Broadwater’s magnificent new hotel/hot springs resort was officially opened in Helena. 

Broadwater, whose social and political circle included Marcus Daly, William A. Clark, and Samuel T. Hauser, had made his fortune in railroads, real estate and banking.

The Colonel’s massive new building, termed one of the largest construction projects in the Northwest, was comprised of “a three story frame on the cottage plan with sweeping porticos on the south front … (and a) mammoth plunge bath.” 

The Helena Weekly Herald reported construction was completed in a single year with timber “imported from Oregon and Minnesota.” It was said to have cost a half million dollars.

“All the luxuries and comforts of a nineteenth century hostelry can be enjoyed with as much pleasure as the noted public resorts of metropolitan centres,” wrote the paper.

As many as 500 people flocked to the “brilliantly lighted” hotel via the local motor line or by private carriage.

The Capital City Band played as the guests gathered on the expansive hotel balconies before touring the corridors, “admiring its manifold beauties, reveling in delightful contemplation of lovely etchings and engravings, and enjoying the luxurious surroundings of corridors and apartments.”

Each room was “furnished with elegant carpets, Turkish rags and tapestries, hardwood furnishings and furniture of polished mahogany, oak, cherry, walnut and other fine woods.

“After viewing these interior beauties and the brilliant light of myriads of incandescent lamps, not forgetting to pay a visit to the bathrooms, where porcelain tubs that cost over $200 apiece and soft rugs invite oriental luxury, the guests assembled in the office rotunda, where an impromptu meeting was held.” 

Helena Mayor Fuller told the crowd, “We have found it a splendid structure, commodious in its arrangements and complete and elegant in its appointments, lacking nothing to secure the comfort or gratify the tastes of its guests.

“The bath, with its vast proportions and sumptuous equipment, is calculated to make cleanliness a temptation as well as a duty next after godliness.”

“The guests included the most prominent people of Helena. Among those present were all the members of the City Council and their families, besides several hundred of the Board of Trade with their wives and children.”

Many of the guests came with bathing suits in hand, but were disappointed.

The Helena Daily Independent reported, “Last Friday water was turned into the immense plunge bath and by yesterday morning it was full of clear, sparkling water at just such a temperature as would have pleased bathers. 

“Unfortunately, it was discovered … water was leaking out and the bath was emptied. It was discovered that the immense pressure of water had forced the asphalt bottom loose in several places and it will take some days before the repairs can be finished.”

The pool was enormous – similar to the 400 by 200 footprint of the hotel.

The hotel grounds covered 40 acres with “clumps of willows and cottonwoods being utilized for beauty spots … broken up with patches for the flower beds and fountains which make the place really attractive.

“Winding paths have been laid out, with rustic seats at intervals, making it a model lovers’ Paradise, and when the moon fails to shed its beams, electric lights are so stationed that the darkest bowers will have sufficient light to keep footpads from plying their trade.”

The bar was said to be “fitted up in superb style” as was the billiard room. Each room was “furnished with hot and cold water … private bath rooms for ladies and gentlemen. Beside the tubs are douche, spray and shower baths. The dressing rooms adjoining are furnished with standing wash stands and careful attendants are always at band to supply every want.”

In addition to the sleeping rooms there was a “big observation tower, which will be a favorite place for visitation. The verandas, which extend the entire front and along both ends, are eighteen feet in width and form a continuous promenade for a quarter of a mile. The veranda is lit with incandescent lamps and plentifully supplied with easy chairs and settees.”

By the next year, Colonel Broadwater installed an electric rail system to take guests directly from the train depot to the hotel/natatorium in 20 minutes.

The Broadwater was marketed as the perfect stopover for elite travelers between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. But, the Colonel had badly overestimated just how many “elite travelers” could be drawn to this opulent retreat in the mountains of Montana.

The project faltered, then began to die with Broadwater’s death in 1892. A 1935 earthquake damaged the natatorium, forcing its closure. The hotel permanently closed six years later. Finally, in 1974 the remaining contents of the derelict building were auctioned off and the hotel demolished.

In the following years, some of the hot springs were opened to the public and racquetball courts were added.

Today “Broadwater Hot Springs” offers a variety of pools, and a taproom and grill where the table tops are made from “upcycled 1978 vintage wood floors from the (racquetball) courts.”

Instead of the “Spring Chicken, Saute a la Creole (and) Catelette de veal, aux fine herbes” of the 19th century, today’s fare includes “Big Sky Nachos, the Broadwater Burger, the Wilder Caesar Salad (named for the Colonel’s daughter)” and a wine list including Kings Ridge Pinot Gris.

Bon appétit!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.