A History of Healing at Alameda’s Hot Springs

After launching in the 1930s, the spa-motel that pipes mineral-rich geothermal water into private pools has endured both the booms and the busts in Hot Springs, a tiny community on the Flathead Indian Reservation where the population never exceeded more than 800 people

By Maggie Dresser
Joan Koval soaks in a mineral water tub at Alameda’s Hot Springs. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When the first mineral well was drilled on what is now the Alameda’s Hot Springs property in the 1930s, the town of Hot Springs on the Flathead Indian Reservation was in the middle of an economic boom. With the Camas aquifer sending 110-degree mineral-rich water through the ground, hot springs resorts had been popping up within blocks of one another in the Little Bitterroot River Valley after white settlers began inhabiting the land in 1910. 

People from across the nation soon began arriving by stagecoach to soak in northwest Montana’s world-class hot springs not only for luxury, but because doctors had begun prescribing the mineral springs to cure ailments like arthritis, gout and gastrointestinal disorders. Visitors would often stay for weeks or months instead of a short weekend like many do today.

After drilling a well in the 1930s, the Elhert family operated a cottage with long-term rentals furnished with private bathtubs, with each one connected to the springs so the mineral water could be piped indoors. The family built an L-shaped lodge north of Hot Springs Creek and ran the establishment for 50 years, including during the hot springs boom that peaked in the 1950s, when the town of less than a square mile boasted a population of 733 people.

In the early 1980s, the Elherts sold the property to Alameda Ramsey, a nurse from California, who renamed it the Camas Hot Spring Spa-Motel. She drilled a second well and ran the place by herself, managing the office, cleaning the rooms and providing massages for her guests. 

Ramsey operated the spa-motel for a couple of decades during an era when visitation to the town of Hot Springs was drastically declining. In 1990, the population fell to 411 people, dropping by 31% compared to the number of inhabitants in 1980, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. 

But despite the tourism decline, Ramsey continued offering affordable massages and soaks at the vintage motel-spa through the early 2000s when she sold the property to a few partners looking to maintain the facility’s character. 

A deep, Japanese style mineral water tub in a room at Alameda’s Hot Springs in Hot Springs, Montana on Feb. 26, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

One of the new owners, Paul Stelter, was a former Flathead High School swim coach, who has helped maintain the property since 2006, when he renamed the business, calling it Alameda’s Hot Springs in homage to the previous owner. 

“She was a total sweetheart,” Stelter said. “We thought it was a nice name, but Alameda is Spanish for tree-lined avenue, and that’s what we are – a tree-lined avenue. She was a remarkable woman, and she ran this place by herself.”

Stelter said the property wasn’t for sale when he bought it, but there was something special about it. 

“I fell in love with this little place and it’s just such a quaint little spot,” Stelter said. 

Chris Devlin, a semi-retired nurse practitioner who spent much of his career working on tribal land in Utqiagvik, Alaska, also fell in love with Alameda’s when he found it for sale in 2010. Lacking the funds to purchase the whole property, he became a partner with Stelter and they eventually transitioned the business model into an 11-member housing cooperative for ages 55 and up. 

With each co-op share, members get their own unit with a private hot springs bath at Alameda’s, which are rented out when members aren’t using them. 

Alameda’s offers a combination of traditional hotel rooms and private cottages, featuring 18 unique units with original 1930s-era style, each with its own tub. Prices range in price from $85 to $141 per night. Devlin says some customers request specific rooms or a particular tub style, like a jacuzzi or clawfoot. Most rooms have a kitchen and a water closet-style bathroom that complement the vintage décor. One unit has a linoleum floor that resembles an Oriental rug. 

Several of these rooms are inside the L-shaped lodge, which was built in the 1930s during the Great Depression and is adjacent to a community sunporch that overlooks the yard, where shareholders grow fresh vegetables. No televisions occupy any of the rooms and although Wi-Fi is available, Devlin describes a low-speed internet service. Down the road, visitors can walk to Camas Organic Market for menu items like ginger tofu soup, sourdough bread or an elderberry sea moss soda with local raw honey.  

Devlin said unit #28 has a traditional Japanese soaking tub and is by far the highest occupancy room – primarily because it’s the cheapest and only costs $85 per night. 

The popularity of this low-cost room also speaks to Alameda’s clientele, and Devlin said the co-op is struggling to make ends meet as they maintain affordable costs for customers and fail to fill vacancies. The co-op is supposed to distribute dividends to shareholders, but that hasn’t happened in five years because the business isn’t profitable. 

“We need a higher occupancy,” Devlin said. “If we charged a higher rate, we’d be cutting out the people who have been supporting us for a long time. To soak in hot springs in your room for under $100 a night is truly affordable.”

To attract more visitors, co-op shareholders have also added outdoor pools and a sauna, with plans to build cold contrast plunge pools.

Devlin wishes there could be a resurgence in Hot Springs like there was in the mid-20th century, when people from around the country flocked here to soak.

“When this was at its heyday, hotels filled with people who came in to soak and this was a destination resort,” Devlin said. “People came here on stagecoaches and on trains and they spent days getting here – they stayed here for 21 days.”

Devlin said doctors historically prescribed thermal-springs soaking as a medicine for ailments ranging from arthritis to polio, leading to the town’s motto of “limp in, leap out.” In addition to soaking in mineral water, rest, hydration, and healthy foods were also recommended. 

According to newspaper archives, the Camas Hot Springs were advertised as “nature’s remedy for illness,” and claimed to provide the cure for rheumatism while displaying water analysis reports that showed high concentrations of silica and magnesium. 

But the culture surrounding hot springs has changed in recent decades, and they are no longer advertised primarily as a homeopathic means to cure ailments and illnesses.

“Hot springs became spas or places for relaxation and meditation, but you couldn’t say it was for medical benefit,” Devlin said. “After more than 100 years of that, people have kind of forgotten that this was a reputable approach to medicine and to healing. Some people come here now for a romantic getaway and that sort of thing, but a lot of other people come here for an intense focus and healing. We’ve been trying to keep that option open for people.”

A rental unit at Alameda’s Hot Springs in Hot Springs, Montana on Feb. 26, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In 1910, the Flathead Indian Reservation opened to white settlers and by 1915, the Little Bitterroot Valley had a “considerable population,” according to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report published in 1916. After the first well was drilled on a farmer’s land in 1911, the original Camas Hot Springs opened in 1911 in the platted town of Pineville before Hot Springs was incorporated in 1929. 

According to a 1911 Lake Shore Sentinel article, a public auction was established for bidders to purchase lots to develop the town and white settlers predicted Camas Hot Springs would be “one of the best health resorts in the West.” Officials claimed that hundreds of people visited the hot springs every year and that “many invalids have been permanently cured in a very short time.”

Prior to white settlement, officials also said “the Indians have always used the waters and they claim some wonderful cures that have resulted from their use and from early spring until late in the fall, there are usually 500 to 1,000 Indians camped around them.” In 1910, approximately 1,500 white people visited the springs and used the waters for “every known disease and in every case, they got good results.” In the same year, two hotels, two livery barns, two stores and several other small businesses launched with about 1,100 homesteaders on the land around Hot Springs, according to the Lake Shore Sentinel. 

After the first well was drilled in 1911, stronger flows were discovered in 1913 and by 1915, 40 wells had been drilled, according to the USGS report. Hotels began sprouting across the region in Sanders County and businesses like the Headquarters Hotel, the Florence Hotel and Hotel DeMers also advertised daily, weekly and monthly rates. The Depression-era Symes Hot Springs Hotel, which businessman Fred Symes built in 1929 and today offers hotel rooms, a restaurant and a wedding venue, was originally advertised as a medical springs. 

In the 1940s, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes developed the Camas Hot Springs Bathhouse, sometimes referred to as the “Corn Hole.” The three-story, $500,000 facility advertised 120-degree water, walk-in steam rooms, sweat rooms and a massage department that would help visitors “find dramatic relief.”

Downtown Hot Springs, Montana on Feb. 26, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

But as business boomed for the next few decades in Hot Springs, medicinal soaking slowly phased out of American life by the 1980s and the town began to decline. After disrepair forced the tribal-operated bathhouse to shut down in the 1980s, visitation dropped off and residents worried that there would be nothing left in the town to attract tourists.

“I would bet that when school ends this spring, we will be seeing a lot of people packing up and leaving. There is nothing for them to do here anymore,” the former Hot Springs Mayor Virgil Mallory told the Missoulian in 1981. 

The abandoned gray-blue building resembling an old factory remains visible in Hot Springs today, offering a reminder of the community’s past.  

In a town that holds such a high concentration of quality hot springs, Devlin can’t wrap his head around the present economic circumstances. According to 2020 census data, the population of Hot Springs was 557 while the median household income was $21,806 and the employment rate was 31.6%.

“When soaking for health fell out of vogue, a lot of these places fell into economic decline,” Devlin said. “Hot Springs, Montana is economically depressed – why? Within an hour, you have the most booming real estate right in Montana, so why is this place depressed when it even has a natural resource that is considered – by hot spring lovers like me – the best in the country?”

Devlin said the modern hot spring resorts are designed with accommodations like bars and restaurants, which contrasts against the medicinal attractions that they previously boasted. With limited luxurious amenities, establishments like Alameda’s are not in high demand anymore. 

Customers today typically spend an average of a night or two at a hot springs resort, but Devlin said that, historically, visitors would spend weeks-long periods in Hot Springs.

Years ago, Devlin remembers meeting an old Canadian farmer who visited Alameda’s with his wife every year since 1945 to manage his rheumatism with a 21-day therapy session.

Devlin said the balneotherapy movement — or, the science of soaking in mineral water for health reasons — was ingrained in the culture.

Momoyo Kobayashi, who works in the Alameda’s office and helps manage the business, says that she grew up soaking every day in hot springs, which in her home country of Japan are known as “onsens.”

“We don’t even think about it – that’s our culture,” Kobayashi said. “Every night, we soak.”

Devlin said if a large-scale soaking culture existed in modern America like it does in places like Japan and Europe, Hot Springs would be booming, just as it was in the 1950s. 

While there’s debate around the world over which springs possess the best water, Devlin said there’s no question in his mind that the Camas aquifer reigns supreme. Although he acknowledges that every hot springs resort owner claims to be sitting on the best water, he insists that, in the case of Alameda’s and the community of Hot Springs, it’s true. 

Unique to Hot Springs, the springs are artesian, meaning they are trapped in underground chambers by rock barriers, protecting the resource from other elements. Non-artesian springs rise to the surface naturally and carry ground-level contaminants. The water is also safe to drink, which Devlin says is rich in health benefits but warns the magnesium can cause drowsiness and regular bowel movements. 

According to an analytical report, Alameda’s Hot Springs has a high concentration of magnesium and silicas, which is the root of many theories over why it’s so rare. The water at Big Medicine Hot Springs and Symes Hot Springs Hotel also come from the Camas aquifer, but Wild Horse Hot Springs on the east side of Montana Highway 28 has its own water source.

“I’d say probably half the people in town think it’s silica, but the other group thinks it’s the gases in the water … that’s how you get this silky, smooth feeling. But some people say it’s the lithium doing that,” Devlin said. “I don’t think we really know what the exact cause is.”

Devlin has soaked in thermal springs around the world, and he said his first soak at age 20 changed his life forever. 

In 1974, Devlin said a near-death experience in his home state of Connecticut prompted a hitchhiking journey to Alaska. On his way back to the continental U.S., he hitched a ride in Canada in the middle of winter and found a hot spring on the map as he was navigating. 

While it wasn’t designated a provincial park at the time, he stumbled upon steaming water surrounded by green, lush vegetation in the middle of a snowy landscape at the Liard River Hot Springs in British Columbia. 

“We thought, ‘what the heck is this?’” Devlin said. “It was very hot, and it was very, very inspiring to me. So, I’ve been soaking in hot springs ever since. I was blown away.”

Stelter, who has been a part-owner of Alameda’s since 2006, moved to the Flathead in 1980. Soon after, he discovered Hot Springs and became an avid soaker in between swims in Flathead Lake. In the early days of coaching the swim team at Flathead High School, he became the first person to swim across the 25-mile length of Flathead Lake from Polson to Bigfork, doing so in 1986 at the age of 35.

 “It’s not an afternoon bath,” he told former Missoulian newspaper reporter Butch Larcombe of the 14-hour swim in Flathead Lake. 

But after 25 years of coaching at Flathead High School, and 20 years after his first swim across Flathead Lake, he became a business partner of Alameda’s Hot Springs, where he’s still convinced the springs are superior. 

“I’m a pretty devout soaker and I look for them when I’m backpacking or climbing, but this water is like no other water that I’ve ever experienced,” Stelter said. “One of the things I’ve noticed is it’s just silky smooth and the water quality is so different. I’ve heard that Baden-Baden in West Germany has the most famous hot springs in the world and this water is comparable. I would say it’s the best in the U.S.”