WARM SPRINGS — It could have been any December in the last 200 years, but this was this one.
Whitetails were scattered munching in ones and threes across the acres of lawn behind the state hospital. Their heads jerked up and their feet got happy as a strange car approached in the gathering dusk.
This is a place of mystery, not welcoming but with no signs that say stay away.
Dozens of houses, barns and institutional-looking facilities are on the clean, neat grounds, some of them beautifully abandoned. In chorus they say “old.”
Several of the buildings must date back to territorial days, to the years after 1877 when two doctors were awarded the contract to expand their spa and hotel here into a care facility for Montana’s mental patients. It became a state institution in 1912.
Surely each building has its own tales, but the story we were after is on the far back side of the campus. The strange car pulled up alongside on a deeply rutted road. The skittish deer went back to their munchings.
The Warm Springs Mound is 40 feet high, formed by thermal waters bubbling up over eons and depositing minerals higher and higher around the vent.
In most ways it looks as it did to a party of miners in 1863, "like the jagged crater to a mighty cauldron."
Fenced off and all but hidden by trees and buildings from mainstream Montana, the mound is set against a backdrop of the Flint Creek Range and Mount Haggin in the Pintlars, not to mention the defunct Anaconda Smoke Stack three miles away, the tallest masonry structure in the world. The bubbling Warm Springs Mound is an anomaly of nature that represents a forgotten piece of Montana’s history. Rising over the otherwise level valley floor — “one of the most striking natural curiosities in the West, that land of curiosities and freaks of nature,” as the Butte Miner described in 1889.
You can’t do this anymore but in 1841 Father Pierre DeSmet, on his way to establish a Jesuit mission in the Bitterroot Valley, climbed to the top, which he said was accessible on one side only.
“The water bubbles up, and escapes through a number of openings at the base of the mound, the circumference of which appears to be about sixty feet,” DeSmet reported. “The waters at the base are of different temperatures: hot, lukewarm and cold, though but a few steps distant from each other. Some are indeed so hot that meat may be boiled in them. We actually tried the experiment.”
Long before his or other European eyes were set on the Warm Springs Mound, deer congregated here for the grass kept green by the warm water and for the salt lick.
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From a distance, especially in the cold when steam emitted from the cauldron, it resembled a tepee of one of the many tribes that passed through or camped here.
You’re getting an idea of why Interstate 15 and 90 travelers today top a pass called Deer Lodge into the Deer Lodge Valley to get to the town of Deer Lodge, crossing Warm Springs Creek at Warm Springs along the way.
According to John Willard’s 1964 “Adventure Trails In Montana,” trapper Angus Ferris was lured to this wide valley between the Continental Divide and the Flint Creek Range in 1831 by 100 lodges of Pend Oreille Indians on their road to the buffalo. Ferris said he saw 3,000 horses “grazing knee-deep in the meadows.”
He must have seen as many whitetails, because he named the whole valley Deer House Plains. That morphed into Deer Lodge.
The Shoshone name for the Warm Springs area meant “white-tailed deer’s lodge” because of the mound.
An engraving of the “Health Resort at Warm Springs, Montana Territory” in the Butte Daily Miner in 1888 shows the layout from left to right: a two-story hotel in front of the mound, a public plunge bath and general bath for patients, several individual “bath rooms,” the home and office of the proprietors, the old three-story hospital, and a quaint convalescent ward with a front porch at each of three levels.
In a separate cutout is the mound, with a fence lining an attractive walkway to and partway around it, and what look like wooden steps circling the mound to the top. A pavilion at the apex had circular seats around it, an accompanying story informed, adding, “The view from the mound is grand and extensive, from the low Deer Lodge Pass, at the head of the valley, to the Blackfoot hill, eighteen miles below.”
The observation deck, or at least its round roof, remains there in 2019.
That roof combed out a distant memory for the stranger in the car below. Sometime in the late 1950s or early '60s, a small boy climbed those steps and looked down into the boiling cauldron.
His parents and siblings must have been there. His grandmother surely was. She would have been pushing 70 and had lived her whole life in the Deer Lodge Valley. It seemed to the boy she was excited for her grandkids to see it, despite its Old Faithful-like warnings of how dangerously hot the water was. He came away with the impression that if he fell in he would surely die. It had happened before, he was assured.
The scalding waters in the mound were long ago locked and sealed by a metal plate.
Signs on the woven-wire fence at the base still warn: “Danger. Hot Water. Keep Out” and “Caution: Unstable Ground. Do Not Enter. Very Hot Water Below Surface.”
Contrast the forbidding face to a scene in 1861, before there was a Montana, when pioneer Louis Maillet was bringing freight wagons back from St. Louis. His arrival was eagerly awaited by Deer Lodge Valley denizens Johnnie Grant (think Grant-Kohrs Ranch) and John Powell (as in Mount Powell and Powell County).
“Every day they would go on top of the Warm Springs mound and look for dust up the road, which would be a sign that I was coming,” Maillet wrote for the Butte Miner in 1895. “Sure enough that day they saw the dust and rode forward to meet us. I never was more pleased to see any one. "