LOLO HOT SPRINGS – They say if you know where to look on the rocky slope behind these steaming hot pools you’ll still find faint traces of America’s first luge run that waxed in late 1965 and waned within a couple of winters.
An enterprising group of Missoula businessmen and out-of-state sportsmen oversaw construction of a 1,000-meter track – the nation’s first luge-only run – so elite sledders could take to it on what syndicated sports columnist Jim Murray called “a tiny piece of suicide.”
Murray was reporting from Villard De Lans, France, outside Grenoble at the 1968 Winter Olympics. He’d gotten the skinny on the fledgling world of luge in America from Bruce Medley, an ROTC instructor at what was then called Montana State University in Missoula and the coach of the U.S. luge team.
Murray framed the problem the sport faced at the time.
“They have tried to construct runs at Missoula, Mont., Spokane and Vail, Colo.,” he wrote. “They all melted.”
Roger Eddy joined the university luge club in late 1965 and headed for “the Springs” the following weekend to meet with the president of Lolo Hot Springs Inc.
“I remember speaking with Gene Tripp and he says if you want to help build and maintain the track, you can use the sled and you can slide for free,” Eddy said. “That just fit the bill. That’s how I really got started in the luge.”
Eddy and others spent many a day and night at the run that first winter, usually heading up U.S. Highway 12 through the narrow canyon after class on Fridays.
“A bunch of us just got a room. We worked during the day and we sat in the hot springs at night and drank a few beers, and once we got it built we started sliding on it,” he said.
Eddy competed for Canada at Grenoble and for years after that, on the finest runs in Europe.
America’s first fling at Lolo, he allowed, was “pretty crude.”
“We just made slush and put it on the track by shovel and smoothed it off the best we could,” he said. “You can imagine it was pretty bumpy and rough and stuff. Nobody really had a good idea how tracks were built.”
“I think we had maybe two or three sleds, so we all had borrow sleds,” said another Jim Murray, this one a university student from Avon who went on to compete in three Olympics on those pieces of suicide.
“None of us had helmets either. A friend had his father’s old Air Force flight helmet, so when you got to the bottom you’d jump off quick and give it to the next guy so he could run up to the top to make his run.”
Murray recalled in detail the challenges of the Lolo track, which hosted a weather-marred U.S. and North American championship in early 1966.
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“You took off and you ran right into a curve, which really wasn’t a curve, you just kind of slid up on and slid off it,” Murray said from his home in Pinehurst, N.C. “But you wanted to kind of slide off so you got enough steam going that you could make the next one.
“If you didn’t screw up too badly you could get up over what we called the ‘hump’ there and you wouldn’t have to paddle. But if you screwed up too much you were out there paddling. In fact, I’d get off the sled and run to make that.”
You were still near the top of the run that stretched some two-thirds of a mile.
“Once you got to the next part you got going pretty good,” Murray said. “Then there was one soft spot where the hot springs ran underneath. You came down to bare rock there.”
The U.S. sent nine athletes to the Olympic luge competition in Grenoble. Most were either from Montana or going to college in Missoula. The rest, Murray said, were older Air Force men recruited by Medley.
Three women made the ’68 team – Sheila Johansen of Billings; UM student Ellen Williams of New Jersey, who as Ellen Henry lives in Clinton; and Montana’s most successful luge competitor, 16-year-old Kathleen Roberts of Miles City.
Roberts, now Roberts-Homsted, competed in three Olympics and won six U.S. and seven North American championships. Her sister Karen also made it to the Olympics in 1976, her first year of sliding.
Among the Olympians who got their luge starts at Lolo Hot Springs was a Missoula lad, Bob Rock Jr., whose father was one of the pushes behind its construction. A Hellgate High graduate, the younger Rock was 22 when he slid for the U.S. at the Games in Sapporo, Japan, in 1972.
Forgotten is the fact that the Montana track had a name. It was christened for Stan Benham, an Olympic bobsled champion who came to Missoula from Lake Placid, N.Y., to help get the luge run off the ground and ended up managing the Missoula Elks Club.
Snow was sparse in the winter of 1966-67, as the Jim Murray from Montana recalled. He said Medley had to look elsewhere for training grounds for the U.S. team in advance of the world championships in Europe. They tried Vail and Spokane, but wound up that winter and the next training mostly in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. The Stan Benham luge track in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana passed into history.
Eddy lives in southeastern British Columbia these days. Five summers ago he drove his motorbike through Montana on a solo trip to Austin, Texas, to visit his son. He stayed over one night in Missoula and took a side trip to Lolo Hot Springs the next day.
“I stopped, but there were so many people around and I had no idea where the run was,” he said.
Eddy sipped a cup of coffee at the restaurant and was soon on his way. He hadn’t the urge, he said, to pull someone aside and explain that this was the setting that launched a thousand Olympic dreams.
“No. I do have a little bit of modesty,” he said with a laugh. “It was kind of nice just sitting there thinking about it rather than talking about it.”