Natural Attraction

'Masy Clifts'

Granite outcrop at Lolo Hot Springs

Chauncy Woodworth Collection, K. Ross Toole Archives, University of Montana, Missoula, No. 75-188.

'Masy clifts' of grey freestone rock, Lewis called them. Freestone, according to a contemporary dictionary,1 denoted "a kind of grit, or sandstone" that could easily be split into slabs or blocks along natural fracture lines. Usually the term was applied to sandstone or limestone, but the conspicuous outcrops such as this one, which is adjacent to the hot springs on upper Lolo Creek, are granitic igneous rocks of the huge Idaho batholith that lies deeply submerged beneath the Bitterroot Mountains. Lewis and Clark must be forgiven for their errors in geological exploration, since the science was still young, and they were ill-prepared to deal with it. For more on the geology of the Bitterroot Range, see "The Rocks They Walked On."

Horse-drawn stage at Granite Hot Springs

Two horses pulling a covered wagon

Virginia Foster Photograph Collection, K. Ross Toole Archives, University of Montana, Missoula, No. 88-86.

The wagon road from Lolo to Granite Hot Springs was scraped into the narrow canyon in 1888 to make the hot springs more easily accessible to customers from town. Travelers were compelled to ford Lolo Creek 29 times in the 25-mile drive, which could be a worrisome prospect in the spring, when the water was swift, deep, and ice-cold.

Lolo Hot Springs

1920's auto at Granite Hot Springs

Virginia Foster Photograph Collection, K. Ross Toole Archives, University of Montana, Missoula, No. 88-80.

By 1910 there were 350 automobiles in Missoula, and the drive up Lolo Canyon to the springs was a standard test of the sturdiness and reliability of any vehicle. The building shown in both photographs was the hotel at Granite Hot Springs, a quarter of a mile from the others. This land and the springs are still privately owned, and are not now open to the public.

Our 21st-century obsession with personal cleanliness would have puzzled and perhaps even amused Lewis and Clark's generation, situated as it was some three-quarters of a century B.B.—"before bacteria" were discovered. Although intimations of the real causes of "dis-ease" had occurred to a few scientists in the late 17th century, it was not until Louis Pasteur broke the barrier in the early 1880s that set in motion the sciences of bacteriology and immunology, and made civilization aware of what had been bugging humans since the beginning of time. Meanwhile, from the 1790s on, people patronized the new commercial public bath houses in eastern cities, unaware of how unhealthful they really were. Household conveniences were better only insofar as they kept the bacteria in the family. Not until 1883 were the first cast-iron bathtubs with easy-to-clean enameled interiors introduced into private homes, although only the well-to-do could afford them at the time. By the early 1920s only one percent of all homes in the U.S. had indoor plumbing, and even then running hot water was a rare luxury.

In northern latitudes, especially in cold weather, the best a person could do was stand within reach of a pan of hot water on the wood stove and wash up as far as possible, down as far as possible, and occasionally wash "possible." Or one could put a few inches of cold water in a copper tub, fetch a teakettle of boiling water to mix with it, then hop in—standing, kneeling or, depending on the size of the bather, sitting—and scrub briskly before it cooled below comfort level. Unless one could call upon servants or slaves for help—as Jefferson, Lewis, and Clark could—even that routine was easiest for children and young adults. For the lame and the elderly it was usually not worth the effort. Perfumes, whether bought from a pharmacist or concocted of sweet herbs and alcohol, were more convenient. The general treatment for body odor was simply to get used to it. A person could go for years without getting wet all over at one time. In fact, many people considered it unhealthful to immerse one's body in water, as evidenced by the disturbing, even frightening, observation that the flesh of one's fingers shriveled up after a few minutes of soaking.

On the other hand, natural hot running water from a geothermal spring, which never cooled off and perpetually refreshed itself, represented the acme of pleasure and delight, not only for the sake of cleanliness but especially for the supposedly healthful effect of of the minerals in the otherwise pure water. The extent of that benefit was easily recognizable by the water's smell and taste, both qualities usually being attributed to sulfur, whether or not there was actually any in it. Contemporary wisdom held that the smellier the water, the more healthful it must be. The worse the taste, the better. Private Joe Whitehouse of the Corps of Discovery noted, with perhaps some satisfaction, that several of the men drank the water from these hot springs and found that "it has a little sulpur taste and verry clear."


1. Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (Hartford, Connecticut, 1806).

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust