Probable convoluted and dramatic history of Sleeping Child Hot Springs

Salish delegation to Washington DC 1884, to plead to remain in their homeland of the Bitterroot Valley. They were forcably removed in 1891.

Salish delegation to Washington DC 1884, to plead to remain in their homeland of the Bitterroot Valley. They were forcibly removed in 1891.

Prehistory: Sometime in the distance past, two high volume hot mineral springs emerged from rock faces of the rock-walled canyon at Sleeping Child Hot Springs. A 1980 geology report states that the water comes from a fracture of the Idaho Batholith.

Pre-1880s: The hot springs were used by the Bitterroot Salish people (who spent their winters in the Bitterroot Valley) and other nomadic tribes as a peaceful healing place for thousands of years. Often hot springs were considered places of peace for tribes who were enemies so that they could be used by all. The Salish people named the hot springs after a coyote creation story.

In the Salish language, the name of the hot springs is “Snetetšé” — sleeping (or sometimes “weeping”) child. The creation story ends after coyote kills monsters disguised as crying babies. Coyote declares “From his time forward … this spring of hot water will be here to heal all generations to come.”

1891: The Salish are forcibly moved north from their homeland in the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Lodge/hotel at Sleeping Child Hot Springs circa 1915-1920. It later burned to the ground.

Lodge/hotel at Sleeping Child Hot Springs circa 1915-1920. It later burned to the ground.

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Tents and small cabins around the hot springs, circa 1900. Colorized postcard.

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At the end of Sleeping Child Road, the gates to the hot springs declare it to be private property.

Late 1800s to late 1900s: 40 acres including Sleeping Child Hot Springs is homesteaded or taken over by other means by Euro-American settlers. It is then privately owned by a series of families, but open to the public for a daily fee. Totally surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land, the hot springs is a half-hour drive from downtown Hamilton at the end of Sleeping Child Road in a beautiful box canyon with high, sheer walls. A lot of large and small wildlife visit, including whitetail and mule deer and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. According to old postcards, the hot springs remained a very popular recreational area with camping, and at one time during the 1920s had a large lodge/hotel, cabins, etc, for Bitterrooters through the generations. Early on, the railroad owned a right-of-way to it (probably in hopes of it being a route/pass to Anaconda area but perhaps as a destination for tourists). A popular Forest Service campground just outside the property was buried by a rock slide in more recent years, and not rebuilt. Rumor has it that the last family owner attempted to interest both the City of Hamilton and Ravalli County in purchasing the hot springs for about $200,000 and making it public. The local governments declined to buy. A Southern California cosmetic dentist purchases the hot springs for $225,000 in the late 1980s and closes it to the public.

Early 1990s: Spokane developer Ed Chopot purchases the hot springs. He tears down or remodels the old buildings and builds a 5-story concrete, rock, steel and glass ‘lodge.’  Also on the property: caretaker’s home,  four condominiums, heliport, and hangar. The entire complex, including paved areas and roads, is geothermal heated.

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The main pool, with two hotter, smaller pools just above it. The 5-story lodge towers over the pools.

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Photo taken by Melissa Ann Atwood from a hiking trail on US Forest Service property above the hot springs.

2000 Quitclaim deed is filed, giving property to son Joel Chopot (who lived on the property for years).

2002 Joel Chopot relinquishes ownership back to his father. Four Nevada casinos file suit against Ed Chopot for more than $11 million in gambling debts. They also accuse and file suit against the transfer of title from Ed to his son Joel (supposedly in order to avoid having to use Sleeping Child Hot Springs assets to pay gambling debts). Ed Chopot proves that he transferred title previous to incurring debts and the case is dismissed. Rumors fly about more than $30 million total gambling debt and of more casinos joining the suit. Years of back property taxes are owed.

2003: Hamilton businessmen Harold Mildenberger and John Blahnik become owners, create Sleeping Child Hot Springs LLC as the holding company and immediately put the property up for sale.

2005: Ed Chopot flees the country and is later brutally murdered in Costa Rica. Most people assume that his murder is tied to his Las Vegas gambling debts, but this has not been proven.

2005: Robert Joe Beasley, a Whitefish businessman, borrows $2.4 million from the Whitefish Credit Union and purchases Sleeping Child Hot Springs for $5.9 million, with the $2.4 million used as the down payment.

2006: Beasley is unable to continue payments on the $3+ million balance. At the time, Beasley had the property listed for sale at $18 million, and he owed $28,000 in back taxes. Mildenberger and Blahnik agreed to modify the sales contract, but after a second year of defaults, they terminate the contract and get the property back, keeping the down payment.

2014: Sleeping Child Hot Springs for All, a local non-profit organization, is formed in an effort to acquire the hot springs, make it publicly-owned and open it to all the public. That effort is ongoing. Sleeping Child Hot Springs for All partners with Trust Montana in Missoula, and makes an offer to the owners for a tax write-off in exchange for putting the hot springs into a public trust. The owners refuse to negotiate the offer.

2003- 2016: Property is listed for sale as a corporate lodge/retreat and is a vacation/event rental. Current asking price is $9.8 million. Ravalli County 2014 Assessed taxable value was $2,372,374. Property taxes in 2014 were $25,782.

Hello hot springs lovers!

Swimmers at SCHS circa 1920s

Welcome, all lovers of Sleeping Child Hot Springs, just outside of Hamilton, Montana. Sleeping Child Hot Springs was privately owned since 1891 to about 1992, but was available for day use with a small fee. It was extremely popular, both with nearby residents, visitors from Missoula and far beyond. The photo above is of a group of bathers at the hot springs circa 1920s.  The hot springs has been for sale since 2003 and is closed to the general public (groups can rent it as a corporate retreat/lodge).

1982 SCHS photo courtesy Fances Matlock

1982 SCHS photo courtesy Frances Matlock

In 2014 a group of local hot springs lovers formed a non-profit organization with a mission:

“To acquire, permanently conserve, manage and protect the special place that is sleeping Child Hot Springs, and make it available for use by all people.”

Here is a short run-down of what our group has accomplished since the winter of 2014:

We contacted five other hot springs around the west that are either publicly-owned or owned by a coalition of public and private agencies and/or trusts. They were all very open about how they came to be, how they operate fiscally and the fact that they were all very solvent.

An old post card about visiting the hot springs.

An old post card about visiting the hot springs.

We held four months of meetings with interested people in the winter and spring of 2014, formed a board of directors that summer, wrote bylaws and articles of incorporation and became a non-profit organization in the fall (thanks to about $600 in local individual donations given to us in person at our booth at the Farmers Market and other events). We also personally surveyed hundreds of valley residents about Sleeping Child Hot Springs at Hamilton Farmer’s Market, Apple Day, Bitterroot Day and Bitterroot All Local Show to ask about their personal recollections and how they felt about public ownership. We set up a Facebook page to keep information flowing (look how many people are following us now — more than 1,500!).

Hamilton Farmers Market Sleeping Child Hot Springs for All booth, with volunteers Tom Potts, Natalie Harper and Eve Meng.

Hamilton Farmers Market Sleeping Child Hot Springs for All booth, with volunteers Tom Potts, Natalie Harper and Eve Meng.

In January 2015, we received a $00 Humanities Montana grant in order to bring Tony Incashola, Director of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee to Hamilton to talk about the Salish life in the Bitterroot Valley.

Tony Incashola talked about Bitterroot Salish people's long history in the Bitterroot Valley.

Tony Incashola talked about Bitterroot Salish people’s long history in the Bitterroot Valley.

The Salish have very long ties with Sleeping Child Hot Springs and named it. Tony spoke to a large appreciative audience on March 7, 2015, and we hope to bring him back next winter to tell Salish Creation Stories (which can only be told in winter), including how Sleeping Child Hot Springs got its name.

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In April 2015 we became a member of Trust Montana (who have mentored us in the last year), and have held a series of meetings with them. We are in the process of forming ideas for a kind of partnership with them and then making an offer to the owners of Sleeping Child Hot Springs.

Feel free to contact Dorinda Troutman, Chair of the Board of Directors, with any questions, or to help in our effort. 406-363-1806. Be sure and visit and like our Facebook page.

Update! (What we have been doing lately)

Group of people with pile of hands

We are forming a coalition!

Update: Lots of projects are moving forward. We just had our second group meeting with Trust Montana folks (Missoula) and the new Community Land Trust (for agriculture land) being put together by Jill Davies of Sustainable Living Systems (Victor). This is the beginning of coalition-building toward our goal of acquiring Sleeping Child Hot Springs, and exploring the possibility of putting it into a land trust in order to keep it safe forever and also open to the public.
This summer we will also have a Missoula and Ravalli County resident Survey as the first part of a feasibility study — an evaluation and analysis of our project.
Our next meeting will be Monday, June 1, 6:00 pm at the Stevi Library meeting room (door to left of main entrance). If you would like to carpool from Hamilton, have any questions or would like to do more, call me, Dorinda Troutman at 363-1806.

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