Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What happened to the other 7 backcountry chalets in Glacier?

Did you know that there were a total of nine backcountry chalets in Glacier National Park at one point? So what happened to the other seven?

In the early 1900s some Americans were becoming alarmed over the increased spending of American dollars on European travel. While discussing Glacier one day, Senator "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman of South Carolina stated: "It is very ridiculous to me to see the amount of money spent by Americans to see the scenery of Europe without having first seen what we have at home." This concern provided one of the motivations for creating a national park at Glacier. Having an "American Alps," or a "Switzerland of the United States," such as Glacier, allowed America to compete against Canadian and European resorts and tourist attractions.

The Great Northern Railway played an extremely important role in the establishment of a national park during this time period as well. The Great Northern had a rail line running along the southern edge of Glacier, and saw the establishment of a national park as a way of increasing passengers on their trains, while also increasing their revenues.

So it was against this backdrop that the president of the Great Northern Railway, Louis W. Hill, began building a number of hotels and chalets throughout the park in the 1910s as a way of promoting tourism. These buildings were modeled on Swiss architecture as part of Hill's plan to portray Glacier as the "American Alps" or "America's Switzerland". Included in this project was a network of 9 European-style chalet complexes. Thus, leaving from one of Hill's luxury lodges, guests could hike or ride to one these rustic chalets in less than a day.

The chalets, built between 1910 and 1915, included Sperry, Granite Park, Cut Bank, Goat Haunt, Going-to-the-Sun (Sun Point), St. Mary, Gunsight Lake, Many Glacier, and one of the Two-Medicine Chalets (the other was converted into a store, which is still in use today). In their prime, several of the Chalets would host 100 to 150 guests a night.

Today, only Sperry and Granite Park remain. Both owe their survival to the use of native stone as their primary construction material. The masonry of these chalets made it possible to withstand Montana’s brutal winters. In contrast, the wooden structures of the other chalets deteriorated so badly that many had to be razed during the late 1940s.

St. Mary Chalet:

The first chalet to meet its demise was Gunsight Lake when it was destroyed by an avalanche in 1916. The Many Glacier Chalets burned down during a massive forest fire in 1936. During WWII the remainder of the chalets were closed. The lack of use during the war years forced a reassessment of the facilities, and by 1944 park officials agreed that the St. Mary Chalet was no longer necessary and was subsequently destroyed. Similarly, the chalets at Cut Bank and Sun Point were regarded as "beyond repair" and an "eyesore" and were destroyed by 1949. Finally, the structure used for lodging at Two-Medicine was razed and burned in 1956.

It’s a shame that America had to lose these historic structures. Too bad the Great Northern Railway didn’t have the foresight to build more of the chalets out of native stone. Modern day hikers would have even more overnight destinations from which to consider.

For more historical perspective on this subject, check out Glacier's Historic Hotels And Chalets, which traces the creation and use of the Great Northern Railway’s hotels and chalet colonies in Glacier National Park, and includes many old photographs.




Jeff
Hiking in Glacier.com

2 comments:

  1. Tremendously historic post. I have visited Glacier National Park many times. Chalets are nice but The Going to the Sun Road is quite spectacular viewing. Well done with this.

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  2. Coloradocasters - thanks for the kudos! I stayed in Sperry several years ago. It rained on the entire hike on the way up, all night that night, and on the entire hike all the way back to Lake McDonald! It was still a great experience though...

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