“Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain-peaks, lies an unmapped corner — the Crown of the Continent.”
— George Bird Grinnell
Glacier National Park in Montana, deemed “America’s Switzerland”, covers almost 1,600 square miles that are filled with pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, waterfalls, and spectacular lakes. Here, may be seen, in all the majesty of their rock-bound settings, the remnants of the massive ice sheets that played a big part in shaping the surface of the earth millions of years ago. Not one or two, but 25 of them are clinging to the sides and ridges of the Continental Divide. Within the park are more rugged mountain peaks, glaciers, picturesque lakes, more streams and waterfalls than exist anywhere else in America in so condensed an area.
Within the park, physical evidence of human use dates back more than 10,000 years when Native American tribes utilized the area for hunting, fishing, ceremonies, and gathered plants and berries. When the first white explorers began arriving in the region, the Blackfoot controlled the prairies on the east side of Glacier, while the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai lived in the more forested west side. The Indians also traveled east of the mountains to hunt buffalo.
These indigenous people left a lasting impression of their occupation of this region, as the names of many of the mountains, lakes, and waterfalls still bear the original Indian names, such as Rising Wolf, Going-to-the-Sun and Almost-a-Dog Mountains, Morning Eagle Falls, and Two Medicine Lakes. They also contributed to the mysticism and romance of the country by the tales of their early day ceremonies in the walled-in valleys, their hunting exploits on the prairies, and the religious significance they attach to several of the high peaks. During these years, when their hunting grounds extended from the Missouri River on the south to the Saskatchewan River in Canada, this region was known to them as the “Land of Shining Mountains.” The Blackfoot considered the bold, grey perpendicular peak of Chief Mountain sacred because according to the legend of the old Medicine Men, this was “where the Great Spirit lived when he made the world.”
The Kootenai Indians call Lake McDonald “The Place Where They Dance.” Since time immemorial, the Kootenai had returned to the foot of the lake to dance and sing songs. Here, they received help and guidance from different spirits.
Explorations to the area by white trappers began in the late 1700s and by the turn of the century, French, English, and Spanish trappers came in search of beaver and other pelts. They also traded with the local tribal communities. In 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came within 50 miles of the area that is now the park.
The name “Lake McDonald” most likely derives from that of a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader, Duncan McDonald. On one occasion, McDonald was on an expedition to the east side of the mountains when his scouts warned him of a Blackfoot war party waiting in ambush in the mountain pass. The party turned back and camped at a beautiful lake, and McDonald carved his name on one of the big cedar trees there. When his name was later found, the lake was named after him.
“The sun set gloriously behind the Chief Mountain just as I would have given anything for one half-hour’s longer light. I was, most probably, the only white man that had ever been there.”
Captain John Palliser, August 8, 1858
By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the mountainous region of Glacier had been “discovered” and explored. Fur trappers had crossed these mountains and some continued to live nearby; missionaries had visited the region; a major American railroad survey scouted possible routes through the area; a British survey team skirted the region; attempts were made to pacify the nearby Indians, and two official boundary survey teams came to mark the boundary line. However, their collective impact upon Glacier was negligible for the Blackfoot continued to dominate the region until the 1870s, deterring any influx of settlers or any other travel through the mountain passes.
The Blackfoot Indians continued to dominate the region until the 1870s. However, white settlers would soon start to take a foothold in the area as greater interest in exploration and exploitation of resources increased. After the Civil War, men began to come in greater numbers to prospect for minerals, to hunt for animals, to establish homesteads, and to develop businesses. With them, they brought intentions of acquisition and exploitation as well as a desire for economic gain. As the Indians’ resources were depleted, the tribes eventually signed treaties that would increasingly confine them to reservations and leave them dependent on the U.S. government. Today, the 1.5-million acre Blackfoot Reservation adjoins the east side of the park, while the Salish and Kootenai reservation, encompassing 1.3 million acres, is located southwest of Glacier mostly along the Flathead River.
The first railroad tracks were completed over Marias Pass by the Great Northern Railway in 1891, increasing the number of people in the area. They came to trap, establish homesteads, prospect, or just to enjoy the scenery. Soon a number of small towns developed.
The first buildings constructed in the area were homestead cabins, but early visitors and residents soon realized the opportunities for tourism. By 1892, settlers Milo Apgar and Charlie Howe were offering rental cabins, meals, pack horses, guided tours, and boat trips for visitors who arrived in Belton on the Great Northern Railway. Frank Geduhn offered cabins and services at the head of the lake.
At this time, the west entrance to what is now Glacier was shrouded and tree-lined with towering, ancient western red cedars. After visitor arrived by train at Belton, they were rowed across the Middle Fork, until a bridge was built in 1897. From there, they would ride in a stagecoach along a rugged dirt road that connected the river to the foot of Lake McDonald, where guests would board George Snyder’s steamboat for the eight-mile trip up the lake to the Snyder Hotel. It took most of the day to reach the hotel if all the equipment ran smoothly. After a night at the hotel, visitors could ride horseback into the mountains.
Miners also came searching for copper and gold. Under pressure from miners, the mountains east of the Continental Divide were acquired by the U.S. government from the Blackfoot in 1895. The mining towns of St. Mary and Altyn were within the present-day boundaries of the park at about the copper was booming in Butte and Anaconda, Montana. Though the miners hoped to strike it rich, no large copper or gold deposits were ever located. Although the mining boom lasted only a few years, abandoned mine shafts are still found in several places in the park.
Around the turn of the century, people started to look at the land differently. Rather than just seeing the minerals they could mine or land to settle on, they started to recognize the value of its spectacular scenic beauty. The area that would become Glacier National Park first received protection from Congress as a forest preserve in 1900 but was still open to mining and homesteading. In the meantime, people like George Bird Grinnell, an anthropologist, historian, and naturalist, and Great Northern Railway president Louis Hill, were pushing for the creation of a national park. In 1910 when President Taft signed the bill establishing Glacier as the country’s 10th national park.
Afterward, the growing staff of park rangers needed housing and offices to help protect the new park, and the increasing number of park visitors required roads, trails, and lodging facilities. The Great Northern Railway built a series of hotels and small backcountry chalets, throughout the park. These facilities were built in a Swiss-style with characteristics like gabled roofs, exposed beams, ornate decorative moldings, balconies, and plenty of large windows. Three of these historic hotels continue to operate today, including the Glacier Park Lodge, built in 1912-13; the Lake McDonald Lodge, built in 1913-14; and the Many Glacier Hotel, built in 1914-15. The backcountry Granite Park Chalet, built in 1914 and 1915, also provides overnight accommodations.
Eventually, the demand for a road across the mountains led to the building of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The construction of the road was a huge undertaking and the final section over Logan Pass wasn’t completed until 1932, after 11 years of work. Today, the road is considered an engineering feat and was a National Historic Landmark in 1997. It is one of the most scenic roads in North America. The construction of the road forever changed the way visitors would experience Glacier National Park, as visitors could drive over sections of the park that previously had taken days of horseback riding to see.
When the park was established, an existing wagon road up the North Fork became the western boundary of the park. This placed 44 homesteads to the east of the new boundary within the park. This area had long attracted pioneers due to its abundant wildlife, minerals, timber, fresh water, and the potential of coal and oil. The earlier arrival of the Great Northern Railway provided people living settlers of the North Fork Valley to sell resources to a national market. Though the homesteaders retained their private ownership of their lands, new park rules restricted hunting, trapping, and logging and the private landowners felt that the National Park Service had an unofficial policy of trying to extinguish private property titles.
In 1912, every homesteader on the east side of the river signed a petition requesting that the North Fork Valley be removed from the park’s boundaries. The petition stated, “We submit that it is more important to furnish homes to a land-hungry people than to lock the land up as a rich man’s playground.” Park Superintendent Logan responded by saying, “Instead of giving up any land there I think we should take steps to obtain more land; in fact, get rid of every settler on the North Fork of the Flathead River.”