Glacier National Park – The Backbone of the World


Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park.

Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park.

Known to Native Americans as the “Shining Mountains” and the “Backbone of the World”, Glacier National Park preserves more than a million acres of forests, alpine meadows, lakes, rugged peaks and glacial-carved valleys in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Throughout time, people have sought out Glacier National Park’s rugged peaks, clear waters, and glacial-carved valleys; its landscape giving both desired resources and inspiration to those persistent enough to venture through it.

Evidence of human use in this area dates back to over 10,000 years. In prehistoric times, the Glacier National Park area was one of many travel routes used by American Indians to cross the mountains and access resources, such as bison, were found on the east side. The Kootenai Indians call Lake McDonald “The Place Where They Dance.”

Blackfoot Teepee

Siksika Blackfoot Indian and Teepee, 1927, Edward S. Curtis

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. The ancient tradition ended with the arrival of homesteader Milo Apgar and other white settlers in the early 1890s.

By the time the first European explorers came into this region, several different tribes inhabited the area. The Blackfoot Indians controlled the vast prairies east of the mountains, while the Salish and Kootenai Indians lived in the western valleys, traveling over the mountains in search of game and to hunt the great herds of buffalo on the eastern plains.

The majority of early European explorers came to this area in search of beaver and other pelts. 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 fur traders were soon followed by miners and, eventually, settlers looking for land.

In 1891, the Great Northern Railway extended its transcontinental line from Marias Pass, on the Continental Divide, down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, to the Flathead Valley. As the new railroad line spurred settlement and agricultural development in the Flathead Valley, the Lake McDonald area soon emerged as a recreational hinterland for the region. While the area around the lake was not hospitable for farming or grazing, it nonetheless attracted a trickle of homesteaders who envisioned making their living through a combination of hunting, trapping and providing tourist accommodations. The first homesteaders to enter the area actually arrived a few months prior to the completion of the railroad, traveling over a railroad road that was constructed in the process of building the line.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Crossing to the north side of the Middle Fork, the homesteaders passed through or nearby the future headquarters area of the park on their way to Lake McDonald. The first homestead claimant was German immigrant Frank C. Geduhn. Sent by Frank Miles, of the Butte and Montana Commercial Company, to locate a water claim, Geduhn reached Lake McDonald in February 1891. Impressed by the scenic beauty of the place, he duly filed the water claim in the county courthouse and then returned to the area to stake a homestead claim for himself at the foot of the lake. John “Scotty” Findlay was the second homesteader, making his claim in the spring, and John Elsner was possibly the third, staking a claim that summer. About the same time, partners Milo Apgar and Charles Howes left their homes on the east side of the mountains and followed the Great Northern Railway route over Marias Pass, arriving in the area in June. While Findlay and Elsner made claims at the head of the lake, Apgar and Howes established homesteads at the foot of the lake on either side of the outlet, McDonald Creek. At the end of 1892, Findlay drowned in McDonald Creek and Geduhn took over Findlay’s claim at the head of the lake, vacating his own at the foot.

Great Northern Railroad

Great Northern Railroad

Over the next few years, these settlers were joined by others, including Denis Comeau and George Snyder, who established homesteads along the lake’s east shore, and Frank Kelly, who joined those at the head of the lake. In 1893, these early settlers cooperated in building a primitive wagon road from the north bank of the Middle Fork to Lake McDonald. It is likely that this road was built on approximately the same alignment as the first park road and, therefore, passed through the future headquarters area. Although the road was less than three miles long, the combination of dense forest and marshy ground made it a challenging undertaking. Two years after it was built, the settlers combined efforts a second time to widen the road and corduroy sections that were particularly wet and muddy. One aim of this improvement project was to make the road passable for a large freight wagon, as George Snyder had purchased a 40-foot steamboat to put on Lake McDonald. His boat had to be hauled overland from the railroad depot, being much too big to navigate McDonald Creek.

As early as 1894, the Great Northern Railway began encouraging passengers to debark at Belton Station and take advantage of the primitive tourist accommodations found at the lake. The early settlers around Lake McDonald eagerly sought tourists, for tourism provided their main source of income. Within a few years, they had established a number of rental cabins, as well as the first “Glacier House” hotel, the future Lake McDonald Lodge, built by George Snyder in 1895. In addition to offering tourist lodging, they provided meals, guide services, and transportation. In the meantime, an entrepreneur named Edward E. Dow established a hotel business at Belton Station. Dow’s first hotel, built during the winter of 1892–1893, was a single-story log building. After two seasons, Dow tore it down and replaced it with a two-story frame structure. Eventually, Dow added a dining room and store, ran a post office, and operated a stage service three times daily between the Belton townsite (today’s West Glacier) and the settlement at the foot of Lake McDonald, which became known as Apgar. Transportation between Belton and Apgar was eased somewhat with the construction of a bridge across the Middle Fork in 1895.

By the late 1800s, influential leaders like George Bird Grinnell, an anthropologist, historian, and naturalist, pushed for the creation of a national park.

The future park headquarters area was included, along with a few million acres of surrounding territory, in the Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve proclaimed in 1897. When the administration of the forest reserve was transferred to the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, the new agency established a ranger station at Lake McDonald.

In 1906, George Snyder sold his homestead and hotel property on Lake McDonald to John E. Lewis, who developed the present Lake McDonald Lodge and moved to Belton, where he built a hotel on land that ten years later would become part of the headquarters area. In 1910, George Bird Grinnell and others saw their efforts rewarded when President Taft signed the bill establishing Glacier as the country’s 10th national park.

Within this beautiful park, visitors can found multiple recreational opportunities. There are more than 130 named lakes, more than 740 miles of trails, and a wide diversity of wildlife including 70 species of mammals such as grizzly bear, wolverine, gray wolf and lynx; and over 270 species of birds that visit or reside in the park, including such varied species as harlequin ducks, dippers and golden eagles. Two historic hotels are available, plus 13 campgrounds, and a multitude of activities including biking, boating, fishing, horseback rides, and more.

Throughout the park, visitors can also see a number of historic buildings and historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among these 375 historic properties, six National Historic Landmarks.

A deer in Sullivan Meadows at Glacier National Park.

A deer in Sullivan Meadows at Glacier National Park.

Contact Information:

Glacier National Park
Park Headquarters
PO Box 128
West Glacier, Montana 59936


Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2018.

Source: National Park Service



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