Glacier National Park is perceived by many as being one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48, for it is a destination rather than being a way-station on a route to somewhere. Comparatively few Americans have ever been here, which is a pity for it is a magical place of great beauty.
That the park exists at all we owe no small thanks to railroad tycoon, Louis Hill, son of James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern empire of trains and ships. Indeed, such a passion did Louis Hill have for the park and its development that he temporarily stepped down from the presidency of Great Northern so that he could devote all his time to Glacier. His dream was to create a park on the European model, complete with great hotels, chalets, roads, trails, telephone and boat service—something never before accomplished in America.
He began by using his Great Northern clout to secure a special Act of Congress in 1912 to purchase 160 acres of land that was part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation that bordered the just created [in 1910] Glacier National Park. Here he would position his flagship hotel, and he would lay transcontinental railway track right to his front door (one of the very few national parks where this was done). Even El Tovar’s rail connection would be a spur rather than being part of a transcontinental route.
Hill lay awake nights dreaming of ways to make his first Glacier hotel into one of the nation’s greatest. The linchpin had come to him earlier, in 1905, while attending the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Unquestionably, the hit of the exposition was the great Oregon Forestry Building, constructed in the rectangular colonnaded basilica style pioneered by Roman architects—only, rather than built of brick, stone, and masonry, this one was anchored by massive Oregon Douglas fir, four feet thick and 48 feet high, each weighing 30,000 – 36,000 pounds. Now Hill determined to make those same great columns the WOW factor at Glacier.
Inside, Hill orchestrated a most eclectic mix: Indian pictographs; animal horns and skins; buffalo skulls; Indian teepees; Blackfeet crafts, rugs, blankets, baskets; two great fireplaces [the open one has since been removed]; Japanese lanterns hung from rafters, and tea served by women in kimonos; Blackfeet Indians in full regalia and porters in Bavarian uniforms.
When the hotel was completed in 1913, its upperscale rooms featured private baths, fireplaces, and porches. So successful was it that Hill added 111 additional rooms to the original 61. Altogether, it cost more than $500,000 to build.
But here we are, almost a hundred years later, and it remains one of America’s great hotels.
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Connie and I have not only seen the lodge from the windows of an Amtrak train, we have stayed there three times, most recently when the Zane Grey’s West Society held its annual convention there. Bob and Lucy Earp were also in attendance with us. My brother, concert pianist Romayne Wheeler, feted our Society and hotel guests with a concert in the Grand Hall.
Each of Hill’s three great Glacier hotels has a unique feel all its own. Glacier Park Lodge feels more like a jumping-off place rather than a park hotel. Vintage red jammers ferry people all over the park, departing and returning to the hotel. It is part of a small railroad town so it has its own infrastructure, and it borders the large Blackfeet reservation.
Yet, with all this, it remains a serene place to stay. Separating the railway terminal from the hotel is a thousand-foot-long garden. In the great lobby and long vista’d verandas, guests play board games, write letters, visit with friends, and regenerate from the hectic life they left behind. No one misses the television sets ubiquitous in cookie-cutter lodgings elsewhere. To experience the Great Hall alone is worth the trip. Especially at night when you stare into the flickering flames in the fireplace.
And once you’ve stayed here one time, you’ll yearn to return.
Invaluable for the history of the hotel is Christine Barnes’ splendid Great Lodges of the West 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. W. West, Inc, 1997). Also helpful is David and Kay W. Scott’s The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).