Glacier’s Forgotten Treasures

Two decades ago, Glacier National Park’s iconic buildings were listed among the nation’s most endangered historic structures and today many still languish in obscurity

The Wheeler Cabin on Lake McDonald. Greg Lindstrom

When most people think about the buildings of Glacier National Park, they picture luxurious lodges and rugged wilderness chalets.

Built more than a century ago, edifices such as the Many Glacier Hotel and Granite Park Chalet are tangible reminders of an era when Louis W. Hill and his Great Northern Railway devoted an unimaginable amount of time and money to putting this newly established wilderness preserve on the map, billing it as the “American Alps.” The efforts worked; within a few years, hundreds of thousands of people were climbing aboard Great Northern’s passenger trains to vacation in Glacier Park.

But lurking in the long shadow of the Great Northern-constructed buildings is another group of structures with a different set of stories to tell about early settlers and park pioneers: cabins and ranger stations. However, unlike the beloved lodges and chalets, these forgotten buildings of Glacier Park are endangered.

Two decades ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Glacier Park’s iconic structures on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places. In the mid-1990s, both the Granite Park and Sperry chalets were shuttered because of deferred maintenance, and the Many Glacier Hotel was literally about to fall into nearby Swiftcurrent Lake.

The trust was initially only going to list the Great Northern-built structures but later decided to include all of Glacier’s historic buildings because they were emblematic of a larger issue of deferred maintenance within the National Park Service, according to Barb Pahl, regional vice president for the trust.

In 2015, the National Park Service had a deferred maintenance backlog totaling $11.9 billion, with historic structures representing more than a third of that – about $4.5 billion. Glacier Park has a backlog worth more than $178 million, including $33 million for buildings alone. While the lodges and chalets have been lovingly restored and continue to receive renovations, many of the smaller structures have been neglected. There are more than 700 buildings altogether in the park.

“I think part of the success of the 1996 listing was that it helped create the desire and commitment to save these historic buildings that was not there 20 years ago,” Pahl said. “But there are still challenges, like a lack of funding and manpower to protect these other buildings. There is a serious lack of resources.”

That lack of resources might be most evident when staring through the burned-out roof of the Kishenehn Ranger Station just a few miles south of the Canadian border. In 2012, the historic structure suffered a chimney fire and four years later it still hasn’t been repaired.
In hopes of bringing attention to the plight of the shuttered ranger station, the Glacier National Park Conservancy included it in its annual project field guide. Every year, the conservancy, which is the park’s nonprofit fundraising partner, works with officials to craft a list of critical projects that need both money and attention.

Conservancy president Mark Preiss said there are too many needs for them all to be listed, but he hopes that the Kishenehn Ranger Station and some of the other buildings listed in the 2016 field guide will raise awareness about all of the historic structures.

“The grand lodges of Glacier tell one story: the story of tourism in the park and its connection with the railroad,” Preiss said. “But the other buildings, the cabins and ranger stations, tell another story.”

The conservancy is also taking an active role in helping establish a preservation field school in Glacier Park, in coordination with the Montana Preservation Alliance and the University of Montana. The school would bring young people interested in preservation to Glacier Park where they could work on historic structures and learn the best restoration practices.

The need to maintain the structures goes well beyond historic preservation too as many structures are still used everyday, like the original park headquarters in West Glacier. The two-story log cabin is now the West Lakes District Office. According to Phil Wilson, Glacier’s chief of science and resource management, the structure needs $700,000 worth of repairs.

“This building could last another 100 or 200 years,” he said. “It just depends on how well it’s maintained.”

Wilson said Glacier Park is unique in that it has structures representing nearly every construction period of the NPS, from the early years through Mission 66, an infrastructure-improvement program that commemorated the agency’s 50th anniversary. The program, which lasted 10 years, was an effort to expand and improve visitor services. As the NPS approaches its centennial, officials say the agency is increasingly focused on trying to maintain and preserve what it already has. Preiss says that’s a critically important mission in the effort to save Glacier’s human history.

“These buildings are portals to the past,” said Preiss, the conservancy president. “They connect us to people and stories, and if you lose the building, you lose that connection.”