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Setting the Stage

The automobile revolutionized America's great national parks in the 1920s and 30s. As the number of private cars rose, the number of visitors driving to parks and other scenic attractions also increased. Even before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, many visitors to Montana's Glacier National Park and the other 13 existing national parks arrived by car. Without adequate roads or accommodations, these tourists risked damaging the scenic landscapes they had come to enjoy.

Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, knew that allowing the public to enjoy spectacular park landscapes would create support for protecting the parks from grazing, logging, and water projects. These visitors also would bring a "great flow of tourist gold" into areas near the parks. Sharing Mather's vision, local boosters, elected officials, and automobile clubs began to seek congressional funding for improved park roads.

Going-to-the-Sun Road was the first to carry visitors by the lakes, glaciers, alpine peaks, and meadows of Glacier National Park. The 50-mile route, which connected the east and west sides of the park and crossed the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, was surveyed in 1918, and work began in 1921. Progress was slow, however, due to limited and erratic congressional funding and the difficulties of working under extreme mountainous conditions.

In 1924, Congress appropriated a million dollars for building the transmountain highway at Glacier. Much of the planning and construction was done in cooperation with the Bureau of Public Roads (later the Federal Highway Administration). The Bureau's high technical standards needed to be balanced against the commitment of the National Park Service to damage the landscape as little as possible. Going-to-the-Sun Road was a challenge for both partners and provided a model for subsequent roads in national and, eventually, state parks for more than 25 years.

 

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