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Great Outdoors Month

Glacier National Park Tourist Trails Historic District, Glacier County, Montana

[photo]Sinopah Mountain
Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park

The Glacier National Park Tourist Trails Historic District in Flathead and Glacier Counties, Wyoming, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on January 19, 1996. Composed of three distinct trail loops, constructed by the Glacier Park Hotel Company as a component of their European-style hotel/chalet/trail network and redesigned in the 1930’s by the National Park Service in accordance with evolving landscape principles, the trail system crises-crosses the Continental Divide, accesses the park’s most publicized scenic vistas, and links visitor centers at Two Medicine, Cut Bank, St. Mary, Many Glacier, Goathaunt/Waterton, and Lake McDonald much as it did during the historic period.  The 163 miles of trail incorporate all matters of trail construction techniques and characteristics of trail tread.


[photo]Potential Contractors (1920s) surveying a route
Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park

In 1889 the construction of the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail brought more people to the region. Four years after the passage of the Glacier National Park enabling legislation (1910), the Glacier Park Hotel Company (a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway) had constructed an elaborate European style hotel-trail-chalet network. Park facilities and attractions were designed to appeal to traveling America’s new-found interest in the West and long standing interest in Europe. Placement of facilities along a rail, road, and trail network was appropriate to Glacier’s topography and lack of transportation infrastructure and was a conscious attempt to emulate European culture and to cultivate a uniquely western culture. Locomotive bells were located at the summits of Swiftcurrent, Logan, Piegan, Gunsight, Cut Bank and Stoney Indian passes, as well as Grinnell Glacier. Tourists traveled by horseback, with cowboy guides. Chalets at Two Medicine, Cut Bank, St. Mary, Going-to-the-Sun (also known as Sun Camp), Many Glacier, Gunsight, Granite Park, and Sperry Glacier were constructed in the Swiss style at locations deemed “the most beautiful and convenient” in the park. All also tied to the developing trail network, providing accommodations for those touring the backcountry along the North Circle, South Circle, or Inside Trail.

[photo]Hidden Lake
Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park

The links in this chalet/trail network were filled by transportation and tent-camp concessions. During the 1920s, the Park Saddle Horse Company was the principle saddle horse concessioner, supporting the hotel-trail-chalet network with tent camps-modeled after tepee villages-at Goathaunt, Red Eagle, Cosley Lake, and Fifty Mountain.  All of the tent camps and many of the chalets were accessible only by horseback.  Eastern “dudes” embarking on one-day to two-week tours of the Glacier backcountry, were guided by “cowboys,” lunched near glacial lakes and then dined in comfort on Chinese linen and blue willow china. Parties could reach as large as 180 people and 200 horses.

Although the United States Department of the Interior was responsible for development of the park’s tourist-trail system, first park superintendent Logan noted that such a “big enterprise…can not be carried out on a large scale unless one has ample means at his command, which I do not.”  The Great Northern thus assumed responsibility for much of the trail program, and was reimbursed for costs as federal funds became available. In the interests of economy and of expediency, the first generation of tourist trails were most often located along Indian trails, game trails, or prospector routes. The construction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which freed road funds for trail maintenance and construction, and the increased availability of funds during the Great Depression, resulted in a concerted effort by the National park Service to redesign Glacier’s trail system. In the 1930s, trails were rerouted to provide spectacular scenery, to reduce excessive grades, and to minimize the amount of trail located in wet areas or along sheer grades where maintenance work was most difficult. The building of the Ptarmigan Wall trail, replacing the Many Glacier to Belly River (Cosley Lake) trail via Red Gap pass, provides the most dramatic example of 1930s trail construction. The Granite Pass to Goat Haunt (“Skyline”) trail, the Lake McDonald to Sperry Chalet, and the Sperry Chalet to Sun Points trail were also either rerouted or reconstructed during the 1930s. The Park saddle Horse Company and many of the Great Northern’s chalet complexes, already challenged by the Great depression and the increased popularity of auto-related recreation and accommodation facilities, did not survive World War II curtailments. In mute testimony to the demise of the Great Northern rail/trail network, the Park saddle Horse Company and the Going-to-the-Sun, St. Mary, and Cutbank chalets were razed in the late 1940s. The tent camps, dismantled during the depression, never reopened.  The trails survive as the primary access to the backcountry along the Continental Divide.

 

 

 

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