Sperry Chalet: historic hut in Glacier National Park
[Featured image (1914) above by Fred Kiser, Courtesy Ray Djuff Collection]
By Sam Demas, October 2017
Sperry Chalet, a much-loved historic hut in Glacier National Park, came to national attention on August 31, 2017 when the main lodge, or “dormitory” was badly burned. Sadly, I never visited Sperry. This is not a first-hand account; like many others, I still hope to get there some day. Efforts are underway to rebuild and re-open this early exemplar of high mountain hospitality. May they succeed!
This post is an appreciation of Sperry Chalet as one of the oldest and most beloved high mountain huts in the nation. It sketches the hut’s history and architecture, and briefly treats its prolific namesake Lyman Beecher Sperry. This post is based entirely on secondary sources, mainly the work of Ray Djuff, but others as well. Apologies in advance if any errors crept into my account.
For fuller information about the present and future — i.e. the Sperry fire, present conditions and efforts to re-build — please see the article by Ray Djuff, which he kindly granted Hut2Hut.info permission to print and the October 19 Glacier National media release reporting on the stabilization efforts to help the structure (which lost its roof and floor) weather the winter.
For fuller historical information about Sperry Chalet see chapter 10 (p. 128-137) of Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View With a Room by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison (Farcountry Press, 2001). For a touching, first hand post conveying the depth of affection Sperry has engendered among park visitors and staff, see Courtney Stone’s Remembering a Grand Lady: the Loss of Sperry Chalet, 1913-2017. And the website of the National Park Lodge Architecture Society.
Origins of the second oldest hut system in the U.S.
Between 1913-1915 the Great Northern Railway (GNR) built a system of nine Backcountry Chalets (see my separate post on this early hut system) and four hotels to provide park visitors with horseback (and hiking) access to the interior of the park. This makes it the second oldest hut system in the USA, and until sometime in the 1930’s or 40’s it seems to have been the nation’s largest hut system.
Until the 2017 fire, Sperry and Granite Park Chalets were the last remaining backcountry chalets in this once-grand hut system. The Glacier huts (and hotels) were sited in places of great natural beauty, each one a day’s horseback ride apart from another lodging option. Designed in the style of Swiss Chalets, these hut complexes were part of the railroad’s efforts to market Glacier as “America’s Switzerland”, as part of a promotional campaign aimed a wealthy Americans to “see America first”. See the introduction to Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View With a Room for an excellent overview of this ambitious initiative advanced by Minnesota railroad barons James Jerome Hill (the Empire Builder) and his son Louis Warren Hill, Sr.
Sperry Chalet: quick historical sketch
Built on the precipice of a magnificent cirque, Sperry Chalet offers some of the finest views in Glacier and provides access to to nearby Sperry Glacier. The Great Northern Railroad was anxious to build on this strategic site to gain a monopoly on access to one of the most popular destinations in the park.
Legally designated a National Park in 1910, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) was quick to establish a near monopoly on lodging in Glacier. Sperry was just one of a dozen or more construction projects initiated soon after formal designation as a national park. At Sperry a tent camp was constructed in 1911 and hosted 461 visitors in 1912, its first season. Construction on the stone kitchen and dining hall began in 1912 and the facility opened in 1913. The “dormitory” — accommodating 75 guests — was constructed in 1913 and opened in 1914, and supplemented by a tent camp (which operated until WWI) accommodating another 75 guests.
The hut is accessed by 6.7 mile trail from Lake McDonald (with a 3,300′ elevation gain) and a gentler, scenic 13.7 miles through Gunsight Pass. The blazing of the trail to the site of Sperry Chalet is an interesting story related below. Accessible only by horse or by foot, Sperry Chalet is renowned for its views, remoteness, and its mountain hospitality during its 60 day operating season. Even without electricity, the level of amenities made for genteel comfort in a backcountry setting. In the early days lighting was provided by kerosene lamps, running cold water was available in the dormitory rooms and hot water was delivered on request. The buildings were heated by wood stoves. Plentiful servings of good food was provided, family style, three times a day in the dining room.
The hut was supplied by pack horses from Lake McDonald. Human waste from outhouses and gray water were tossed over the cliff until the environmental effects became intolerable (see below) by 1992. Lounging on the balconies to watch the sunset was a favorite activity.
Sperry, along with the other Glacier lodgings, suffered financially during the Great Depression. After the initial completion of the Going to the Sun Highway in 1933 park visitors increasingly visited by auto and overnights at the backcountry Chalets dropped off.
Sperry closed (1943-46) during WWII. By the end of WW II all but 2 of the chalets were accessible by car, the demand for saddle trips fell off dramatically and the railroad deemed the Chalets out-moded or unsupportable. The GNR sold Sperry to the National Park Service for $1. The Park Service let the hut as a concession to Martha Russell. In 1954 the concession went to the Luding family, who operated it for many years.
What kept Sperry and the few remaining backcountry chalets going during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s was use by enthusiastic and fit cliques of park and concessionaire employees. Ray Djuff says this was a second golden age of the chalets, which became prized hiking destinations for those in the know. The back to nature movement of the 1960’s and backpacking boom of the 1970’s precipitated yet another golden age, which continues today. People love these huts. Getting reservations has long been very competitive, and will certainly be harder still in future. As in Yosemite, the interest in backcountry huts on national park lands is intense. Sperry continued to operate through August 2017 in much the same way as it did in the early days, as rustic shelter for backcountry travelers who appreciate comfort and conviviality at the end of a day of hiking in fabulous mountains.
[Coda: It is interesting to speculate what the Glacier hut system would look like today if the other backcountry Chalets at Glacier had been able to survive the incursion of the automobile into the center of the park. If, like Sperry and Granite Park, they had been able to hold on until the environmental movement and backpacking boom a generation later, Glacier still might have one of the largest and oldest hut systems in the USA. In any case, Glacier still has Sperry (assuming it will be rebuilt) and Granite Peak as reminders of a different era in National Park Service backcountry lodging options.]
Both of the main buildings comprising the Sperry Chalet complex were built of local stone and lumber from the area. The kitchen/dining building was built by Italian stone masons in1912. Both structures were designed by architect Kirkland Cutter of Cutter and Malgrem in Spokane. The one story 22’x80′ Kitchen and dining hall was a fairly unassuming stone structure. The 32’x90′ two story lodge or dormitory, was built in the style of a Swiss chalet. The balconies were a favorite feature of guests. A nice detail in the stonework is the use of stone to look like the corner joints of a log cabin. Following is the architectural data included in the description on the website of the National Park Lodge Architecture Society:
Sperry Chalet • Glacier NP, 1913
Location: Sperry Trail, Lake McDonald, Montana
Theme: Swiss Chalet; National Park Rustic “Parkitecture” with multiple rectangular structures
Original Architect: Cutter and Malmgren; some sources list Samuel Bartlett. Glacier Park Hotel Company
Construction: Glacier Park Hotel Company (later renamed Glacier Park Company), subsidiary of Great Northern Railway. Most aspects of design and construction were controlled by Louis Hill, president of GN Railway.
Structure: Two storey stone dorm building with asphalt roof, multiple porches and dormers. Interior walls cedar tongue-and-groove, floorboards are painted wood, interior and exterior railings are peeled log. One storey kitchen-dining room building, stone structure with wood shingle roof.
Construction begins, 1912
Kitchen/dining room building completed, 1913
Open for guests, 1914
Closed due to war, 1918
112 total season guest count due to depression, 1932
Dormitory altered, 1940
Closed due to war, 1942-1944
Concession transferred to Luding family, 1954
Dormitory altered, 1955
Dining Room altered, including roof replacement, 1961
Deck and balconies replaced, 1978-1979
Restoration of entire complex, 1996
New restroom building added, ca. 2008
Presently offers 17 guest rooms
Environmental impact: the “million dollar toilet”
For years kitchen waste was pitched over a cliffside and became, as in many national parks, a public viewing ground for the nightly feasts of “garbage grizzlies”. In response to problems with beats attacking people in a number of national parks, culminating in several lawsuits after bears killed humans. NPS implemented strategies (e.g installing bear boxes, visitor policies, and closing of dumps in the park) to break the connection in the minds of bears between people and food. At Sperry a new strategy — packing out the kitchen waste beginning in 1954 — was implemented long before the aforementioned NPS policy changes.
Disposal of sewage was a harder problem to fix. While flush toilets were added in 1964, sewage disposal continued as before: dumped over the mountainside. By 1992 the unenlightened practice of disposing of sewage finally caught up with the National Park Service. The pollution effects of this practice were no longer possible to ignore; Montana state water quality tests were one indicator that precipitated discussions of Sperry’s future. Sperry was closed after the Sierra Club Environmental Defense Fund threatened to sue NPS for this defilement of a beautiful high mountain area. The cost of fixing the sewage problem was deemed prohibitive by NPS, which had many other pressing priorities. NPS decided to close Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet, which had similar conditions.
This decision prompted a public outcry in the form of a “Save the Chalets” lobbying and fundraising effort. Public pressure resulted in action from the Montana legislators, getting Congress to direct the NPS to keep the chalets open and allocating $3.3 million to implement solution. The funds were used to effect renovations at both huts, but most of the funds went to fixing the sewage problem (the most costly component was helicopter fees associated with complex backcountry construction). Sperry and Granite Park were closed from 1992 – 1999 during construction and renovation.
The elaborate project attracted much press coverage about the “million dollar toilet”.
Alas, the expensive toilets were removed in 2005 due to non-performance — they could not achieve a sufficiently high temperature conditions to actually compost the waste. They were replaced with latrines using sealed drums, which were used to haul sewage from the huts by helicopter to a sewage treatment plant.
Today we know from experience that siting of high mountain huts is a significant challenge. Site selection for Sperry Chalet was done quickly by the railroad, and without sophisticated consideration of the long term effects of human use, in particular waste disposal. Sites like those of Granite Park and Sperry Chalets would no longer make it through the screen of an Environmental Impact Statement process. However, high mountain huts “grandfathered in” are extremely popular and can prompt extraordinary measures to keep them open in compliance with environmental stewardship principles and practices.
Lyman Beecher Sperry: professor, naturalist, sanitary scientist, trailblazer
Lyman B. Sperry, the namesake of Sperry Glacier (after which Sperry Trail and Sperry Chalet were named) was a talented with many interests. He was trained as a physician, taught at a number of midwestern colleges (Oberlin, Ripon and Carleton), promoted the establishment of Glacier National Park, and was a tireless lecturer on nature-based travel and on topics concerned with public health and human sexuality.
Several aspects of Sperry’s connection with Glacier Park are related in “Lyman Sperry and the Last of the Firsts”, a chapter in Randi Minetor’s book Historic Glacier National Park: the Stories Behind One of America’s Great Treasures (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016 ). Apparently Sperry visited the Glacier area with two purposes in mind: to purchase land in the Avalanche Lake area as an investment, and to explore the wonders of the magnificent landscape. In the end it seems his appreciation of the beauty of the region — or something like that — trumped his pursuit of land acquisition.
At some point (it is not clear if this happened before or after the discovery of Sperry Glacier, but I assume it was before) Sperry was approached by an agent of the GNR and asked to explore the region. Sperry already had a reputation as a lecturer and promoter of travel and, according to Djuff and Morrison,
“Sperry was enticed to explore the Glacier Park region by a Great Northern Passenger agent who asked him to “make such observations as you shall find practicable regarding our scenic attractions.” It was the first hint of the railway’s interest in developing tourism in Glacier — more than a full decade before the area became a national park.
In June 1895 Sperry visited the Avalanche Lake area in the region that would become Glacier National Park. Homesteader Charles Howe told him about a U-shaped valley he had discovered, and about a sighting from the top of Brown Mountain of a large glacier. The thought of finding a new natural feature in a region that had been pretty well explored was exciting. They went as far as the edge of the huge basin in June and realized they needed more time and gear to do a proper exploration. Sperry returned in August 1895 (with his nephew Albert L. Sperry and Prof. L.W. Chaney, a geologist from Carleton College) and mounted an expedition into the basin and measured the elevations of the surrounding peaks, made some geological observations, and analyzed the water of Avalanche Lake, determining its composition indicated the source was glacial meltwater. There was clearly a glacier in the mountains high above them, and they looked for a way to find it. They reached the edge of the massive glacier and determined they would have to return to complete their exploration and documentation. Sperry wrote up his findings in the January 1896 issue of Appalachia, and returned in summer 1896 to climb onto the glacier and fully document it.
Like the GNR, Sperry soon became a fervent promoter of the idea of protecting Glacier as a National Park.
The next step was to provide visitor access to this remarkable discovery. Sperry went straight to J.J. Hill to propose he fund trail construction from Lake Mcdonald to Sperry Glacier. It seems Hill was intrigued but concerned because the land was not yet protected as a National park and he ran a risk of losing his financial investment. Sperry suggested the job could be done inexpensively by letting him (Sperry) hire a fifteen students at the University of Minnesota to build the trail in a summer. Hill agreed to let the students do the work (apparently without pay) and provide them transportation to and from the park on the Great Northern.
[A final note on Lyman B. Sperry the lecturer and promoter: he traveled the nation and abroad for over 30 years lecturing on “Sanitary Science”, an early tributary of what later became the disciplines of public health and human ecology. His lectures at colleges and through YMCA programs, focused particularly on societal and individual problems of sex and narcotics. Sperry was part of a movement to counter the effects of roving quacks who dispensed advice and medications that confused young people and also filled them with fears and misunderstandings about these little-understood matters. Among his lecture topics were “Male and Female”, “Human Longevity”, ‘Brain and Nerve”, “Narcotics and Narcoticism”, “Superstitions, Delusions, and Fads”, “Friendly Enemies”, and “Gumption and Grit”. By all accounts he was a powerful lecturer. With all this practice, its no wonder he was convincing in his promotion of national park status for Glacier, a topic for which he also developed strong conviction.]
Author’s note: I am deeply grateful to Ray Djuff for his research, on which I have drawn heavily, for our phone conversation, and for his providing the images used in this post. Ray is passionate in his research and generous in sharing his knowledge and resources.