Glacier National Park Backcountry Chalets: historical notes
by Sam Demas, based on conversation with and the work of Ray Djuff
These are notes on the story of a once-grand backcountry hut system in Glacier National Park. Based on phone conversation with Ray Djuff, reading his remarkable book, and looking at additional sources, I have pieced together the bare bones of the story of the second hut system built in the USA (AMC huts first, and High Sierra Camps third).
The fire that burned the Sperry Chalet dormitory accelerated my interest in learning more about the Glacier backcountry lodging system. Articles about the fire cited Ray Djuff and one referred to his excellent book (written with Chris Morrison) Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View with a Room (Farcountry Press, 2001), which traces the history of the the extensive system of lodges and chalets built and managed by the Great Northern Railway (GNR) to promote railroad visitation to Glacier National Park (the creation of which the GNR vigorously promoted). You can read much of the very informative first chapter of this book on Amazon.com.
While the chapter on Sperry Chalet was of immediate interest, I enjoyed reading the entire book and highly recommend it (see a book review by Jerry Fetz). Ms. Morrison and Mr. Djuff write in historical detail about this amazing example of how the railroads lobbied for national parks, secured transportation and lodging monopolies at them, and, in the case of Glacier and the Great Northern Railway, along the way, developed huts and trails, primarily to promote horseback access to remote parts of the parks.
For more on the relationship between America’s national parks and their development as tourism destinations by the railways, see Alfred Runte’s book Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of our National parks” by Alfred Runte (Roberts Reinhart Book, 5th ed., 2011).
In addition to Djuff and Morrison’s book cited above, for more detail on the chalets than what is offered below, see Courtney Stone’s moving blog post The Loss of Sperry Chalet, and the National Parks Lodge Architecture Society website.
While Louis Warren Hill, son of James J. Hill — the “Empire Builder” — swore he didn’t want the GNR to be in the hospitality business, he vigorously oversaw the development of a system of 3 large hotels/lodges (Lake McDonald Lodge preceded the GNR hotels), 9 chalet groups, and a number of tent villages. The grand lodges and hotels are still operating, but the tent villages, most of which were very short lived, are long gone.
The 9 chalet groups (comprising sleeping quarters, dining/cooking area, staff quarters, and sometimes associated cabins) of primary interest here were all originally built (most in the period 1910 – 1913) to provide rustic but comfortable lodging for park visitors traveling into the backcountry by horseback, carriage, or boat. The railway was promoting the park as the Switzerland of America and Hill was enamored of chalet architecture (his summer home “North Oaks” outside St Paul, MN was a grand chalet).
While comparatively few people hiked to the chalets in the early days, “tramping” was at least a small part of the hut/chalet culture from the beginning and the GNR promoted it as an inexpensive option. The GNR courted hiking and mountaineering groups, as Djuff and Morrison report:
Hill [Louis W. Hill] ensured that members of the Chicago Geographical Society, the Seattle Mountaineers, and the Sierra Club of California all received sponsored (often all-expense paid) trips to Glacier. Then their travelogues were printed by the railway and distributed.
The use of the chalets changed quickly during the 1930’s and 1940’s. With the rise of the automobile people increasingly visited the park by car rather than by train, and apparently many were reluctant to leave their cars behind to take slower moving backcountry trip. The 52 mile Going-to-the-Sun Road (constructed 1921 – 1933) traveled east to west and going over the Continental Divide, opened the center of the to automobiles. Of course the Great Depression also took its toll on visitation. Where visitors before the 1930’s would typically spend 2-3 weeks in the park, car culture shortened visits to 3-4 days. The auto helped propel a mentality still common today: “Check. Been there, done that. Off to the next park”.
The first golden age of the backcountry chalets for non-motorized travel was from 1913 up to the Great Depression. Some had short lives: Gunsight Chalets, one of the most popular in the early years, was obliterated by a land slide in 1916. But what killed them off was the automobile and the development of roads. 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 park began to emphasize car camping. After WW II the Chalets were deemed out-moded or unsupportable by the GNR:
- three hut complexes were torn down because they were no longer in demand and were in poor condition from disuse: Cut Bank, St Mary’s, and Going-to-the-Sun;
- the chalet group at Swiftcurrent Lake was turned into an “auto camp”, with cabins for people driving in the park;
- the Great Northern Railroad sold three chalets: Belton, Sperry and Granite Park; and
- GNR retained Two Medicine chalets, but they were not much used after WWII and were torn down in 1956 (except for the dining hall and log store, which remain today as historic landmarks).
According to Ray Djuff, who worked for a time at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Glacier, what kept 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. 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 using the few backcountry huts located on national park lands is very strong.
Each of the chalet groups is discussed in greater detail, and illustrated with period photos and promotional brochures and notices, in Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View With a Room.
With the burning of the Sperry Chalet Dormitory on August 31, 2017 (the kitchen and dining building are undamaged), the only remaining backcountry chalet is Granite Park. Because Sperry Chalet is such a rare and beloved backcountry lodging, there is deep sentiment that it should be re-built and re-opened.See my separate post on Sperry Chalet and a piece by Ray Djuff on the fire that further diminished the once-grand hut system in Glacier National Park.
Among the supporters of this effort are the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Secretary of the Interior Ray Zinke (a Montanan) and the two U.S. Senators from Montana. See Ray Djuff’s article about the fire and the future.
Author’s note: Sadly, I never visited Sperry Chalet. At this time I don’t have time to do in-depth research so this is a brief sketch of a big topic. Fortunately there are a number of good sources to which I refer the reader for more detail. This post is a placeholder. It is comprised of notes from sources I plan to revisit and expand upon, including noodling around in a preliminary way in the rich literature on lodging experiments in the U.S. National Parks and the relationship between the railroads and the National Parks.
The National Parks Lodge Architecture Society provides some excellent architectural and historical information along with links about the chalets, including:
Glacier NP Lodges
Glacier Park Lodge Resources