Escape Magazine: 10 Events That Shaped Glacier

By Beacon Staff

The landscape now known as Glacier National Park has existed far longer than the day, a mere century ago, when a distant president put pen to paper, designating it as such.

Archaeological surveys have found evidence of humans going back 10,000 years – possibly the ancestors of the tribes living in the area today. Some tribal members say their people have been here longer. The mountains are much older, thrust upward 170 million years ago when the Rocky Mountains were formed. The glaciers, 20,000 years ago, cut the slopes of the mountains descending toward the valleys into their current shape.

All of which makes the 100-year observance slightly arbitrary, but no less significant. For when we celebrate Glacier Park, we also celebrate the wisdom of a nation that recognized its value, and protected the landscape to let it be what it is today. Similarly, ranking 10 definitive events that shaped Glacier is an inherently futile exercise. Biologists, historians and anthropologists will disagree over the significance of one event or another. But while this list of pivotal moments in the park’s first 100 years may be incomplete, such events are certain to impact Glacier Park’s second century.

George Bird Grinnell on Grinnell Glacier 1925. – Photo courtesy of the National Park Service


In 1891 the famous conservationist George Bird Grinnell pitched James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway, on lobbying to designate as a park what is now Glacier National Park. Grinnell traveled to the region on hunting trips beginning in 1885, when he and guide James Willard Schultz traveled up Swiftcurrent Valley to observe the glacier that now bears Grinnell’s name.

Sensing a business opportunity to create a renowned and lucrative tourist destination, Hill was on board. That same year, the railway completed its route over Marias Pass, linking the eastern and western sides of the Continental Divide, and Minneapolis with Seattle. White settlers entered the area and began establishing communities, mostly west of the pass.

In 1895 the eastern boundary of the park was established when Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet authorized the sale of 800,000 acres to the U.S. government for $1.5 million, with an understanding to maintain usage.

Two previous attempts to establish Glacier Park, spearheaded by preservationists, had stalled. But nearly 20 years later, Hill’s son, Louis, now running his father’s empire, lent his political clout to the push to establish the park, an effort for which he is now known as the, “Godfather of Glacier.”


Glacier became the nation’s 10th national park on May 11, 1910, when President William Howard Taft signed the legislation creating it, though it would be another six years before the National Park Service was established under the Organic Act.

Minimal resources existed for park rangers, but the Great Northern Railway quickly commissioned nine chalets and tent camps for visitors. A permanent railway station was constructed in Belton, what is now West Glacier. The Belton Chalet opened its doors June 27, 1910, while a teepee camp went up in Two Medicine on the east side.

A typical visit to Glacier by tourists, who were mostly wealthy, consisted of a train ride to the park, and then a multi-day trip to several different backcountry chalets on horseback. But the need for a road through the park eventually began to grow.


Through the work of rotary clubs in Montana and Alberta, the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament each submitted legislation joining Glacier and Waterton as an international peace park, the world’s first such partnership of its kind. Its goal was and remains to symbolize cooperation between the two countries, and to share management of the Crown of the Continent region’s ecosystem.

“It symbolically linked and tied and stitched two nations together,” Michael Ober, said of the agreement. Ober is library director at Flathead Valley Community College, a longtime ranger in the park, and the author of a book compiling historic photographs of the park, “Glacier Album.”

Subsequent designations would reinforce the two parks’ inherent value. In 1976 Glacier was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, with Waterton receiving the same designation three years later. In 1995 Glacier-Waterton was designated a World Heritage site as a place of special cultural and physical significance.

Going-to-the-Sun Road dedication. – Photo courtesy of the National Park Service


The opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the public in 1933 marked the culmination of decades of work by the Park Service to increase visitation to the national parks by making them more accessible to automobiles.

First surveyed in 1918, construction on the Sun Road began three years later, but Congressional funding for the 50-mile route to connect the east and west side of the park was erratic. Harsh weather and steep terrain also made for painstakingly slow progress. In 1924, Congress appropriated $1 million for the project.

The completion of the Theodore Roosevelt Highway, U.S. Highway 2, around the park in 1930 underscored how inaccessible much of Glacier’s landscape remained.

The engineering, construction, demolition and masonry work was daunting, especially since crews also had to contend with keeping their food away from hungry bears. Park rangers were called in to protect a Russian crew from a grizzly near Logan Pass. Deer sometimes became entangled in the fuse wires for explosives. Three men died in the course of building the road.

But the road itself was and remains an engineering marvel. Congressman Louis C. Cramton and Park Naturalist George C. Ruhle are credited with giving the road its name, after the nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. And visits to the park have never been the same since.


In 1943, the U.S. war effort had intensified such that the Great Northern Railway trains shuttling supplies eventually ceased making stops at Glacier National Park all together. From 1944 to 1946, most of the park facilities were closed entirely. Visitation plummeted. Some of the great chalets were shuttered and allowed to fall into disrepair.

Following the war, as prosperity again grew, Americans renewed their interest in Glacier Park after it reopened in 1946. But unlike the 1920s, considered Glacier’s Gilded Age, when wealthy tourists traveled via train and horse, now Americans were exploring in their cars.

“The end of the Depression and World War II really changed a lot of the way people visited the park,” Jack Potter, the park’s chief of science and resource management, said. “It never went back to being the horse park. It essentially died out by the 1930s.” By 1954, annual park visitation soared to 600,000.


Widely considered Montana’s worst natural disaster in recent history, heavy snow through the winter coupled with warm spring rain resulted in a massive, landscape-altering 100-year flood in 1964. In June of that year, flow in the Middle Fork of the Flathead, the park’s southern boundary, reached 8,300 cubic feet of water per second (cfs). Its previous high was 700 cfs. The Flathead River at Columbia Falls crested at 26.5 feet, 12 feet above flood stage.

“Most people around here, they date things from before the flood or after the flood,” Ober said. “Every bridge in the park was gone, truly washed out…it just created havoc.”

Five bridges, six miles of railroad track and 20 miles of highway were washed out or completely destroyed. In the Flathead Valley, 20,000 acres were under water. Nearly all of the community of Evergreen was submerged. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and dozens of people died on the Blackfeet Reservation, east of the park.

It would take several years to rebuild the trails, roads, bridges and other infrastructure destroyed in the flood, and today many disaster experts are concerned about what the effects of another such flood could be on an area that’s population has grown exponentially since 1964.


On one terrible might, two women in different areas of the park were mauled and killed by grizzly bears, making national headlines and marking a major turning point in how park officials managed interactions between wildlife and humans.

Julie Helgeson was killed near Granite Park chalet, while Michele Koons was attacked at Trout Lake. Both women were park service employees camping with friends. Known as the “Night of the Grizzlies,” MontanaPBS recently produced a documentary by that name, featuring never-before-seen interviews with survivors of the attacks.

At that time, bears were commonly fed to attract them to tourist-centric locations, and drawn by garbage left around campsites. “We continued to feed grizzly bears and everybody knew that had to stop,” Potter said, adding that park officials also realized they would occasionally be forced to kill certain predators that persistently posed a hazard to humans. Following the attacks, bear management policies changed drastically, and the pack-it-in, pack-it-out mentality began to take hold firmly among campers.


On a visit to Glacier Park, then-Vice President Al Gore used the shrinking and disappearance of glaciers to demonstrate the cause to which he has since devoted his life: the consequences of global warming.

“I have come here today because Glacier National Park faces a grave threat to its heritage,” Gore said. “The 50 glaciers in this park – which date back to the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago – are melting away at an alarming rate. Over the last century, we have lost nearly three-quarters of all the glaciers in this park.”

Gore’s remarks shone a national spotlight on the receding glaciers, but the trend continues. In April of this year, Dan Fagre, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, announced two more Glaciers were gone, reducing the number of named glaciers to 25. The park once had as many as 150 glaciers, with 37 receiving names. Fagre warned the remaining glaciers could melt and disappear by the end of the decade.


Experts may argue the significance or impact of different single fires, but nothing in recent history tops the effect of the 2003 fire season, or demonstrates the power of wildfires in the modern era. Potter, who has worked in the park for more than 40 years, said Glacier used to be known as the “asbestos forest,” because of its resistance to burns – the result of its wet, cool environment. But after 2003 it was clear to everyone, he added, “that’s not the case anymore.”

Glacier National Park averages 14 fires annually, with an average of 5,000 acres burned every summer since 1988. But in the hot, dry summer of 2003, following a five-year drought, lightning sparked a fire in the North Fork Valley July 18, commencing a wildfire season that would burn nearly 138,000 acres. On July 23, the Robert Fire also started in the North Fork, and would eventually burn east to threaten the villages of Apgar, West Glacier and park headquarters, forcing evacuations.

The Trapper Fire threatened the Granite Park chalet and jumped the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The National Registered Snowshoe cabin burned. It was the most area of the park, roughly 10 percent, transformed by fire since Glacier’s creation.


In Vancouver earlier this year, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed a Memorandum of Understanding with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell that halted exploration work already underway, and prohibited mining or drilling for the rich deposits of coal, oil, gold and methane in the Canadian Flathead – from which the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River flow, comprising Glacier Park’s western boundary.

The agreement essentially resolved a decades long trans-boundary dispute over the environmental damage Glacier Park and the Flathead Valley could suffer from heavy mining upstream. The ban provides one more safeguard for the incredible purity of the area’s wildlife and water quality.

“For 400 generations, the First People recognized that it is the lifeblood of Mother Earth,” Schweitzer said after signing the deal. “We have a shared responsibility; we have a shared opportunity and we have a shared destiny.”