A Legendary Lodge

By Beacon Staff

LAKE MCDONALD – High above the Lake McDonald Lodge and its surrounding hamlet sits the Mount Brown lookout tower. A few days into April, winter still holds its icy grip on the small structure about 7,425 feet above sea level.

But down on the shores of Lake McDonald, spring is in the air – the snow is melting, the water is rushing and one of Glacier National Park’s legendary lodges is being prepped for its 99th year welcoming tourists. With opening day just weeks away, employees of Glacier Park Inc. are working against the clock until May 25.

“There is zero going on, but once summer hits it’s chaos,” said location manager Todd Ashcraft, who has been with GPI for 18 seasons.

Ashcraft is one of three Glacier Park Inc. employees working at the Lake McDonald site this time of year. He has been a manager for nearly a decade and first came to the lodge in 1987, when he worked as a bellman. Even two decades later, that first summer in Glacier holds unforgettable memories. Originally from Mississippi, Ashcraft came to Montana to see a different part of the country and ended up staying.

“I didn’t even know where Montana was on a map. I’d always mix it up with Oregon,” he said in his thick southern drawl. “I can still remember kicking back, drinking a cold beer and trying to stay out of trouble.”

Located 10 miles from Glacier’s west entrance, George Snyder built the first hotel on the site in 1895. Snyder, who was known as Glacier’s “maverick,” operated the hotel until 1906 when John Lewis acquired it. Although the history books say Lewis purchased the property, local legend suggests he actually won it in a poker game.

Lewis moved the Snyder Hotel and morphed it into a general store and hired Kirtland Cutter to design a new hotel “worthy of the park,” according to the National Park Service. Cutter was the architect behind Kalispell’s Conrad Mansion. The Lake McDonald Lodge, completed in 1914, was the only hotel in the park not built by the Great Northern Railway. The lodge and property were later purchased by the National Park Service and leased to the railroad. Later on, Glacier Park Inc. began operating the site.

Besides the 36-room lodge, the Lake McDonald site features a general store, a post office, employee dorms, a motel and numerous cabins. At the height of the tourist season, more than 170 people are employed on the site. According to Ashcraft, Lake McDonald is one of the most popular destinations in the park and on a summer day in July, it’s not unusual for thousands of people to stop by.

Location Manager Todd Ashcraft stands amidst the sheet-covered furniture, decorations and mounted animal heads encircling the main lobby of the Lake McDonald Lodge. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

But during the first week in April, it’s quite different. Near the lodge’s entrance, Gordon Stufflebeam and John Denny install new wooden railings. Since the lodge is a National Historic Landmark, the thick wooden railings are built just like they were a century ago. But even if the two men are focused on their work, the scenery that surrounds their “office” isn’t lost on them.

“I get paid to do this and sometimes I almost feel guilty,” Denny said, taking a break from his work and looking up at Mount Brown.
“It doesn’t suck to be us,” Stufflebeam said, laughing.

In March, Stufflebeam and Denny start readying the site for spring. Preparations include fixing up rooms and cleaning buildings. Before guests can stay at the lodge, the Park Service does a complete inspection. One of the biggest tasks before the small spring crew is turning on the water. Every sink and valve inside the building is turned off and then the entire water system is filled with air. If the pipes can hold the air without leaking then the water’s turned on.

Lake McDonald Lodge, circa 1925. Photo by T. J. Hileman. | Photo courtesy The National Park Service

Although it’s certain the lodge will open on May 25 for its 99th season, it’s uncertain who will open the lodge for its 100th. This year, Glacier National Park’s concessions contract, which has been held by Glacier Park Inc. for years, is up for bid. Bids are due this month for the 16-year contract, which includes the operation of lodging, restaurants, gift shops and transportation within the park. The current contract will expire on Dec. 31.

“I’m trying not to even think about it, because I can’t think of anyone else running it,” Ashcraft said. “(Glacier Park Inc.) is the only concessionaire I’ve known.”

But there are other reasons Ashcraft’s mind doesn’t wander to what will happen next year or decisions yet to be made – there is far too much work to be completed at Lake McDonald before the summer. Work that Ashcraft, Stufflebeam and Denny take pride in.

“I have a real neat responsibility,” Denny said, before finishing up another railing. “This property belongs to America, to the American people, and I have the duty to maintain it.”

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