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The Legend of Joe Cosley

Joe Cosley became one of Glacier National Park's first ranger and etched his own legend into Montana lore

In the 1910s, after a long day working in the woods near Polebridge, one of Glacier National Park’s first rangers, a fellow by the name of Joe Cosley, hit the trail. Legend has it he headed north, running along Bowman Lake and over Brown Pass toward Olson Creek. Then he passed Lake Francis on his way to the Goat Haunt Ranger Station near the head of Waterton Lake. There he turned north and ran along the shore until he reached the town of Waterton.

When he arrived, still panting from his 35-mile jog through the wilderness, he probably straightened his shirt, brushed his hair and walked into a dance hall. And after he danced the night away and swung a few partners around, Cosley headed south and ran all the way back to Polebridge, just in time for work the following morning.

The account of Cosley running 70 miles round trip to shake a leg, recorded in the book “Belly River’s Famous Joe Cosley” by Brian McClung, is just one of many amazing tales about one of Glacier’s first rangers.

Cosley was born in Ontario in 1870 and was raised by a French fisherman and an Algonquin Indian. While in his later years Cosley would spin tales about his high-class eastern education and beautiful mansion near the Hudson River, it’s likely he was educated in a convent near Lake Huron. In the late 1800s, Cosley moved to Montana and made a living trapping animals and selling furs. As a trapper Cosley learned the ins and outs of the land that would eventually become America’s 10th national park.

Cosley would hike and snowshoe for miles to find his catch, which he would often shoot, skin and eat on the spot. Members of the Blackfeet Nation called Cosley the “panther on snowshoes,” according to local historian Dave Renfrow. Cosley also left his mark on the park by carving his name into hundreds of trees over the years.

In 1910, when Maj. William R. Logan arrived to become Glacier National Park’s first superintendent, he hired Cosley and a rough-and-tumble group of locals to serve as the first rangers. While hiring a known poacher to protect the resources of a national park may seem unusual, in the words of Logan, “It takes a poacher to find a poacher.” Cosley was assigned to the Belly River Ranger Station, deep in the northeast corner of the park.

A year after he was hired, Cosley was fired for poaching near Lake McDonald. He apparently disregarded his pink slip and kept working in the park, and somehow the park continued to pay him.

According to author Jerry DeSanto, in 1913 Cosley spent $1,500 (about $36,000 today) to buy a diamond ring and proposed to a Canadian girl. According to historians, the woman’s family was not impressed with Cosley’s poaching career and the ring was returned. Some say Cosley was so distraught that he buried the ring in a tree and it’s still somewhere in the park today. Others say Cosley dug it out a few years later to buy more gear.

By 1914, the park finally fired Cosley for good and, with nothing else to do, he joined the Canadian army and went to Europe to fight in World War I. According to legend, or at least stories Cosley would later tell, he was a sure shot and killed more than 60 enemy soldiers.

Upon his return to North America, Cosley went back to his favorite trapping grounds and poached and guided in Glacier for more than a decade until 1929 when ranger Joseph Heimes arrested Cosley for possessing traps, firearms and pelts. In an account Heimes wrote years later, the legendary trapper tried to escape at least three times, even after the ranger “bumped his head up against a tree and sort of knocked him coo-coo.” Eventually, Heimes delivered his prisoner to West Glacier where he was fined and jailed. Soon after, a few friends bailed Cosley out and then drove him to McDonald Creek where he ran deep into the park’s wilderness toward his old camp near Belly River. The rangers soon figured out Cosley’s plan to grab his furs and guns and head north, so they hopped a train for the east side of the park. By the time they arrived at the camp Cosley was already gone and “all tracks had been carefully erased and everything completely disappeared.”

One of the park’s first rangers hopped the border and lived out the rest of his life in Canada, never to be seen in Glacier again. But the legend and lore of Joe Cosley still echoes through the park today.

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