It’s not difficult to become lost in the wilds of Glacier National Park, a labyrinthine land of many dimensions, scored with cliffs, crevasses and scree fields, where a wrong turn or a misstep can transport visitors from the contained comforts of urbanity to a disastrous struggle for survival.
Some are rescued without incident, others escape with injuries minor or severe, and others still have lost their lives – approximately 240 visitors have died in the past 104 years, succumbing to exposure, drowning or fatigue, struck dead by falling rock, slipped off a precipice or mauled by a grizzly.
But it is a small guild, a half-dozen in all, who are classified as “lost, never found,” a mark given to the names of those who simply vanish, swallowed whole by Glacier’s unpredictable maw, never to be heard from again, their disappearances inhumed in the hazard of speculation.
That is precisely what happened to the bespectacled, knicker-clad Whitehead brothers, who in the summer of 1924 went missing somewhere in the dense forests and mountains spanning the 20-mile distance between Granite Park Chalet and Lake McDonald.
Joseph, 29, was an engineer for the Universal Battery Company in Chicago, and William, 22, attended MIT in Boston. The photographs on the reward poster depicted them as well-groomed, immaculately dressed city boys, and their letters to their mother reveal a reserved demeanor.
At the time of their disappearance, the Whitehead brothers had been tramping around the wilds of Glacier for more than a week, embarking on hikes to Iceberg Lake, Grinnell Glacier and Cracker Lake, and eventually traveling by car, boat and horseback from Glacier Park Lodge to Granite Park Chalet.
Their next adventure would be the most ambitious – they planned to hike 20 miles from the chalet to Lewis Hotel, which is now Lake McDonald Lodge, and on Aug. 24 they set out, planning to board the Great Northern Railroad’s Oriental Limited home to Chicago as soon as they completed the journey.
Vince Moravek, author of “It Happened in Glacier National Park,” characterized the young men as “cautious and conservative” – not the sort of young men who ran big risks, and who wrote home to their mother every day.
“We are enjoying ourselves very much and taking no chances of injuring ourselves,” Joseph wrote on Aug. 20, 1924, closing the letter, his last, with an assurance.
“Don’t worry, mother, we won’t go into any danger.”
Four days later, in the early morning of Sunday, Aug. 24, the brothers walked away from Granite Park Chalet and hiked into the forest on their way to Lewis Hotel at Lake McDonald. They were spotted for the last time, dressed in hiking knickers and smiling, just 10 miles from their final destination.
But when neither boy stepped off the train to greet his mother on Sept. 1, the two-year search for the boys began.
What followed the Whiteheads’ disappearance was, in Moravek’s words, “the most extensive search operation ever conducted in a national park.”
At one point, President Calvin Coolidge wired the park, advising rangers to spare no expense.
“Thirteen rangers, two famous Indian Guides and seven tried mountaineers were out for more than two weeks,” Interior Secretary F.M. Goodwin reported on Sept. 16 of that year. “There never has been a search in the national parks conducted with more vigor and effort.”
But the Whitehead brothers, much to a nation’s amazement, had simply vanished.
According to “Death, Daring and Disaster: Search and Rescue in the National Parks,” by Charles R. “Butch” Farabee, Jr., the park’s chief ranger and Superintendent Charles Kraebel, notified of the men’s disappearance, launched the massive search effort, confident they would find the boys’ remains.
Even J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, became involved, but no clue of the men’s disappearance ever revealed itself.
“With the coming snows, the search shifted to include a few criminal possibilities. For more than two years, the new chief of the young Bureau of Investigation personally oversaw the efforts of his ‘G-Men.’ Almost every month, J. Edgar Hoover filed a detailed progress report with the director of the National Park Service or the Secretary of the Interior. Clues for the investigators quickly ran out, as did the patience of Dora B. Whitehead, the missing men’s mother,” Farabee wrote.
While many believed the Whiteheads had come to a tragic but natural end, others suspected foul play, perhaps at the hands of bootleggers.
Dora Whitehead believed the conjecture, writing the Secretary of the Interior: “I want my two sons, dead or alive. Surely I am not asking too much. They belong to me – I have a right to have them. My two sons were murdered or kidnapped in a National Park, and I am pleading with the Government of the United States to find them.”
Despite the exhaustive probe, the government never did find them.
“Through the decades, the Glacier Wilderness has remained silent,” Moravek wrote, “divulging no clues.” It is, he wrote, “the most perplexing and inexplicable mystery on our records.”
And from that point on, C.W. Buchholtz writes in “Man in Glacier,” the job of the park’s rangers forever shifted.
“Protecting, rescuing or finding visitors became a full-time occupation of the ranger force, at least as important as preserving the natural features of the park.”
Four other men were given the dubious recognition of “lost, never found.”
W. Cosby Bell, hiked up Mount Brown in the summer of 1933, and never hiked down.
On Aug. 30, 1934, just one year after the unsuccessful search for Bell, a search began for Dr. F.H. Lumley, a 27-year-old Ohio State University professor last heard from Aug. 13 at Goat Haunt Camp.
David Paul Wilson, a 21-year-old seasonal park employee, climbed up Going-to-the-Sun Mountain in 1963 and never returned.
Larry Kimble, 40, from Dorr, Michigan, arrived in spring of 2003, and was reported missing on June 20, by family who hadn’t seen him for six weeks.
His truck, finally, was found in the Fish Creek area of Glacier Park, at the Rocky Point Trailhead. On the dashboard was perched a park entrance receipt, dated May 29.
And while the Whitehead brothers’ disappearance remains the most mysterious, Glacier Park’s wild vastness makes it one of the last places where one can become “lost, never found.”
“The park is a big place. Measured against that, two young men seem very small indeed,” Moravek wrote.