New Life for an Old Caboose

Brothers purchase Great Northern Whitewater and Raft Resort and restore old railroad relic

By Justin Franz
Byron and Lee Beers, co-owners of Great Northern Resort, pictured July 15, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

WEST GLACIER – In the early 1970s, Reno Baldwin opened a raft company on the side of U.S. Highway 2 and worked out of an old Great Northern Railway caboose. Over the years, new owners came and went, and the business grew to include lodging. But through it all, that old wooden caboose has remained.

On a recent sunny Friday morning, the Great Northern Whitewater Raft and Resort’s new owners, brothers Byron and Lee Beers, were working hard to ensure that both the caboose and the business continue to stand strong for years to come.

The Beerses purchased the resort and raft company earlier this year from Nic and Victoria Lee and Carl Motes-Conners, who had owned it since 2010. Motes-Conners is staying on as general manager. The Lees, who also own the Glacier Distillery Company in Coram, said they wanted to focus on their spirits business.

“We wanted to find someone that had the same mindset as us when it came to running the company, and the (brothers) have that,” Nic Lee said.

The Beerses originally hail from New Hampshire but have been coming to Montana for more than two decades. Byron worked as a river guide on the Middle Fork Flathead River for four summers in the 1990s, while Lee has lived in the Flathead Valley since 1994 and worked in construction.

Byron and his family have spent time in Montana, Arizona and France, where he worked as an electrical engineer for space satellites. Running a raft company is a lot different than engineering for a satellite that will circle the earth, but Byron said he was ready for a change.

“It’s a complete career change,” he said. “But we wanted something where we could spend more time with family.”

“We really wanted a change of pace,” Lee added.

Since purchasing the resort, the Beers brothers have been busy preparing for the summer tourism season, which started in earnest in June. Lee has been putting his construction background to good use and is leading a restoration of the old caboose. For years, there has been a small café and sandwich shop inside, but the Beerses plan to expand the offerings, including a bar. They are currently in the process of getting a liquor license. Lee said the caboose, which was built in the early 1940s, would be restored to look like it did when it ran on the nearby tracks.

Besides offering adult beverages to visitors who come to raft or stay at the resort’s five cabins, the Beerses also hope to increase the programs offered through their Glacier River School, a water-safety education course. The school teaches important safety skills for anyone who wants to get out on the water in Northwest Montana.

For now, the Beerses plan to stay the course at the resort and operate it as it has been for the last few years. However, Byron said there is room to grow, and he could see an expansion in the future. The key to that would be ensuring that an expanded resort matches the low-key, backwoods vibe around West Glacier that locals and visitors love.

“You don’t want to upset that perfect balance we have here,” he said.

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