In 1997, the late Robin Williams was in Glacier National Park filming the movie “What Dreams May Come” when the beauty that surrounds Swiftcurrent Lake overcame him. In the shadow of Glacier’s rugged peaks, not far from the Many Glacier Hotel, the renowned actor and comedian took in the scene before him and said, “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then He certainly lives nearby.”
For more than a century, the Many Glacier Hotel has welcomed guests from around the world to “God’s backyard” and after years of neglect and deferred maintenance, the stunning structure has received a facelift that will help visitors relive the building’s glory days. Aside from upgrading rooms and stabilizing the structure, the National Park Service has restored a spiral-staircase and historic lighting, all of which will be revealed this spring.
The 200-room hotel was the brainchild of Louis W. Hill, a railroad baron and son of the legendary “Empire Builder” James J. Hill. The younger Hill saw immense opportunity in the mountains of Northwest Montana as a marketing tool to attract passengers to his Great Northern Railway. As soon as President William Howard Taft signed the legislation creating the park in 1910, Hill’s ad men were already spinning copy in the nation’s largest papers urging wealthy travelers to “See America First” and come to Glacier.
But the passengers who took the railway up on its offer also needed a place to stay, and Hill was ready to make a profit off that too. In the early 1910s, the Great Northern built a series of hotels and backcountry chalets. The accommodations were strategically placed throughout the park to be about a day’s horseback ride between each other. Construction on the Many Glacier Hotel in the northeast corner of the park began in 1914. In order to convey the idea that Glacier was the “American Alps,” Many Glacier and other buildings in the park were built to look like Swiss chalets (nearly all of the railroad depots near Glacier, including the one at Whitefish, shared the Swiss style. Hill reportedly loved the style so much that he used it when building a family vacation home in Minnesota in the 1930s).
More than 400 people worked during the construction of the hotel, most of them earning about 30 cents an hour. Among the most prominent features of the building are the 20 Douglas fir pillars that surround the lobby. The giant trees were brought from Oregon to Browning by rail. Teams of horses dragged the pillars from the railhead more than 50 miles to the work site. When the hotel finally opened on July 4, 1915, it was called one of the grandest accommodations in the entire West. Room rates started at $4 per person and guests could pay an extra dollar if they wanted a room with a bath.
For a century, the old hotel has faced fires and floods. In 1936, it nearly burned to the ground when the Heaven’s Peak fire engulfed the Swiftcurrent Valley. Hotel employees worked through the night to save the building and by dawn they had won the battle against the blaze. When they excitedly telegraphed railroad officials back east that the building was saved, they responded with a terse one-word answer: “Why?” With the Great Depression hurting ticket sales, it appeared the railroad would have rather collected the insurance money than hold on to the money-losing hotel. Nearly 30 years later, the hotel was inundated with three feet of floodwater in June 1964. Amazingly, despite the flood, the hotel opened for business by the end of the month.
By the 1990s, the Many Glacier Hotel was starting to show its age. The hotel was deteriorating and parts of it were literally about to fall into the lake. At one point, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt suggested that the easiest fix would be to take the old building down “with a can of gasoline and a match.” But historians and fans of Glacier protested and in the early 2000s the National Park Service began a multi-million dollar restoration on the building. Besides stabilizing the building, Park Service employees and contractors have tirelessly worked to bring it back to its original glory. The final phase of the restoration will be completed this spring and will include the unveiling of a spiral staircase in the lobby. For decades, the staircase was one of the building’s identifying features, but it was removed at some point to make room for a gift shop. The Park Service is also restoring the original lighting that the railroad put in the lobby to promote its passenger train, the Oriental Limited.
“There are real challenges to restoring a building that’s this old,” said Glacier’s Chief of Facilities Management Jim Foster, “but what opens this summer will be truly spectacular.”
Foster said that the challenges faced by contractors during the recent restoration are not unlike those faced by the original builders: the weather is extreme and it can be challenging to deliver supplies to such a remote location.
But Foster said the final product would make all the challenges worthwhile in the end. He said the effort would not have been possible without the help of countless entities, including Xanterra Parks & Resorts and the Glacier National Park Conservancy.
“This project speaks to the generosity of people who believe in the national parks and keeping these treasures alive for future generations,” he said.
The Many Glacier Hotel opens for the season on June 13.
This story was originally published in Glacier Journal, our annual guide to Glacier National Park. It features guides and maps to Glacier and Waterton National Parks, including recommendations for where to hike, eat and recreate. Pick it up on newsstands across the valley or check it out online at glacierjournal.com.