Glacier National Park Boats Added to Historic Register

Decades-old boats continue to move passengers in Glacier every summer

By Justin Franz

Three boats in Glacier National Park have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The recognition comes after nearly five years of work by the Glacier Park Boat Co. and its interpretive manager James Hackethorn. The boats added to the registry include the Little Chief on St. Mary Lake, the Sinopah on Two Medicine Lake, and the Desmet on Lake McDonald.

Scott Burch, the current owner of the Glacier Park Boat Co. and grandson of its founder Arthur J. Burch, said the designation helps highlight the importance of the boats within the park’s history.

“These boats are a huge part of Glacier National Park’s historic fabric, just like the Red Buses and the lodges,” he said.

Boat travel in Glacier predates the park’s creation in 1910. In the early part of the 20th Century, boats were a necessary means to move visitors to lodges and cabins within the park. In 1911, Frank Kelly and Orville Denny, some of the park’s first official boat concessioners, hired boat builder J.W. Swanson. Swanson busied himself through the 1910s building boats for Kelly and Denny as well as the Glacier Park Hotel Company. In 1920, Swanson decided to start up his own boat service and built seven vessels over the next 10 years, some of which still ply the waters of Glacier Park today.

The Rising Wolf and the Little Chief were built in 1926 to service Two Medicine and St. Mary lakes respectively. Both vessels were 45 feet long and could hold up to 50 people. Four years later, Swanson built the DeSmet, a 56-foot-long boat, named after Pierre-Jean DeSmet, an influential Jesuit missionary with ties to the region.

Swanson got out of the boat tour business in 1938, when he sold the contract to Arthur J. Burch, a Kalispell banker, who set up the Glacier Park Boat Co. The boats have remained in the family ever since, although not without some changes, specifically their names.

The Rising Wolf and Little Chief were both named after prominent geographical features near their home lakes. Hackethorn said over the years, the boats have been moved for maintenance and have ended up in different lakes. Because of those moves, both boats now carry different names; the Rising Wolf is now the Little Chief and the Little Chief is now the Sinopah. Other than the name changes, Hackethorn said the boats still appear as they did in the 1930s.

“The experience on the boats has never changed,” he said. “You can still have the same ride people experienced 80 years ago.”

Hackethorn, who has been with the boat company since 2003 and has a master’s degree in history, started the research to get the boats on the historic register back in 2012. Hackethorn began by writing an amendment to Glacier National Park’s historic building listing, a National Park Service document that records the history of most of its buildings. While Glacier’s boathouses were on the list of historic structures, the boats they housed were not. Once that was written, Hackethorn applied to have the boats included on the national register. The Little Chief and Sinopah were added in late 2016 and the Desmet was added just a few weeks ago.

Hackethorn is not done yet. He said he hopes to add two more boats; the Morning Eagle on Lake Josephine and the International on Upper Waterton Lake (the International is currently owned and operated by the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. in Canada).

“It’s just great to spotlight some of this history,” Hackethorn said. “It’s been really rewarding.”