Destroyed Cabins Welcomed Generations to Glacier Park

Kelly’s Camp cabins stood for a century before being burned in the Howe Ridge Fire

By Justin Franz
Kelly's Camp. Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service.

When the main cabin at Kelly’s Camp was built around 1910 on the shore of Lake McDonald, William Howard Taft was president, the RMS Titanic was still under construction in Belfast, Ireland and Glacier National Park was the newest federal preserve in the nation.

More than a century of history was destroyed on Aug. 12, when the Howe Ridge Fire exploded into a 2,500-acre inferno, destroying a number of private homes and historic cabins along Lake McDonald, including several at the Kelly’s Camp Historic District.

The Kelly’s Camp Historic District included more than a dozen historic buildings on about 2,400-feet of waterfront on Lake McDonald. The main cabin, which the National Park Service confirmed was destroyed on Aug.12, dates back to the year the park was established and the rest were completed in the late 1910s and 1920s. All the cabins were built by Frank and Emmeline Kelly.

Frank was born in Iowa and came to Northwest Montana in 1893 to run a sawmill in Belton (what today is West Glacier) for the Great Northern Railway. Not long after he arrived, he claimed a plot of land on the northwest corner of Lake McDonald. In 1897, Frank married Emmeline, the widow of a Great Northern laborer. The family moved around the Pacific Northwest for a few years before coming back to the Lake McDonald area in 1906. By then, Frank had left the lumber industry to start a boat company. For the next decade, Frank and a number of business partners ferried visitors to a number of lodges and cabins around the lake, including the Glacier Hotel and later the Lake McDonald Lodge.

With rumors spreading of a cross-park road being built in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Frank got out of the boat business and, like a number of other property owners, began building cabins to accommodate the increasing number of visitors coming by car. The Kelly family had seven rental cabins by 1925. By the 1930s, the Kellys had a built a resort on the edge of the lake. Small cottages were furnished with two full size beds and “plenty of everything for a party of 4,” according to a letter written by Emmeline in 1931. The cabins could be rented for an entire month for $60 (or about $918 in today’s currency) or $150 for the entire summer. The Kellys provided everything but the food. Guests were also able to ride to the Lake McDonald Lodge by boat for free whenever Frank went over to the east side of the lake for groceries or mail. Frank would make extra trips if needed, but those cost 25 cents a passenger. A road was constructed to Kelly’s camp in 1933.

Frank and Emmeline Kelly died one day apart from each other in January 1935. Their son, Vernon Kelly, continued running the resort, although the next decade was tough with the Great Depression and World War II limiting the number of guests who came to stay. Vernon died in 1958 and his widow and children ran the camp for a few more years before putting it up for sale. Since the 1960s, many of the cabins were sold, some to individuals and others, including the main cabin, to the National Park Service.

Kelly’s Camp was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

It’s unknown what will happen to the remains of the burned buildings, particularly the main cabin. Glacier National Park officials said the area could be preserved as an archeological site or the buildings could be rebuilt. Sierra Mandelko, cultural resource program manager for the park, said the destruction at Kelly’s Camp represents a major loss for Glacier.

For me, these places help (us) connect with individual stories,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to understand our community stories when I can visit these places on the landscape.”

This month’s fire represents the third time in four years that historic structures have been destroyed by wildfire in Glacier Park. In 2015, the Reynolds Creek Fire near St. Mary destroyed the Baring Creek Cabin. In 2017, the Sprague Fire destroyed the beloved Sperry Chalet dormitory.

There are more than 700 buildings in Glacier National Park.

Ray Djuff, a historian who has written extensively about Glacier Park, said every building adds to the park’s historic fabric and that it’s tough to see any of them destroyed, no matter the size.

“It’s almost like watching a brick wall lose one brick at a time. I don’t think the wall’s going to fall down but it’s concerning,” he said.

“We wish things would last forever, but sadly they don’t.”