More than a year after it was gutted by a wildfire, Glacier National Park’s beloved Sperry Chalet is slowly rising from the ashes. This month, contractors are putting the finishing touches on the first and second floors of the dormitory building and the roof before wrapping up their work for the season.
If everything goes according to plan, the chalet will be completed in 2019 and once again welcoming guests soon after.
It’s an impressive resurrection following the devastating wildfire fire that gutted the century-old chalet built by the Great Northern Railway. On Aug. 31, 2017, the Sprague Fire made a sudden run toward the chalet that had been evacuated weeks earlier. Despite the best efforts of five firefighters, an ember got inside the building and burned it from the inside out. What had taken more than a year to build in 1913 and 1914 took less than an hour to destroy.
Soon after the fire, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced that he wanted the historic wilderness chalet to be rebuilt. Last fall, Glacier employees conducted emergency stabilization work to ensure that the remaining stonewalls would survive the winter. The National Park Service streamlined the permitting process for rebuilding the chalet and in June 2018 announced that it would spend $12 million reconstructing Sperry over the next two years.
Starting in July, laborers with Dick Anderson Construction of Great Falls began additional stabilization work at the chalet and the installation of new concrete footings. Once those projects were out of the way, they began to construct the first and second floors and a roof.
While crews hiked into the remote work site, materials were brought in by helicopter. By August, two rotating work crews of seven to eight people would hike in and work for eight days before hiking back out for six days off. Travis Neil, project manager for Dick Anderson Construction, said the Sperry project posed a number of challenges. Some of those were predictable, like the lack of easy access to additional supplies or communication with the outside world, but others were a surprise, Neil said.
“Those little marmots are a pain in the rear,” Neil said.
Marmots, like other animals in the alpine region of Glacier National Park, like salt and so it was common for the animals to run off with sweat-stained shirts or rummage through the laborers’ tents. To combat the curious critters, small electric wires were placed around the tents to shock the marmots and keep them away. Glacier Park spokesperson Lauren Alley said this is not the first time the park has had to resort to zapping critters to keep them from bothering people. Hot wires have been used to keep bears away from a sewage lagoon that was being pumped in Many Glacier and to keep swallows from nesting in the eves of the St. Mary Visitor Center. The park also electrified a backpack at Avalanche Lake a few years back to teach a noisy bruin that it should stay out of visitor’s belongings.
Rob Terrio was a superintendent for one of the crews working on the chalet this summer. He said that while the marmots caused problems at the beginning of the season, they quickly lost interest in what the laborers were doing. He said that his crews never got tired of seeing wildlife, especially the goats.
“Everyone has that one job that they’ll remember for the rest of their life and in 27 years of doing construction I can’t think of a job as cool as this one,” he said. “I doubt I’ll be able to top in in the eight or so years before I retire.”
Plenty of other people were also at the Sperry Chalet site this summer. The National Park Service had a number of employees working on trails and Belton Chalets Inc., the concessioner for both Sperry and Granite Park Chalets, provided food services for the work crews. While the dormitory was nearly destroyed in last year’s fire, the old kitchen building escaped unscathed. Concessioner Kevin Warrington said it was a privilege to play a small part in rebuilding the chalet and to feed the workers. He said his cooks prepared everything from chicken stir-fry to pizza for the crews. Neil joked that his crews ate better in the middle of the woods than they do at home.
Crews are currently working to protect the recently installed roof from snow. Once it is protected, they will return home for the season. Alley said that design work on the chalet continues and that the park expects to put phase two of the project out for bid in spring 2019 in order to continue work in July of next year. When it is complete, the chalet will have one ADA-accessible room and feature a number of other modern improvements. Alley notes, however, that the chalet will still look and feel like it did before the fire.
Neil said his crews are optimistic that Dick Anderson Construction will win the contract to finish the chalet. Next year, proper roof shingling will be installed, along with windows, doors and interior walls.
Neil said it’s been the privilege of a lifetime to work in such a beautiful place.
“If you were ever having a bad day at that work site all you had to do was look around at the mountains and it would cheer you right up,” he said.
Terrio, who lives in Helena, said that while he had heard of the Sperry Chalet before it burned, he had no idea how important it was to the Glacier National Park community until this summer.
“It’s really humbling to be working on this and giving it back to the community,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime job.”