Immediately after the 2017 Sprague Fire reduced the 106-year-old Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park from an iconic backcountry destination to a smoldering ruin, the ambitious effort to rebuild the historic structure began in earnest.
This past week, the high-alpine construction site was blanketed by snow as workers labored beside space heaters, putting the finishing touches on the building’s interior, painting trim and staining the floor as inclement weather converged on the mountainous region.
It’s the culmination of a monumental effort to literally rebuild history.
Sperry Chalet was lost on Aug. 31, 2017 after the 17,000-acre Sprague Fire doubled in size in a matter of hours, destroying its fir-and-lodgepole framework and leaving behind only the native-rock shell hewed from a nearby mountain quarry by Italian stone masons more than a century ago.
Former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced that he wanted the historic wilderness chalet to be rebuilt as quickly as possible, and that fall Glacier employees conducted emergency stabilization work to ensure that the remaining stonewalls would survive the winter.
“We literally took a credit card to a hardware store in Columbia Falls and bought the timber to brace the stone masonry,” Glacier National Park Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell said. “We were going to build history that day.”
As the park’s fundraising partner, the Conservancy also made the Sperry rebuild a priority, and donations began pouring into its coffers, with contributions coming from citizens of every state in the U.S. and nine other countries.
With the timber braces in place, a heavy winter settled over northwest Montana, and no one knew whether Sperry would survive the weather buffeting its stonewalls perched in the mountains high above Lake McDonald, or whether it would collapse under the weight of winter.
It survived, and the rebuilding has gone mostly according to plan — or as close to plan as possible given the logistics of transporting workers and materials to the remote location.
“Rebuilding Sperry Chalet is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the partner engagement has been remarkable,” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said, adding that he received a call from the Glacier National Park Conservancy the morning after the chalet was overrun by wildfire.
Using materials that match the historic style of the chalet, the work also included some code upgrades. The beams used to construct the roof, for example, are fortified with steel rods, and the fire-impregnated wooden shingles include a Class A fiberglass capsheet, according to Liz Hallas, of Hallas and Anderson Architects.
Earlier this year, the second phase of the Sperry rebuild got underway after the National Park Service awarded a $4.73 million contract to Dick Anderson Construction of Great Falls.
Over the last few weeks, the crew has been hard at work installing the flooring and trim and building the exterior deck. One significant change in the design is how the staircases are constructed inside the chalet. The old stairs were steep and did not meet modern building codes. The new stairs are wider and incorporate a landing.
Shutters cover most of the doors and windows, so the building is starting to look buttoned up for the coming winter, and while details about the 2020 Sperry season will not be available until November or December, the monumental task of rebuilding Sperry is nearly complete.