Joe Cosley: Glacier’s Infamous Belly River Ranger

by Becky Lomax at

 Two hours after being found guilty of poaching, ex-park ranger Joe Cosley fled, snowshoeing 30 miles in less than a day over the Continental Divide into the Belly River Valley. Ranger Joe Heimes pursued a different route to catch him. But like a magician, Cosley vanished over the Canadian border.

In May 1929, Glacier Park witnessed its most infamous trial—when Joe Cosley stood before the park commissioner for his crimes. The trial and Cosley's escape only served to fuel the Belly River legend.

A fur trapper since 1890, Cosley scoured the Belly for hides. A decade later, he served as the Belly’s first national forest ranger and then in 1910 as its first park ranger—a logical choice based on his 20 years of mountain knowledge.

But the new park banned trapping and selling furs. Headquartered in the original Belly River Ranger Station, which today serves as the barn, Cosley poached to make money on the side. "It was a dirty damn place," Ranger Norton Pearl described Cosley's housekeeping skills when he visited the ranger station in winter 1913.

Sprouting from truth and fiction, Cosley watered his self-generated legend. His famed endurance bred from tales of hiking 70 miles between Polebridge and Waterton in 3.5 hours for a dance and returning before breakfast the next morning. He carved his name on hundreds of trees; two are preserved in the Waterton Heritage Center and Belly River Ranger Station.

A womanizer, Joe flattered women by naming the Belly’s lakes after them--Helen, Sue, Margaret, and Elizabeth. He claimed to designate the last for his life-long love Elizabeth Webster, but also professed inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt’s daughters, Ethel and Alice. He declared, “Sue was the  coldest. Elizabeth his best.”

He bragged about purchasing a $1,000 diamond in Paris and proposed marriage to several women, who refused him—causing him to cache the ring “in a favorite friendly old tree.” According to the Cardston News owner, “a Cardston girl, a Mountain View girl, a woman in Waterton, one in Boundary Creek, and one in Babb” turned down Cosley’s proposals.

During his years as a park ranger, Cosley supplied big game to paying customers and sold hides in Canada. Heeding local gossip, park officials dispatched rangers to snag him. Joe evaded them. In 1914, the superintendent ousted Joe from payroll despite lack of evidence, and Cosley vanished north, joining Canadian forces in Europe’s escalating war.


Following the war, as visitors packed Great Northern Railway lodges and Park Saddle Company camps, Joe snuck back into the Belly. Hitting up money-laden tourists at Cosley Lake’s horse camp, he guided “Cosley style” tours. He trapped, hunted, and sold hides in Lethbridge, Alberta.

By 1929, Joe Heimes ran the Belly Ranger Station. On patrol, he stumbled on a footprint leading to a cache of hides.

When Cosley sauntered into camp, 24-year-old Heimes leaped from hiding to arrest the legend twice his age. Cosley bolted; the shorter Heimes tackled him. Three times. Afraid of chasing Cosley all night, the ranger sat on him and tied his feet.

Unleashing Broadway acting skills, Cosley became gravely ill. Sick enough that Heimes untied him. As Cosley fled, Heimes pounced and tied him up again.

To take Cosley to park headquarters in Belton, now West Glacier, required a snow slog over wind-scoured Gable Pass to Slide Lake, a car to East Glacier, and a train to Belton. Heimes loaded Joe’s own pack with traps and beaver pieces, evidence against him. Led by Goat Haunt’s ranger who came to assist, the trio plodded up stormy pass. When the leader faltered, Cosley pointed the way. “Cosley was never out of breath,” related Heimes. “He could have given me a run for the money on snowshoes.”

Accused of poaching and possession of firearms, traps, and hides, Cosley stood before the park commissioner. Heimes testified; Cosley pled guilty. But he claimed the evidence was not his and that he thought he was camped in Canada. The commissioner fined Cosley $125 and sentenced him to 90 days in jail.

In an Oscar performance, Cosley professed a fatal disease, begging for clemency. Fearful of a death in his jail, the commissioner reduced the sentence to 30 days and then suspended it due to Joe’s fast failing health. After local friends paid his fine, Cosley strolled free. 

Two hours post sentencing, gifted with snowshoes and trail grub--and cured--Cosley hiked 30 miles over Ahern Pass, bee-lining for his cache near the Canadian border.  When Heimes reached the camp, one log pole marked the site like a lonely bone left after a wolf kill.  Canada swallowed Cosley and his pelts whole. Two days after his trial, Cosley visited a Lethbridge fur buyer and sold 98 hides for $4,129.

“Better born lucky, than rich,” Cosley often said.

~ By Becky Lomax

Author info: Becky Lomax authored Moon Glacier National Park, an all-around guidebook to Glacier and Waterton that includes tidbits on history.
For more details of Joe Cosley’s adventures, read “Belly River’s Famous Joe Cosley” by Brian McClung.