Swiss Chalets and Grand Glacier Lodges

How European Vacations Informed Early Park Infrastructure

   Travelers need a destination; railroads need passengers. From this symbiotic relationship, Glacier Park’s infrastructure was born. Chalets, trails, lodges, boats and roads were constructed and styled off European Chalets to attract the wealthy Eastern traveler accustomed to month long European getaways. Build grand chalets and get the American to stay in the states. Get them to go to Glacier National Park and a requisite ride on the Great Northern Railway was in order, making J.J. Hill a fortune.

     That American interpretation of vacations came under consideration as concessions and accommodations were created in the park. At the turn of the century, European mountain scenery dictated travelers taste, and so Louis Hill (son of Great Northern Railroad founder J.J. Hill) played on popular taste as he constructed their national park empire.

Popular taste leaned toward Swiss style chalets and European lodges, and so if, upon visiting a Glacier Park lodge you have the sense of the Alps—you are experiencing exactly what Hill was after and what early tourists were accustomed.

The first lodge built was built in 1914 at East Glacier (see photo below) known then as Midvale.  Erected on the Blackfeet reservation, the 155-room lodge housed such magnificent and massive fir and cedar columns that the Blackfeet nicknamed it Big Tree Lodge. The starting point for excursions into Glacier—a walking tourist could experience the park for $3 a day, including meals. That same year, Glacier Park Hotel Company was officially formed—a corporate reorganization that allowed the concessions within the park to operate under Great Northern Railroad, but as their own entity. The company controlled the hotels, chalets, garages, livery stables, boats and auto lines within the park.

    In 1915, the Many Glacier Hotel—also modeled after Swiss architecture—was constructed. Nearly half of the park’s 13,465 visitors that year stayed at this lodge. Chalets were quickly added to accommodate the backcountry horse expeditions that allowed wealthy Easterners unprecedented access into wild beauty of Glacier. Chalets were plotted out to be a one-day ride between each one, so that tourists experienced the comforts of their daily lives—visitors to the park brought their silk handkerchiefs, dancing skirts and dined on linen tablecloths while within the bounds of this early preserve.

     The rise of roads and the automobile ultimately meant the death of the Glacier Park Company—despite two years of early success and rising tourist numbers, the opulence of the lodges was never matched in profits. By 1930, the Glacier Park Hotel Company was sold after years of running losses. 

    Yet that the lodges were built with materials that suited taste of the well-heeled traveler also meant they would stand the test of time, and today that legacy of luxury is part of everyone’s experience of Glacier—a surviving testament of Great Northern’s part in developing the park and the tastes of an era.

© Christine Hensleigh, Power of the Pen

Photo, courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives