The Nation's Pulse

The Continent’s Crown

Glacier National Park celebrates its centenary this month.

By 5.3.10

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In northwestern Montana hard against the Canadian border is Glacier National Park, "The Crown of the Continent" to repeat the phrase coined by anthropologist (and Teddy Roosevelt crony) George Bird Grinnell. The Blackfeet called the regal peaks "The Backbone of the World." It was the view they enjoyed as they roamed and raided across the buffalo plains to the east.

Glacier celebrates its centenary on May 11, President William Howard Taft signed the designating legislation on that date in 1910. For a comparison, its 1.2 million acres are about half the size of Yellowstone. Glacier --unlike its sister national park to the south -- lacks vast stretches of open country, and is a crowded concentration of rugged mountains, seven hundred lakes (131 of which are named), and abundant wildlife, including wolverines, grizzly bears, and white-as-snow shaggy mountain goats, the latter the park's official symbol.

Winters are ferocious and Glacier's main road, the "Going-to-the-Sun" Highway (53 miles) is in some years not opened until June, and only after weeks of plowing through huge drifts and avalanche control work. Going-to-the-Sun premiered in 1933, an engineering feat of tight switchbacks and retaining walls spanning the Continental Divide. At Logan Pass (elev. 6,646) snow can fall in any month of the year.

Before the highway opened the only way to get to Glacier -- other than by horse and wagon -- was by train. In 1891 the Great Northern Railway crested Marias Pass, which borders the present park's southern reaches. Railroad magnate James J. Hill saw the value of the Glacier area as a tourist draw utilizing his passenger service, and assigned his son Louis Hill the job of development on the periphery of these "American Alps" using their subsidiary Glacier Park Company. A number of chalets were built, and the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier in 1913, followed by the Many Glacier Hotel on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake in 1915.

The naturalist-author John Muir visited once, and the experience moved him to write: "Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God's wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go uncounted." In 1906, before Glacier became a national park, the artist Charles M. Russell built a cabin on Lake McDonald that he named Bull Head Lodge, and summered there with his family for twenty years, producing many fine landscapes of lakes and mountains. In a letter to a friend Russell wrote: "If its [sic] laying down you need Lake McDonald is the best bed ground in the world and my lodge is open and the pipe lit for you and yors [sic]. You know that Lake Country sings the cradle song to all who lay in her lap."

I drove the Going-to-the-Sun Highway in the summer of 1997. I started at St. Mary and stopped at its eponymous lake, the stones on its near-shore bottom showing crystal clear. St. Mary Lake has been a calendar subject for years, and I stopped to take in the familiar view of mountains that nudge both shores like a row of towering breaking waves. Pillars of cumulous clouds above them added to the magisterial effect. The lake is 10 miles long and was carved by those ancient glaciers now in historic retreat, whether one believes the validity of climate change or not (an estimated 150 of a century ago now number 37 according to scientific studies).

Back on the highway and climbing, small streams of water from melting snow spilled onto the pavement, which always seemed to be wet. The road was an actual wreck then (it is currently being repaired and resurfaced the last few summers in a painstakingly long multi-year construction project), with fissures and frost-heaves and potholes the result of the punishing winters. Gray stone walls that lined the road above deep precipices were crumbling like Roman ruins. There were short, dark granite tunnels with thin veils of water leaching down the walls. All around me were mountains, stony and snow-streaked.

On the west side the highway is a series of switchbacks leading down from the alpine country to the thick forests around Lake McDonald, where Charlie Russell had his cabin. The increased moisture on the western slope of the Continental Divide gives that side of Glacier a more verdant look than the drier high plains country bordering the eastern side. Present are tall Western Red Cedars, trees native to the Pacific Northwest and here found in their eastern extremity.

In West Glacier, Montana, the air was cool and moist, and the road signs pointed to Kalispell and Coeur D'Alene. The cottonwoods fluttered in the breeze above the jade-green Flathead River rushing west. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.