Railroad history is more than just freight cars and locomotives

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, September 07, 2017

The remains of the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park. Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service/InciWeb.
One of the most significant pieces of Great Northern Railway history in Montana burned to the ground last week.

The Sperry Chalet was built in 1913, one of a half-dozen wilderness lodges in Glacier National Park that were the brainchild of GN President Louis W. Hill. In the years that followed Glacier National Park’s creation in 1910, the GN constructed a number of chalets and lodges in and around the park to entice eastern visitors to ride the railroad’s passenger trains to Montana.

Legend has it that Hill personally selected the spot where many of the chalets were built. Hill, the son of “Empire Builder” James J. Hill, once said, “The work (developing Glacier) is so important that I am loath to entrust the development to anybody but myself. For that reason, I shall give a major part of my time to the park.” Hill was so fastidious about the development of the park’s lodges that he even picked out the hand soap that was stocked in each room.

By some accounts (although it has been challenged by some historians), the GN spent $10 on developments in Glacier Park for every $1 the federal government spent in the early years. Regardless of whether it is true or not, there was no denying the GN played a critical role in Glacier Park.

The railroad ran the chalets and lodges for years, but the Great Depression, World War II and the construction of better roads to Glacier diminished the returns the railroad got from its Glacier Park properties. By the 1950s, most of the chalets had been torn down except for three: Granite Park, Sperry and Belton. In the mid-1950s, the remaining lodges and chalets were either sold to the National Park Service or private companies. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the historic accommodations and getting a room at any of the old GN properties is nearly impossible, including Sperry, which required a steep 6-mile hike to access.

On Aug. 31, the Sperry Chalet was destroyed in a massive wildfire that has closed a large section of Glacier National Park. Despite the valiant effort of five firefighters and four helicopters, the building was lost in less than an hour. Today, only a shell remains. The loss of the building sent shockwaves through the community and Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow likened it to “losing a member of the family.”

It is also a huge blow to railroad history and the work companies like the GN did to promote tourism in the west. From Glacier Park to the Grand Canyon, the west is dotted with railroad hotels that encouraged passengers to “See America First” and unfortunately we’re down one this week.

It’s a great reminder that there’s a lot more to railroad history than freight cars, locomotives and what can be found along the tracks.

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