Glacier National Park’s museum collection preserves 20,000 historic items dating back over a century

Story by Justin Franz | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Down a narrow flight of stairs, in the basement of an old wood building near Glacier National Park’s headquarters, lie thousands of artifacts that tell the story of America’s 10th national park.

While the vast majority of Glacier National Park’s archives is paperwork documenting decades of scientific and conservation work, it also includes artifacts that range in size from a teacup to a touring bus. Tasked with caring for the 20,000 historic items stored across four buildings is Deirdre Shaw.

Shaw has been Glacier Park’s museum curator since 1990 and ensures that the massive collection is protected from the elements and available to historians, writers and scholars. The collection covers a wide range of human and natural history within the park, with 2,000 archeological items, 8,000 biological artifacts and a paper archive that stretches 362 linear feet.

The park receives dozens of requests every year for access to the collection from people working on history projects or researching family ties to the park. Park employees also use it to put together interpretive displays and tours. Shaw said the park doesn’t have a museum space, nor does it have enough staff to open the archives to walk-in visitors. However, the park frequently loans pieces to other museums across Montana to help spread Glacier’s story. The park is also working with its nonprofit partner, the Glacier National Park Conservancy, to digitize parts of the collection for future online availability.

Among those thousands of items housed in the archives are a handful of truly amazing pieces that have survived the ravages of time: a hand-drawn map of St. Mary’s Lake by the “father” of Glacier Park; a tea set used at one of the park’s backcountry chalets in the 1920s; and a mail bag used by the park’s first superintendent. Shaw said each item helps bring the park’s vibrant history to life, a story that dates to before her employer, the National Park Service, was even created.

“These items help people make a physical connection to the past,” she said.

Hand-drawn map by George Bird Grinnell, circa 1885-1887 | Photography of the Grinnell Glacier by Lt. J.H. Beacom circa 1887

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George Bird Grinnell was born in the bustling metropolis of New York City in 1849 but found his life’s work in the wilderness of Montana. Grinnell was an anthropologist, naturalist and writer who played a prominent role in the American conservation movement in the 1800s. A lover of nature, Grinnell founded the National Audubon Society and the Boone and Crocket Club. He was also editor of Forest and Stream Magazine.

It was in that role, in the 1880s, that Grinnell edited a story about the wonders of Northwest Montana. Soon after publishing the piece, Grinnell asked the author, James Willard Schultz, to take him to Montana in 1885. It was the first of many trips to the region, and Grinnell soon became one of the most vocal supporters of protecting the region as a national park. During his trips to the future park, Grinnell took impeccable notes and even drew maps of the region, including one of the St. Mary’s Lake region that is preserved on cloth in the archives. Along with the map is a photo of a glacier taken by J.H. Beacom. The glacier pictured would later be named after Grinnell, a permanent honor for one of the park’s earliest supporters.

Mailbag used by Superintendent William R. Logan, circa 1910 | Ranger station logbooks, circa 1932-1933

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On May 11, 1910, President William Howard Taft signed legislation designating Glacier as the country’s 10th national park. Soon afterward, William R. Logan packed his bags and headed to Glacier Park. Logan was a soldier and Indian agent who first came to Glacier as a guide in the 1880s. His first job was superintendent of road and trail construction and later “inspector in charge” of the park. In April 1911, the position of superintendent was formally created. In those days, Logan spent much of his time deep in the park and undoubtedly used the leather bag stamped ‘W. R. Logan’ that is still preserved in the archives.

In 1910, Logan hired Glacier’s first park rangers to protect the nation’s newest park and its resources. At the time, illegal poachers and trappers were the biggest threat. To protect the park from such activity, Logan hired a group of local poachers and trappers. While that might seem contradictory, Logan said later that “it takes a poacher to find a poacher.” Among the first rangers was the infamous Joe Cosley, who was fired for poaching a year after he was hired. Despite the pink slip, Cosley kept working and somehow the park kept paying him.

In later years, the rangers were a tamer bunch that frequently worked alone in the wilderness. Their many duties included filing monthly reports about what they saw and did. To help in those endeavors, they frequently filled out daily logs, including a trio of books preserved by the Park Service that record the daily activities of rangers at Cut Bank, Belly River and Paola in 1932 and 1933.

Chalet waitress uniform, circa 1930 | Blue willow dishes used in chalets, circa 1920-1930

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While William R. Logan and his rangers worked to protect Glacier Park in the 1910s, the Great Northern Railway was promoting the new attraction that had cropped up along its main line across Montana. Railway President Louis W. Hill was an early supporter of the park in part because he knew a national park would attract passengers. Before the ink that created the park was dry, Hill and the Great Northern began planning a series of hotels and wilderness chalets.

Visitors to the park in the 1910s and 1920s would frequently arrive by rail and spend a night or two at the Glacier Park Lodge before riding horses into the park. The wilderness chalets were located a days-ride from each other and, despite their remoteness, featured the same high-class service they experienced at the hotels. The waitstaff wore clothing inspired by the Swiss Alps – including a heavy purple and yellow dress preserved by the Park Service – that helped create the feel of the “American Alps,” a moniker frequently promoted by the railway. Visitors also used fine glassware, a far cry from what is used by hikers and backpackers today.

Decals and promotional brochures, circa 1910-1930

After the Great Northern built a series of wilderness accommodations, it turned its attention to advertising the scenic wonder of Glacier Park. The railroad hired painters and photographers to come to the park and create art that could be used on promotional brochures and decals. Native Americans were frequently featured on the material, and the railroad branded the Blackfeet as the “Glacier Park Indians” for promotional purposes.

The railroad also heavily relied on the slogan “See America First” as a way to encourage travelers to plan their vacations in the West rather than Europe, a popular destination for most of America’s well-to-do in that era.

Red Bus driver’s badge, circa 1960 | Souvenir mailbag and postcards, circa 1930

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When Glacier Park first opened, most visitors took in the scenery on horseback. But, starting in 1914, the park became the first in the nation to offer motorized tours. The Glacier Park Transportation Company utilized open-air motorbuses and hired young men studying to be doctors and lawyers to serve as summer tour guides. The “dapper” young men were notorious flirts, according to legend, and at one point in the 1920s the National Park Service sent a memo to the transportation company asking that young women not be seated next to the drivers.

In the 1930s, the White Motor Company built 35 touring buses for Glacier Park. The “Reds,” as they’re called, are almost as emblematic of the park as the mountain goat, and for decades the buses have been featured on the driver’s badges.

Throughout Glacier’s history, visitors have swarmed the park’s gift shops for souvenirs to send to friends and family. Postcards are among the most popular items, including a set from the mid-1930s that could be secured in a small mail bag. More than 70 years after it was purchased and mailed to spread the wonders of Glacier Park, this little artifact is just one of the thousands that tells the human history of one of America’s favorite national parks.