Twenty years ago, Glacier National Park’s iconic buildings were listed among the nation’s most endangered historic structures and today many still languish in obscurity

Story by Justin Franz | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
When most people think about the buildings of Glacier National Park, they picture luxurious lodges and rugged wilderness chalets.

Built more than a century ago, edifices such as the Many Glacier Hotel and Granite Park Chalet are tangible reminders of an era when Louis W. Hill and his Great Northern Railway devoted an unimaginable amount of time and money to putting this newly established wilderness preserve on the map, billing it as the “American Alps.” The efforts worked; within a few years, hundreds of thousands of people were climbing aboard Great Northern’s passenger trains to vacation in Glacier Park.

But lurking in the long shadow of the Great Northern-constructed buildings is another group of structures with a different set of stories to tell about early settlers and park pioneers: cabins and ranger stations. However, unlike the beloved lodges and chalets, these forgotten buildings of Glacier Park are endangered.

Twenty years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Glacier Park’s iconic structures on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places. In the mid-1990s, both the Granite Park and Sperry chalets were shuttered because of deferred maintenance, and the Many Glacier Hotel was literally about to fall into nearby Swiftcurrent Lake.

The trust was initially only going to list the Great Northern-built structures but later decided to include all of Glacier’s historic buildings because they were emblematic of a larger issue of deferred maintenance within the National Park Service, according to Barb Pahl, regional vice president for the trust.

In 2015, the National Park Service has a deferred maintenance backlog totaling $11.5 billion, with historic structures representing more than a third of that – about $4.5 billion. Glacier Park has a backlog worth more than $178 million, including $33 million for buildings alone. While the lodges and chalets have been lovingly restored and continue to receive renovations, many of the smaller structures have been neglected. There are more than 700 buildings altogether in the park.

Pictured here in 1932 By George A. Grant, the station and outbuilding are near the Canadian border

Kishenhen Ranger Station and outbuilding near the Canadian border, pictured in 1932 by George A. Grant

“I think part of the success of the 1996 listing was that it helped create the desire and commitment to save these historic buildings that was not there 20 years ago,” Pahl said. “But there are still challenges, like a lack of funding and manpower to protect these other buildings. There is a serious lack of resources.”

That lack of resources might be most evident when staring through the burned-out roof of the Kishenehn Ranger Station just a few miles south of the Canadian border. In 2012, the historic structure suffered a chimney fire and three years later it still hasn’t been repaired.

Ironically, the current Kishenehn Ranger Station replaced the original one that had burned down in 1919. The station was quickly rebuilt within a few years due to its proximity to the border and because it was a useful location to catch game poachers and trappers who populated the North Fork Valley.

In hopes of bringing attention to the plight of the shuttered ranger station, the Glacier National Park Conservancy included it in its annual project field guide. Every year, the conservancy, which is the park’s nonprofit fundraising partner, works with officials to craft a list of critical projects that need both money and attention. Conservancy president Mark Preiss said there are too many needs for them all to be listed, but he hopes that the Kishenehn Ranger Station and some of the other buildings listed in the 2016 field guide will raise awareness about all of the historic structures.

“The grand lodges of Glacier tell one story: the story of tourism in the park and its connection with the railroad,” Preiss said. “But the other buildings, the cabins and ranger stations, tell another story.”

The need to maintain the structures goes well beyond historic preservation, Preiss said. Many of them are still used every day, like the original park headquarters in West Glacier, a two-story log cabin that today is the West Lakes District Office. It was built in the early 1920s at the park’s original entrance along the Middle Fork Flathead River, east of the current entrance, and is located on a piece of land purchased by Stephen Mather, the first director of the NPS.

The Wheeler Cabin on Lake McDonald

The Wheeler Cabin on Lake McDonald

Even though it’s in use, the building needs major repairs, with some of the logs it sits on rapidly rotting away. The roof also needs to be replaced, and Phil Wilson, Glacier’s chief of science and resource management and acting-deputy superintendent, said the work would cost upwards of $700,000.

“This building could last another 100 or 200 years,” he said. “It just depends on how well it’s maintained.”

Whenever the park works on an historic building, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they must operate under guidelines established through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Any alterations must be approved by the state’s historic preservation office, which ensures that the changes do not permanently impact the structure’s historic character.

Wilson said Glacier Park is unique in that it has structures representing nearly every construction period of the NPS, from the early years through Mission 66, an infrastructure-improvement program that commemorated the agency’s 50th anniversary. The program, which lasted 10 years, was an effort to expand and improve visitor services. As the NPS approaches its centennial in 2016, officials say the agency is increasingly focused on trying to maintain and preserve what it already has.

One unique example is the Wheeler Cabin, located along the shore of Lake McDonald. U.S. Sen. Burton Wheeler built the cabin for his family in 1942 after making a deal with the NPS to give the land and buildings to the government after the last of his six children died. For years, the senator and his family would summer on the lake. On some occasions, Wheeler, who was chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, held important meetings there.

The NPS acquired the cabin in 2014, after the last of Wheeler’s children passed away. This year, the conservancy is working with the park to raise money in hopes of restoring the site as an education center in coordination with the Glacier Institute. When it does open to the public, it will be another historic artifact that connects people to Glacier National Park’s rich past.

“These buildings are portals to the past,” said Preiss, the conservancy president. “They connect us to people and stories, and if you lose the building, you lose that connection.”