A century after two Anaconda Copper Mining Company executives built a rustic oasis in the wilderness, the Kootenai Lodge is restored as a high-end community centerpiece
Story & Photography by Justin Franz
About a decade ago, Jeffrey Wirth and Paul Milhous were standing in a historic log cabin on the edge of the Swan River watching water leak through an old roof.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Wirth asked Milhous, a developer, of his ambitious plan to refurbish a century-old lodge and the surrounding cabins into a high-end community just south of Bigfork.
“Anything can be restored to its original splendor,” Milhous said. “You just have to have passion and the right people.”
A decade later, with a healthy dose of passion and people, the Kootenai Lodge has indeed been restored to its original splendor. The lodge, designed by famed Northwest architect Kirtland Cutter, who crafted Kalispell’s Conrad Mansion and Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald Lodge, is the centerpiece of a 42-acre spread that has been turned into a private residential community.
Using historic cabins as a starting point, the Kootenai development has created luxury homes that range in size from 2,900 to 5,000 square feet and sell for anywhere from $1.2 million to $3.5 million. The developers eventually hope to build approximately 40 luxury homes that feature modern conveniences with nods to the property’s rich history. But the heart of the property is the Kootenai Lodge itself, a building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been lovingly restored to its early-20th century appearance.
“This lodge is just full of stories,” said Wirth, who helps manage and market the property.
Zadok Johnston homesteaded on the land that surrounds the south end of Swan Lake back in 1901, according to the National Register of Historic Places application from 1984. The land changed hands soon after, and was eventually purchased by a group with connections to Butte, the legendary mining town about 190 miles to the southeast. In one version of events, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company had purchased the land to cut timber to stabilize its mines in Butte and Anaconda, but company officials halted the plan when they saw how beautiful the property was.
In another version, a Butte attorney purchased it and had two friends who happened to be executives with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company — Cornelius Kelley and Orvis Evans — over for a long weekend of fishing. The two men fell in love with the land and decided to buy it. Regardless of how Kelley and Evans first came to the property on Swan Lake, what is known for sure is that the two men bought 127 acres there in 1908 and then quickly went about buying adjoining pieces of land until they had ownership of thousands of acres in the area.
Kelley and Evans had started as young, ambitious attorneys for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and worked through the ranks to become powerful executives. Looking for a reprieve from the hectic responsibilities of running one of the largest corporations in the world, Kelley and Evans frequently brought their families to Swan Lake to spend a few weeks every summer relaxing in the mountains. But their responsibilities were never completely surrendered and telegraph machines clicked away in a nearby outbuilding, providing an unlikely temporary base each summer for a powerful global company.
A decade after purchasing the land, Kelley and Evans hired Cutter to design a main lodge to serve as common area for the property. The two story, u-shaped structure has a large main hall that looks out on to the lake. According to the 1984 historic register application, the Kootenai Lodge “is perhaps the most finely crafted and elegantly appointed collection of ‘rustic’ log buildings in the state,” and the main lodge “represents a most unusual juxtaposition of urban opulence and Arts and Crafts inspired rustic architectural design.” One of the lodge’s most interesting aspects is a number of stick figure-drawings in the courtyard’s concrete that were created by none other than famed Western artist Charlie Russell.
Although the lodge and its cabins were built primarily for the enjoyment of close friends and families, Kelley and Evans often entertained powerful and famous figures of the early day at the Kootenai Lodge, including business magnate John D. Rockefeller, actor Will Rogers, aviator Charles Lindbergh and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.
The two executives, particularly Kelley, also liked to drink, and in the months leading up to the implementation of Prohibition, they purchased hundreds of bottles of liquor from bars and pubs across the region. To store it all, Kelley had a vault buried underground on the property so he could keep it under lock and key.
“It wasn’t for the fine china or the silver,” Wirth said of the vault. “It was for the booze because he knew people would go after that.”
Kelley figured he had more than enough alcohol to last the rest of his days, but unfortunately for him, none of his friends had planned ahead and within a few years the massive stash was gone. According to legend, Kelley then started bootlegging liquor in from Canada with the help of local law enforcement deputies, who always got a large gift come Christmas time.
The Anaconda executives kept the property until the 1950s. The property — which by then was just 42 acres — changed hands multiple times during the latter part of the 20th century, and the buildings began to fall into disrepair. In the early 2000s, Milhous bought it with a plan to rebuild the lodge and turn the surrounding cabins into luxury homes.
Since then, Milhous and his team have been slowly working on the project, and in 2018 a small high-end community is being born. Some of the original cabins have been rebuilt into luxury homes. The property also features a pool, cabana, community space, fitness center and concierge services.
More than a century after two powerful mining executives fell in love with the beauty of Northwest Montana, the Kootenai Lodge is still enticing visitors with this region’s wonders.
For more information, visit www.thekootenai.com.