Glacier National Park (Est. 1910)

Glacier Park has been a part of Montana’s Western heritage prior to, and after, passage of the 1910 bill, that established the park as America’s tenth National Park.

Archaeological surveys found evidence of human use of the area dating back 10,000 years. These people may have been the ancestors of the tribes that live in the area today. By the time the first European explorers came to the region, several different tribes inhabited the area. The Blackfeet Indians controlled the east side of the mountains and the Salish-Kootenai controlled the western valleys. The region holds great spiritual importance to the Blackfeet and Salish-Kootenai people.

In the early 1800s, French, English and Spanish trappers came in search of beaver. In 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came within 50 miles of the park. In 1855 the Blackfeet Reservation, which adjoins the east side of Glacier Park, and the Flathead Reservation, established for the Salish-Kootenai southwest of the Park, were established by treaty. Under pressure from miners, the mountains east of the Continental Divide were acquired in 1895 from the Blackfeet.

The mountain pass known as the Marias, first described in 1850 by Robert Greenhow, became significant as it was the best way to connect the Great Lakes Region and Washington Territory by railroad. From 1850 to 1889, the Blackfeet and Salish-Kootenai guarded the area, and the Marias Pass became overgrown, covered by windfall, and eventually lost. John F. Stevens was hired by James A. Hill, the General Manager of the Great Northern Railroad to find and survey the area to find the pass. Stevens and his guide Coonsah nearly froze to death during their venture but succeeded in reaching Marias Pass on December 31, 1889. The first community was established in 1890 at the site of East Glacier and was known as Midvale. The railroad was completed from there to Kalispell over the Marias Pass in 1891.

The next year Horace Clark and his son Malcolm moved to East Glacier and settled on a homestead west of the railroad. In 1893, Thomas Erskin Dawson, the son of a Scottish nobleman, homesteaded the land across the tracks from the Clarks. Both Clark and Dawson raised cattle and horses on their ranches. Tom Dawson became a hunting guide for wealthy easterners and served as a guide for the Bakers of New York, the Behring Brothers, and former Secretary of State and War Henry L. Stimson. Dawson was honored in 1953 at age 92 in the Great Falls Tribune, which featured stories about his days as a pioneer, fur trader, scout, explorer and rancher. Dawson gave his recipe for a long life as follows: “Have Scottish and Indian blood in your veins, then spend your formative years in a rugged frontier country such as Glacier Park in the early years.”

The Blackfeet were establishing cattle ranches, as early as the 1890’s, adjacent to what would later become Glacier National Park – hiring Indian and non-Indian cowboys who lived in the area.

By the turn of the century, people began to recognize the value of the park’s spectacular beauty. In the late 1890s visitors arrived at (Belton) West Glacier by train, rode a stagecoach to Lake McDonald and boarded a boat for an eight-mile trip to the Snyder Hotel. Roads did not exist in the mountains at that time. The area was made a Forest Preserve in 1900 and a national park in 1910 when President Taft signed the bill officially naming Glacier National Park. George Bird Grinnell, an early explorer, guided by James Willard Schultz, spent years getting the park established.

Shortly after Glacier Park was created, the Great Northern Railroad began the construction of tourist attractions to stimulate passenger service to the park. In 1911 the construction of Glacier Park Lodge began at East Glacier. Although the main hotel was operating as early as 1913, it wasn’t until 1916 that all the additions and buildings were completed, with maximum guest occupancy of 400. The completed lodge was very state-of-the-art for the day as it featured running water, electricity and twenty modern bathtubs. Additionally, two dude ranches were established within ten miles of East Glacier, and the railroad built several other hotels and chalets in the early 1900s.

The tourists of these early years were wealthy easterners out for a good time “roughing it” in the spectacular Rocky Mountain wilderness. They wanted the best accommodations that money could buy and enjoyed horseback riding, five-day pack trips and two-day stage rides over treacherous roads to Many Glacier. Glacier Park Lodge hired five Blackfeet families to move their tipis onto the lodge grounds and spend the summer there. The families met the trains to welcome visitors and educate them about Blackfeet culture, including dances, dancing regalia, games, and storytelling. The Blackfeet who summered on the lodge grounds included the families of George Bull Child, Wallace Night Gun, Theodore Last Star, Dan Lone Chief, John Ground Sr., Berry Child, Sanderville, and Mike Shortman. John Ground Sr. told his descendants that his favorite memory was when the famed movie star Clark Gable came to East Glacier to visit one of the local dude ranches. Many horse concessioners hired out-of-work cowboys who came from all walks of life and went on to become trick ropers, bronc riders, entertainers, ranchers, farmers, artists, writers and tribal leaders after the road over Logan Pass was built.

The construction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road over the pass was a huge undertaking. Completed in 1932, after eleven years of work, the road is considered an engineering feat and is named a National Historic Landmark. It forever changed the way visitors would experience Glacier Park; they could drive through areas that previously had taken days of horseback riding to observe. Even today, visitors marvel at how such a road could have been built at the time.


Montana Magazine of Western History, Blackfeet of the Border, Volume XX, No. 1 1970

Historical Sketch, East Glacier, 1972, Blackfeet Tribe Research and History