In 1939 there were big plans for the town of Essex, thanks to its location on the Great Northern Railway and close proximity to Glacier National Park.
Essex seemed to be the perfect location for a third entrance to the park, and on Nov. 15, 1939, the Izaak Walton Inn was opened to serve future visitors and rail workers. With 29 rooms, 10 bathrooms, lobby, dining room, kitchen with a two-ton cook stove and more, the hotel cost $40,000 to build, was “modern in every detail,” and sure to please visitors.
Then the United States entered World War II and plans for the new park entrance never materialized, leaving Essex with the “Inn Between,” and not much else.
Fast forward to 2013, and the Izaak Walton is now a destination lodging facility, offering visitors a chance to step back through time to the heyday of rail travel in the area and experience some of those once “modern” but now quaint amenities.”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Tudor Revival inn is now the only flag stop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, and although the train might not stop every day, the rail still plays an important — and growing — role in the life of the inn.
In addition to rooms in the inn, visitors can stay in renovated rail cars that have been converted into rustic or luxury suites. Thanks to a recent donation by the Billings train depot, the Izaak Walton has added two new historic cabooses to its accommodations.
“The cabooses were donated to us because they were too costly to maintain and the city was making room for a new Trailhead Plaza,” said Elise Wright, assistant general manager at the Izaak Walton Inn. “We had to pay to get them transported here, though.”
Each 60,000-pound rail car was hoisted by crane from its resting place in the old depot, loaded onto flatbed semitrailers and trucked to Essex.
“We had to lay down sections of tracks for the new cars before we could get them in their final locations,” Wright said. “Then we had to totally redo the insides. They have kitchens, bathrooms, lights, beds and one even has a fireplace. They have a more luxurious feel than some of our others.”
The new Northern Pacific Bay window caboose and The Great Northern X215 car joined the inn’s four other cabooses and locomotive.
The cabooses arrived in Essex last spring, but Wright said it wasn’t until fall that renovations were able to start. The project took approximately two months to complete, but the results were worth the wait, Wright said.
“We had to wait to begin the restorations because we were so busy in the summer,” she said. “But we finally got them done and opened in the middle to end of December. Some of our cars have a more rustic feel, and some are very luxurious, so you can choose what you’re more interested in.”
Although Amtrak only stops at Essex when there are passengers waiting, it is still an important stop for BNSF Railway Co. freight trains that need helper engines to push the heavy trains over Marias Pass.
“We get a lot of rail fans here who just go crazy over the trains.” Wright said. “Kids love the train cars, too. We’re thinking about getting more, but right now we’re just scoping out the market. We’ll see how things go.”
This time of year the Izaak Walton is sought-after for its cross-country skiing opportunities. Its sheltered 33-kilometer trail system is groomed daily for skate and classic skiing. The inn offers cross-country ski lessons, along with guided Glacier Park ski and snowshoe tours.
For more information about the Izaak Walton Inn, go online at www.izaakwaltoninn.com.
Reporter Melissa Walther may be reached at 758-4474 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.