Gateway to splendor: Centennial plans under way for Glacier hotel

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The front of the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier on July 23.

Workers arriving at camp in March 1912 along a remote siding on the Great Northern Railway mainline had a tall order as winter dragged on.

They were the men who would build a lodge so grand and beautiful that 100 years later, people would still gasp at the grandeur. They were the men who manhandled the enormous centuries-old Douglas fir logs that line the hotel lobby. They were the ones who shaped Glacier Park Lodge into a showpiece.

It was a bit unusual that when the park’s entrance hotel, now the centerpiece of East Glacier, opened on Sunday, June 15, 1913, there was no fanfare, no dedication or ribbon-cutting ceremony. Guests simply began showing up.

A celebration had been planned, but the hotel manager postponed the event a week or better when he found out his staff wouldn’t arrive until the night before the doors opened, according to “View with a Room” by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison.

A century later, another celebration is in the works to mark Glacier Park Lodge’s first 100 years, and it will be a dandy, promised Cindy Ognjanov, president and general manager of Glacier Park Inc., the management company for Glacier National Park’s lodging facilities.

“This will be the first of a series of birthday parties” for park hotels, she noted. Lake McDonald Lodge will celebrate its centennial in 2014, followed by Many Glacier Hotel in 2015 and culminating with the National Park Service centennial in 2016.

Plans for the Glacier Park Lodge 100th birthday are taking shape day by day, she said. The party will take place on the exact 100-year mark: June 15, 2013.

Ognjanov would like to re-create an instrumental group similar to the Elks Club band that performed for the hotel’s opening in 1913. And she plans to see if Pendleton Woolen Mills can make a special centennial blanket reminiscent of the original wool blankets used on the hotel beds.

“We have some really old menus,” she said. “We may do a special menu [based on dishes of yesteryear] for the centennial.”

The hotel used to print new menus every day during the early years, and those will provide insight into past delicacies.

On July 16, 2013, a reunion of former Glacier Park Lodge employees will fill the lodge, Ognjanov said. The town of East Glacier Park is heavily involved in the celebration, too, she said.

“These are wonderful old buildings,” she said of the historic hotels she oversees. “When these hotels were built they had amazing lobbies and that was the entertainment. They came for the ambiance and getting together in the lobbies is what they did. Our lobbies are still full.”

Guests at Glacier Park Lodge won’t find televisions in their rooms or Internet access, and that’s as most people want it, Ognjanov said. GPI polled park fans on Facebook about adding wireless service, but overwhelmingly people said no.

“I never get complaints about not having a TV,” she said. “Frankly, I’d get lots of complaints if we had them.”

Louis W. Hill, the son of “Empire Builder” railroad magnate J.J. Hill who followed in his father’s footsteps in running the Great Northern Railway, had a vision of what he wanted in an entrance hotel to Glacier Park.

“It had to be big, massive to the point of surpassing every natural and man-made object in the vicinity,” Djuff and Morrison wrote in their book. “The eastern entrance of Glacier Park had to tweak visitors’ imaginations and desire to explore and see the wonders beyond.”

The lodge — called Glacier Park Hotel until the late 1950s — is located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and not within Glacier Park. At the time it was built, the townsite of Midvale, the forerunner of East Glacier, had 100 residents.

Visitors flocked to Glacier in 1913, thanks to some savvy marketing by Hill and the grandeur and newness of the 3-year-old national park. It was just months after the original hotel closed out its first season that work began on a 111-bedroom annex. The entire hotel complex cost the railroad $786,226, according to “View with a Room.”

“Tourists passed through Glacier Park Hotel by the thousands, an untold number arriving by automobile, and as many as 9,000 a year on scheduled railway tours,” Djuff and Morrison noted.

Although there have been upgrades to the historic structure through the years, such as switching from steam heat to electric heat a decade ago and a full replumbing of the hotel about seven years ago, the place still oozes with history.

The dining room has many original amenities. The fireplace, once used for cooking hotel meals, still has the original arms in place that held massive kettles. Original cupboards, a buffet with mirrors and wooden ice chest add historic touches.

A spacious kitchen is accented with skylights and a wooden cathedral ceiling. One of the most unique features of the kitchen is an old conveyor belt that still transports the dirty dishes across the expansive room to the dishwasher.

“View with a Room” shows a photograph of the hotel’s “bubble queens” who operated the laundry not only for Glacier Park Hotel but also for the now-defunct Two Medicine and Cut Bank chalets. The lodge still has a central laundry facility for Many Glacier and Lake McDonald lodges, which haul their bed linens and towels to Glacier Park Lodge every day during the summer.

The lobby, replete with towering fir logs, looks much the same as it did 100 years ago, Ognjanov said.

“The thing that impresses me, is how did they do it?” she said, wondering how construction workers put together the massive woodwork without the benefit of modern-day equipment.

A big summer event at the lodge is “Christmas in July,” celebrated July 25.

The event started at Yellowstone National Park in the early part of the 1900s when a freak summer blizzard stranded visitors and their stagecoaches at Old Faithful Inn. Rather than sulking about being snowbound, guests decided to stage an impromptu Christmas celebration.  The tradition spread to other national parks through the years, and Glacier Park Lodge puts up a Christmas tree for the occasion.

As visitors step off the train or pull up to the hotel in their vehicles, their eyes immediately are drawn to the expansive gardens that sprawl across the front lawn. Hill was an avid gardener and placed great importance on making a memorable first impression. He personally selected the irises, gladioli, peonies and other varieties and ordered tulip bulbs from Holland.

Hill mapped out how the flowers would be positioned, where the perennials would flourish and spots where annuals could fill in the beds.

Today’s gardens, like so much about Glacier Park Lodge, are just as they looked 100 years ago. For the hotel’s thousands of guests each summer, the experience very much remains a step back in time.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

The expansive lobby is the distinctive centerpiece of the Glacier Park Lodge. Sixty massive logs, each 36 to 42 inches in diameter and 40 feet long, support the historic hotel.

 

Guests check in to the Glacier Park Lodge at the counter in the lobby on July 23. The lobby and dining room ware opened to guests on June 15, 1913.

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