Sperry Chalet remembered as an iconic Glacier Park treasure

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  • Ross and Kay Luding at Sperry Chalet. They began operating the chalet in 1954 and spent decades there. Through the years their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all worked there. (Photo courtesy of Beth Dunagan)

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    Sperry Chalet as seen from above in the summer of 2008. (Hungry Horse News file photo)

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    Pictured at Sperry Chalet in 1954 were Beth Somers Dunagan, Barbara Luding Warrington, Marge Somers with Marcia, Kay Luding, Ross Luding and Lanny Luding. (Photo courtesy of Beth Dunagan)

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    A big billy mountain goat guards the Sperry Chalet in 2014. (Chris Peterson photos/Hungry Horse News)

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    A worker stands behind the front desk at the Sperry Chalet in this file photo. The backcountry chalet in Glacier Park burned up Thursday in the Sprague Creek Fire. (Chris Peterson photo, Hungry Horse News)

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    A photo of the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park on July 30. This photo was made shortly before the start of the Sprague Fire. (Photo courtesy of Kat Gebauer/Green Kat Photography)

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    The beargrass around Sperry Chalet was extraordinary this summer. This image was captured by local photographer Bret Bouda. Upon hearing that the Sprague Fire destroyed Sperry's main lodge, Bouda put together a video tribute that can be found at https://youtu.be/2nrEJGVy9bM.

  • Ross and Kay Luding at Sperry Chalet. They began operating the chalet in 1954 and spent decades there. Through the years their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all worked there. (Photo courtesy of Beth Dunagan)

  • 1

    Sperry Chalet as seen from above in the summer of 2008. (Hungry Horse News file photo)

  • 2

    Pictured at Sperry Chalet in 1954 were Beth Somers Dunagan, Barbara Luding Warrington, Marge Somers with Marcia, Kay Luding, Ross Luding and Lanny Luding. (Photo courtesy of Beth Dunagan)

  • 3

    A big billy mountain goat guards the Sperry Chalet in 2014. (Chris Peterson photos/Hungry Horse News)

  • 4

    A worker stands behind the front desk at the Sperry Chalet in this file photo. The backcountry chalet in Glacier Park burned up Thursday in the Sprague Creek Fire. (Chris Peterson photo, Hungry Horse News)

  • 5

    A photo of the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park on July 30. This photo was made shortly before the start of the Sprague Fire. (Photo courtesy of Kat Gebauer/Green Kat Photography)

  • 6

    The beargrass around Sperry Chalet was extraordinary this summer. This image was captured by local photographer Bret Bouda. Upon hearing that the Sprague Fire destroyed Sperry's main lodge, Bouda put together a video tribute that can be found at https://youtu.be/2nrEJGVy9bM.

For many people, Sperry Chalet was their favorite place on earth.

Now it’s gone.

The 1914 landmark in Glacier National Park was destroyed by the Sprague Fire early Thursday evening as high winds pushed the blaze over Sperry’s main lodge that accommodated trail-weary guests for more than a century.

In the aftermath, there was shock, disbelief, so many tears and now, grieving.

“My heart is breaking not just for my family but for everyone who so dearly loved that chalet,” said Beth Dunagan of Whitefish, who spent all of her childhood summers and five of her adult summers at the backcountry chalet.

“When you think of all those who got married there, or those who scattered the ashes of their loved ones there,” it’s a loss that is so personal to so many, she said.

Dunagan knows Sperry Chalet more intimately that most. She wrote a book called “Welcome to Sperry Chalet” about her time spent there. It was published in 2014 during the 100th anniversary of the chalet.

“There’s no place on earth I’d rather be,” she said shortly after her book was published.

Friday morning, Dunagan said friends were calling with messages of condolences.

“There are families in this valley who take trips to Sperry with their grandchildren. It’s a rite of passage,” Dunagan said.

Dunagan herself hiked regularly to Sperry with her own grandchildren. One of her grandsons was finally old enough to work there and had already secured a job at Sperry for next summer.

Renowned nature photographer Bret Bouda, who published a coffee-table book called “The Era of the Chalets,” said he immediately put together a youtube video collage of Sperry Chalet photographs as a tribute upon hearing the devastating news.

“It’s heartbreaking news; there’s no question about it,” Bouda said.

He hikes extensively in that area and spent two nights there the end of July. He was supposed to spend another couple of nights at Sperry in late August but by then the chalet had been closed because of fire danger.

Bouda said he marveled at the amount of beargrass around Sperry Chalet this summer. Beargrass was prevalent everywhere in Glacier Park and surrounding areas this summer, but it was the most he’d ever seen near Sperry. He photographed the white blooms with the chalet in the background and had no idea he’d be preserving some of the last iconic images of the historic structure.

“It was just so special. Looking back [to those photos] I get goosebumps. I’m so happy I have them. I loved the chalet.”

Terry Abell of Whitefish also dearly loved Sperry Chalet. In 1970 he was able to get an “early out” from the Army if he had a job lined up, so he signed on to cook at the chalet that summer.

“I fell in love with the place,” Abell said. “It’s a huge loss. It’s amazing it’s been there that many years.”

Abell was good friends with Kay Luding, who along with her husband Ross became the concessionaires for Sperry and Granite Park chalets in 1954 and operated them for decades.

“I’d go up and help them open every spring,” Abell recalled. “I washed all the dishes, cleaned the stoves, and sometimes I’d go in fall and clean the stoves.”

The Ludings were Dunagan’s connection to Sperry, too. Kay and Ross were her aunt and uncle. In fact, the title of Dunagan’s memoir was the phrase with which Kay greeted every guest: “Welcome to Sperry Chalet!”

The Ludings’ children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and many extended family members have all worked at Sperry Chalet through the decades. Opening the chalet for the season was a family tradition.

“I used to take days off work and go do that myself — shovel snow, open the windows, clean it up. We’d take anyone important in our life there and they’d have to undergo the Sperry test,” Dunagan reminisced.

Kevin Warrington, the Ludings’ grandson, is carrying on the family legacy as the current concessionaire of Sperry and Granite Park chalets.

“This event is an important moment in the history of Sperry Chalet and Glacier National Park,” Warrington said in a statement issued late Friday by Glacier Park. “I have been around Sperry for my entire life and I have never expected to see anything like this. It has been a privilege to share Sperry with the great many people that love it, and it is a sad day to share the loss.”

The lodging building destroyed by the fire was designed in 1912 by renowned architect Kirkland Cutter, who also designed the landmark Conrad Mansion in Kalispell. Sperry, along with several other original Glacier chalets, was built by the Great Northern Railway. Sperry’s lodge was accompanied by a second original building that housed the kitchen and dining hall. Two other smaller buildings — a maintenance facility and restrooms — were built between 1995 and 1999.

By 1953 the railroad turned over the two remaining chalets, Sperry and Granite Park, to the National Park Service,which, in turn, began looking for someone to operate the remote buildings. That’s when the Ludings took up the challenge.

Located near the trail junction to Sperry Glacier, Sperry Chalet is accessible only by trail, on foot or horseback.

Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, said the organization’s board of directors, staff and donors stand ready to help however they can in the aftermath of the tragic loss.

“It’s hard to think about the magnitude of what’s happened,” Mitchell said. “This was an iconic part of the park … our role is to preserve and protect for future generations.

“This puts all hands on deck,” he continued. “We will marshal the troops and do what we can to help. Our mission is to be here for the long run.”

Conservancy board member Karen Chickering said the loss of the chalet is “a very sad moment” for Glacier Park’s history, adding that the chalet has been a wonderful source of adventure for so many backcountry enthusiasts.

Chickering, her daughter Sage Ratcliff, and a group of fellow women hikers stayed at Sperry in early August.

“I’m really delighted my daughter was able to be part of that,” Chickering said.

The friendships made at the chalet were very special, she said. “It was wonderful meeting fellow enthusiasts and hikers who appreciate the history and beauty of the park.”

Sperry fans will miss the idiosyncrasies of the backcountry lodging, the paper-thin walls that allowed conversations to be “shared” with guests, the mountain goats clomping on the decks all night.

Dunagan said Sperry Chalet faced destruction three other times but was saved by twists of fate each time, until now. She has about 80 more personal stories about her beloved chalet that are written and ready to turn into another book. Now that Sperry is gone, it seems more important than ever to document those memories.

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

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