Glacier boats placed on historic registry

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Tyrell Johnson of the Glacier Park Boat Co. launches the DeSmet on Lake McDonald. (Hungry Horse News file)

Two Glacier National Park tour boats have been put on the National Historic registry.

The DeSmet, which runs on Lake McDonald and the Little Chief (now known as the Sinopah) were both recently included in the registry. Both boats are owned and were nominated for inclusion by the Glacier Park Boat company.

Operating in Glacier Park since its construction in 1926, the 45-foot-long by 12-foot-wide carvel planked cedar on oak frame vessel Little Chief took its name from a prominent mountain along the south shore of St. Mary Lake where the boat was originally launched. The Great Northern Railway commissioned and owned the Little Chief, operating it as transportation for its customers from the St. Mary Chalets up the lake to the Sun Point Chalets. The boat was rechristened Sinopah sometime during the 1940s when it was relocated to Two Medicine Lake where it continues to operate for scenic cruises every summer.

Operating in Glacier Park on Lake McDonald since its construction in 1930, the 56-foot-long by 13-foot-wide carvel planked cedar on oak frame vessel DeSmet took its name from Pierre-Jean DeSmet, an influential Jesuit missionary throughout western North America during the mid-19th century. The vessel DeSmet was commissioned and owned by the Glacier Park Transport Company as a scenic launch from its Lewis Hotel, now known as the Lake McDonald Lodge. It has never left the park, continuing to operate for scenic cruises every summer and spending winters dry-docked in the historic Fish Creek Bay boathouse.

Despite years of service in the lakes of Glacier, integrity of materials remains strong on the Sinopah, the registry notes. Although some materials were replaced for maintenance during its historic use, these occurred to allow the boat to function in its original historic capacity. The deckhead, originally 2-inch tongue-and-groove boards, was replaced in the past with plywood attached on top of the beams and carlings.

This will be rectified and returned to its original appearance within two years during maintenance roof work when the canvas roof covering will be replaced; at that time, the plywood will be removed and exchanged with local cedar tongue-and-groove boards to reflect the original design. Original windows were replaced with aluminum frame glass windows into the original oak post frames; however, these replicate the originals. The original 200-horsepower gasoline engine was replaced with a safer more efficient 50-horsepower diesel motor mandated by the National Park Service and U.S. Coast Guard.

The DeSmet’s integrity has also been preserved.

Although some materials have been replaced during the DeSmet’s history of plying the waters of Lake McDonald, this occurred to allow the boat to continue functioning in its original historic capacity, the registry notes.

The DeSmet still maintains a large amount of original materials in both the hull and superstructure. Maintenance includes the installation of new steam bent oak frames, when necessary, to either replace or “sister” to those too deteriorated to serve inside the hull, and new fir has replaced heavily deteriorated areas of the original fir stem and keel.

Areas of the hull require new cedar planks on a regular basis due to the persistence of rot associated with annual swelling and drying of the wood planks.

All new planks are of locally sourced cedar and follow the same lines as the original layout. As old planks are replaced, the original galvanized fasteners are replaced with modern silica bronze fasteners that prevent wood deterioration and rot.

The previous gasoline engine was replaced with the present, more efficient and safer, diesel engine, installed in 1979.

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