GLACIER PARK LODGE

Glacier National Park is perceived by many as being one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48, for it is a destination rather than being a way-station on a route to somewhere.  Comparatively few Americans have ever been here, which is a pity for it is a magical place of great beauty.

That the park exists at all we owe no small thanks to railroad tycoon, Louis Hill, son of James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern empire of trains and ships.  Indeed, such a passion did Louis Hill have for the park and its development that he temporarily stepped down from the presidency of Great Northern so that he could devote all his time to Glacier.  His dream was to create a park on the European model, complete with great hotels, chalets, roads, trails, telephone and boat service—something never before accomplished in America.

He began by using his Great Northern clout to secure a special Act of Congress in 1912 to purchase 160 acres of land that was part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation that bordered the just created [in 1910] Glacier National Park.  Here he would position his flagship hotel, and he would lay transcontinental railway track right to his front door (one of the very few national parks where this was done).  Even El Tovar’s rail connection would be a spur rather than being part of a transcontinental route.

Glacier Park Lodge

Hill lay awake nights dreaming of ways to make his first Glacier hotel into one of the nation’s greatest.  The linchpin had come to him earlier, in 1905, while attending the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon.  Unquestionably, the hit of the exposition was the great Oregon Forestry Building, constructed in the rectangular colonnaded basilica style pioneered by Roman architects—only, rather than built of brick, stone, and masonry, this one was anchored by massive Oregon Douglas fir, four feet thick and 48 feet high, each weighing 30,000 – 36,000 pounds.  Now Hill determined to make those same great columns the WOW factor at Glacier.

So it came to pass that Hill constructed (with the able assistance of architects S. L. Bartlett and Thomas McMahon) a great forest basilica at East Glacier.  When the Blackfeet Indians saw those 60 massive logs hauled in by train, they were in awe, for they’d never seen trees that big!  They promptly dubbed the new building “Oom-Coo-Mush-Taw” (Big Tree Lodge”).  Hill did not miss a trick: to ensure that the bark wouldn’t fall off later, he had the logs cut before the sap began to run in the spring.  The Great Hall with its 200 by 100 foot lobby, soaring 60 feet high with three atriums, flanked by galleries on each side, is indeed—as Hill planned it to be—akin to a great European cathedral, only created out of trees.

Great Lobby of Glacier Park Lodge

Inside, Hill orchestrated a most eclectic mix: Indian pictographs; animal horns and skins; buffalo skulls; Indian teepees; Blackfeet crafts, rugs, blankets, baskets; two great fireplaces [the open one has since been removed]; Japanese lanterns hung from rafters, and tea served by women in kimonos; Blackfeet Indians in full regalia and porters in Bavarian uniforms.

When the hotel was completed in 1913, its upperscale rooms featured private baths, fireplaces, and porches.  So successful was it that Hill added 111 additional rooms to the original 61.  Altogether, it cost more than $500,000 to build.

But here we are, almost a hundred years later, and it remains one of America’s great hotels.

* * * * *

Connie and I have not only seen the lodge from the windows of an Amtrak train, we have stayed there three times, most recently when the Zane Grey’s West Society held its annual convention there.  Bob and Lucy Earp were also in attendance with us.  My brother, concert pianist Romayne Wheeler, feted our Society and hotel guests with a concert in the Grand Hall.

Red jammers at Glacier Park Lodge

Each of Hill’s three great Glacier hotels has a unique feel all its own.  Glacier Park Lodge feels more like a jumping-off place rather than a park hotel.  Vintage red jammers ferry people all over the park, departing and returning to the hotel.  It is part of a small railroad town so it has its own infrastructure, and it borders the large Blackfeet reservation.

Yet, with all this, it remains a serene place to stay.  Separating the railway terminal from the hotel is a thousand-foot-long garden.  In the great lobby and long vista’d verandas, guests play board games, write letters, visit with friends, and regenerate from the hectic life they left behind.  No one misses the television sets ubiquitous in cookie-cutter lodgings elsewhere.  To experience the Great Hall alone is worth the trip.  Especially at night when you stare into the flickering flames in the fireplace.

And once you’ve stayed here one time, you’ll yearn to return.

SOURCES CONSULTED

Invaluable for the history of the hotel is Christine Barnes’ splendid Great Lodges of the West 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. W. West, Inc, 1997).  Also helpful is David and Kay W. Scott’s The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

OLD FAITHFUL INN

            After leaving Grand Coulee Dam, we drove south along shimmering blue Banks Lake (a Grand Coulee reservoir) to Coulee City, then turned east on hwy 2, taking us to Spokane and Interstate 90.  We stayed at a Best Western in Coeur d’Alene that night.  Next morning we continued along I-90.  Now, the scenery became more mountainous and scenic—well, as scenic as interstates ever get.  Because we were on a tight schedule, we made few stops en route to Bozeman, Montana, where we stayed at the Hampton.

            Already the differences between the world of the old national park lodges and the world of chain lodges was beginning to be more and more marked in our minds: small bedrooms and large lobbies compared to small lobbies and large bedrooms; serenity compared to electronic noise; camaraderie compared to isolation; deep thoughts about life compared to electronic stifling of thought—not coincidentally, TVs everywhere to no TVs at all.

Historic North Entrance gate to Yellowstone National Park

            Next day, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, stopping at the famous Gardiner Gate at the North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and Virginia Cascade, en route to Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK       

            Before 1872, there was not in the entire world such a thing as a “national park.”  For almost three quarters of a century, reports of its wonders had occasionally trickled out, but no one believed them.  Not until 1870, when Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson not only saw those wonders but returned with proof: Moran’s stunning panoramic paintings and Jackson’s memorable and convincing photographs.   On the premise that it was useless to developers, the bill for its preservation passed almost unanimously.  It was signed into law by Pres. Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

            But creating a national park and protecting it proved to be two different things.  Gradually, conditions deteriorated to the point where the park’s very survival was at risk.  At this critical point, George Bird Grinnell (influential editor of Forest and Stream and close friend of young Teddy Roosevelt) and General Phil Sheridan (hero of the great Civil War poem, “Sheridan’s Ride”) joined forces; since the government refused to protect the park, Sheridan sent his cavalry in—thirty years later, they were still there.

            Roosevelt first visited the park in 1883, John Muir in 1888, Rudyard Kipling in 1889.  By then most everyone was calling the park “Wonderland.”  On April 24, 1903, Roosevelt, on a transcontinental 14,000-mile speaking tour, spent two weeks in Yellowstone.  Dedicating the new entrance arch in Gardiner, Montana, TR said,

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world. . . .  Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved.

                                                                        —(Duncan and Burns, 92).

Old Faithful Geyser

            Yellowstone’s iconic symbol is Old Faithful Geyser—most appropriate since, with over 10,000 hydrothermal features, the park offers the largest concentration of geysers (over 300) and geothermal activity on earth.  1,700-foot-deep Yellowstone Canyon is by itself one of the greatest natural wonders on earth; and Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in North America above 7,000 feet.  But Yellowstone is also perhaps the world’s most successful wildlife sanctuary, with grizzlies, black bears, elk, moose, wolves, bison, and so much more.

            In short, 2,200,000 acre Yellowstone is the parent stock for all the national parks around the world that have come into being during the last 138 years. 

THE STORY OF OLD FAITHFUL

            Have you ever noticed that it is the best-known, most famous, subjects that prove the hardest to get your arms around?  Just so, it is for Old Faithful Inn, without question the best known hotel in national park history.  Strangely enough it is just as much an international icon as Old Faithful Geyser itself.

            Over 3,000,000 tourists from all over the world swarm Yellowstone each year, almost all during the short summer season—so they come at the rate of almost a million a month.  And it appears that no one dares to come here without worshiping at the shrine of both Old Faithfuls.  Who’d believe they’d been to Yellowstone without photographic proof that they’d actually stood there in front of those two semi-immortal entities?

            So how did the lodge get here in the first place?

            Well, in the early days they could get by with just tents.  But all that changed in 1883 when railroad tracks reached the North Entrance in Gardiner.  Park administration continued to complain about the failure of tourists to stay long enough to see much; but the reason was obvious: they had to find lodging somewhere by nightfall.

            The breakthrough came in 1901 when Northern Pacific Railroad sold its controlling stock in Yellowstone Park Association to the Yellowstone Transportation Company; Harry Child was named president.  Up till then, the park had lacked a focal center, a final authority.  Child would rule supreme in Yellowstone for the rest of his life.  Almost immediately, he set about searching for an architect he could count on, not just for a building or two, but for the long haul.  He found that in the person in a self-taught architect by the name of Robert Reamer.

            Reamer journeyed to Yellowstone in 1903 via a career trajectory beginning in Ohio, and continuing through Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, and California.  When Child first heard of him, Reamer was making a name for himself in San Diego, especially in terms of his projects for the already legendary del Coronado Hotel (first opened in 1888).  It proved to be a perfect fit: Child and Reamer worked together for the rest of Reamer’s life.

            Old Faithful not only was Reamer’s first major project, it would remain his life’s greatest achievement.  Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1903 visit to the park, upon seeing Reamer’s designs for park hotels, expressed his delight.  Northern Pacific Railroad came up with $100,000 to construct it.

Interior of Old Faithful Inn

            Reamer designed the iconic core of the hotel in 1903, the East Wing in 1913-14, and the Y-shaped West Wing in 1927; eventually providing 327 rooms for guests.  The seven-story stair-stepped-inn is striking enough from the outside, but Reamer’s biographer, Ruth Quinn, maintains that the píece de résistance has to be the lobby:

                        For most visitors the lobby stands as the structure’s distinguishing feature.  From its polished maple floor to the peak of its log paneled ceiling, it measures more than 76 feet in height.  The lobby of Old Faithful Inn is a maze of twisted branches, inviting staircases, and welcoming balconies described by one historian as rusticity gone berserk!  Upon viewing the lobby, many are drawn beyond, to experience it—to touch its enormous stone chimney, to stroke a beautifully polished log, to inhale the scent of the wood, to listen to the creak of the stairs and the chatter of admirers.  This is a building to delight the senses.  It is a public space with a strong sense of place where many feel at home.  All eyes are carried upward, one gapes and wonders, Who could have imagined this? (Quinn, 1).

            Old Faithful Inn would become the template, the inspiration, for other great park hotels such as El Tovar, East Glacier, Many Glacier, Prince of Wales; Crater Lake, and Ahwahnee.  It would be reproduced life-size for the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, and is the inspiration behind Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

            Though it has been loved to death from the start, almost we lost it during the 1970s.  Barnes notes that “Rotting logs, worn shingle siding, and a deteriorating roof were the obvious problem. . . .  There were joints coming apart, the roof was collapsing in sections, logs were falling off the building.”  The NPS seriously considered demolishing it, but the public was outraged at the very thought! (Barnes, 24).

            It took ten years and over $7,000,000 to fix the problems and shore it up for the next half century.  Periodic earthquakes are always a problem since Yellowstone itself is the world’s most active volcano.

            The entire world watched with bated breath, however, in 1988, when it appeared certain Old Faithful Inn was doomed.  In that terrible forest fire, when almost a third of the park burned over, only a last-minute shift of the wind saved the lodge for posterity.

* * * * *

Exterior of Old Faithful Inn

            Over the years we’d been to Old Faithful Geyser and Inn many times, but had never stayed here.  Since it’s booked a year in advance, it was not easy to get rooms in the Inn itself.  Turns out we didn’t spend much time in our bedrooms, because the hotel itself is so fascinating.  Especially the people-watching.  The clock everyone watches is the one that tells everyone when Old Faithful Geyser is due to erupt (the intervals used to be about an hour long, but since the last big earthquake, it has extended to about an hour and a half).  About fifteen minutes before it’s due, the tide goes out; five minutes before, the inn is all but deserted.  When it’s over, the tide surges in again—but in one long sustained tsunami.  And the cycle is faithfully repeated night and day.  The poor Inn never sleeps.  One clerk told me, “I get here at 6 a.m., and chances are the lobby will be jammed already!”

            What’s most fun is to sit on the second floor mezzanine and watch the faces of people young and old as they stream in—especially the moment of shock when they freeze in motion and stare up and up in awe, jaws dropping.  It never fails.

            Since dinner reservations are so difficult to secure, our travel agent made ours over half a year ahead of time.  Eating in Reamer’s great dining room was a feast for the senses as well as for the food itself.

            Next morning, Bob and I took a tour of the Inn.  Our guide, in period costume, really made the old hotel live, telling us behind-the-scenes anecdotes and secrets most people would never know.  We learned that the last major quake stopped the great fourteen-foot clock and messed up the chimney in the huge fireplace—no one knows when they’ll be up and running again.

            But unlike sister park lodges, because of the continual tidal surges there is little serenity here—though, later in the evening, we came fairly close when a pianist played old standards and brought about the first lessening of the decibels since we’d arrived.  And breakfast was considerably quieter than dinner was.

            So we weren’t sorry to go.  Wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!  But once was enough.  Perhaps Reamer’s next hotel would be quieter.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next Wednesday, we’ll move on to Robert Reamer’s Yellowstone Lake Lodge.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [Splendid chapter on the hotel].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009). [The most definitive history of Yellowstone Park I’ve ever read].

                        The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997).

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable biography of the builder of Old Faithful Inn].

Scofield, Susan C, and Jeremy C. Schmidt, The Inn at Old Faithful (no p.: Crowsnest Associates, 1979).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Graphic Society, 2009). [Helpful].

STEHEKIN LANDING RESORT AND LAKE CHELAN

            We were in no hurry to leave Paradise Inn dining hall.  Indeed, we wished we could stay there another day, but since the hotel was all booked up and our other reservations had been made long before, Lucy and Connie settled into their nests in the back seat; in the front, we changed drivers, and drove down the mountain.  Just before we arrived at the Stevens Canyon Entrance, we passed through the Grove of the Patriarchs.  Another “blessing for another time” was to return here and revel in those thousand-year-old Douglas firs and western red cedars.

            Passing through the rugged Tatoosh Wilderness on hwy 12, we continued on to one of the nation’s best known fruit-growing regions, the Yakima Valley; from here we took hwy 97 north, arriving at Lake Chelan in mid-afternoon.  Here we checked in at the Lakeside Best Western, beautifully landscaped with flower-beds, shrubbery and trees.

THE TIME WARP

            Here and there in life, if we’re both adventurous and lucky, we stumble on certain places that are magical.  When we’d told our nephew, Byron Palmer (who works for Alaska Airlines) that we planned to explore Washington state, he categorized Lake Chelan and Stehekin as “must-sees.”  But even though we found the south end of the lake to be attractive, nothing prepared us for the northern terminus 51 miles away.

Lake Chelan

            Next morning early, we boarded Lady of the Lake II for what turned out to be a journey into a time warp.  As the boat moved north, the genial captain pointed out places of interest—the verdant orchards and vineyards gave the lake a Mediterranean look.  We learned that fjord-like Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the United States, its 1,486-foot depth exceeded only by Crater Lake’s 1,932 and Lake Tahoe’s 1,645.  We were surprised to discover that Chelan is considered to be the deepest gorge in North America: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is a mile deep, Kings Canyon is 7,800 feet deep, Hells Canyon is 8,200 feet deep, and Lake Chelan’s gorge (given that it plunges down to 386 feet below sea level) is 8,631 feet deep.  Indeed, so deep is the lake that we were told it takes the water flowing in to the northern part of the lake from Stehekin River ten years to reach the south end 51 miles away.  Needless to say, its greens and blues, being glacier-fed, are a feast for the eyes.

View of Cathedral Peaks

           Roads reach only the midway point of our four-hour boat trip.  Soon cell phones ceased to function, no power lines or telephone lines exist, and human habitations are mighty few.  We did see one bear off to our right.  The Lady made several stops to let people off or pick them up at wilderness jumping-off points.  Other than the boat’s twin turbines, we heard nothing else.  Looming high above us were the snowcapped mountains of the North Cascades National Park, reminding us no little of the Alps.

            Finally, we docked at a little hamlet of about 85 full-time residents few Americans have ever heard of—Stehekin.  The only way one can get here is by boat, float plane, or trail.  All motor vehicles used here are brought in or taken out once a month by barge.

View of Lake Chelan from deck

            We disembarked and registered at Stehekin Landing Resort, all wooden buildings of recent vintage (1983 and later).  We stayed in two of their lakeside cabins—the front-deck view was to die for.

            In 1814, Alexander Ross of the Northwest Fur Company became one of the first white men to explore the Stehekin Valley.  But it was not until the first steamboat (built on the lake in 1889) that settlers and homesteaders moved in.  Without electricity or roads from the outside world, lifestyles were little different from frontier life: water was carried from the river, wood was used for both cooking and heating, kerosene lamps were used at night.  Not until 1963 did Chelan County PUD put in a small hydroelectric plant so folks could have electricity.  When the North Cascades National Park was established in 1968, the southern part of Lake Chelan was excluded.  A park headquarters was established in Stehekin.  Part of the legislation mandated that a road would never be built into Stehekin.  Since that time, preserving the Stehekin way of life and cultural history has become a mutual effort between the community and the park service.

* * * * *

            Stehekin really comes to life in the summers, and the population swells in order to accommodate people like us.  Young people especially revel in coming here where there is no TV and only one satellite telephone—it is such a different world from anything they’ve ever known before.  We found them a joy to talk to as they served us in the rustic dining room.

Rainbow Falls

            In mid afternoon a driver was rounded up to shuttle us up to Rainbow Falls.  We were totally unprepared for it, for it was something on the scale of waterfalls in Yosemite.  321 feet high, you can hear its thunder before you ever see it—yet, unbelievably, it appears to be virtually unknown.  We have nothing that can compare to it in the Colorado Rockies.  It wasn’t just its height that impressed us, though it did—it was the sheer volume of water coming over the falls.  As we walked part way back, we saw few motor vehicles but quite a few people on bicycles.  We stopped to inspect the old log-cabin schoolhouse so reminiscent of those of a century or two ago.

            We moved on, following signs to “The Bakery.”  First town I’ve ever been in where a bakery was the destination so many people considered central to their lives.  We stopped there.  Back at the landing, it gradually came home to us that when the year-round towns-people spoke of Stehekin as “the island,” it really made sense, for they are cut off from the rest of the world—one of the very few hamlets in the lower 48 where this is so.  In the winter, when boats (and the mail and supplies they bring) reach here only three times a week, Stehekin settles down to an even quieter life.  Since there may be five or six feet of snow on the ground, with Chelan 51 miles away having none, it’s not too surprising to hear—as I did!—that the north end of the lake was 600 feet higher than the south.  Go figure!

            We found the park headquarters to be a magnet; Connie rushed over there (about 500 feet) to get her park passport stamped first thing.  In the evening, I attended a lecture there.  In talking to locals, I discovered that a number really sacrifice in order to live here (one dentist works all week in Ellensburg, returning home by boat for weekends).  Children are either home schooled or attend the “newer” schoolhouse (if the snow’s not too deep).  The postmistress is a retiree who came here in order to experience life again, to be needed.  She and her husband love it on the “Island.”  When she takes mail to the boat, she locks the door “because of federal regulations—but I really don’t need to here,” she told me.

            During the night, the wind came up.  Its sound in the evergreens was wonderful.  With no other sound, and the lights off around us, it really seemed like another world.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next week it’s on to Enzian Inn and Leavenworth.

SOURCES

Barnhart, Mike and Nancy, Stehekin: A Mountain Community (Stehekin, WA: Bridge Creek Publishing, 2003).

Barnhart, Mike and Nancy, Lake Chelan and the North Cascades (Stehekin, WA: Bridge Creek Publishing, 2000).

The Lady of the Lake (Stehekin, WA: Ladyofthelake.com, 2010).

Lake Chelan (Chelan, WA: Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

Lake Chelan, Washington (Chelan, WA: Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

North Cascades National Park (Las Vegas: K.C. Publications, 2008).

Hackenmiller, Tom, Ladies of the Lake (Wenatchee, WA: Point Publishing, 1998).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

The Stehekin Guidebook (Stehekin, WA: Stehekin Heritage, 2010).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).