LAKE McDONALD LODGE

Glacier National Park is sliced in two by the Continental Divide. The eastern side is quiet and genteel, the west can sometimes feel like Coney Island on a busy day. Hill maintained iron-handed control of what little development was permitted in the east, but no such master hand exhibited much control of the west, which grew like Topsy, with little indication of any master hand.

Most likely the Lodge would have been treated even worse had it not been for its early-on isolation. In 1895, George Snyder constructed the Snyder Hotel here, but given that there were as yet no roads to it, all access was by boat.

In 1904 – 05, John Lewis gained control of the hotel. In the years that followed, he watched with great interest the construction of Glacier Park Hotel Lodge, and sighed because he lacked the wherewithal to construct its equal on the western side. Nevertheless, he had a vision for his brainchild, implemented by architect Kirtland Cutter of Spokane. Lewis had the original Snyder Hotel moved so he could construct a new one in its place.

Cutter had gained valuable experience with Swiss-style architecture in co-designing the Idaho Building for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Lake McDonald Lodge

Construction of this alpine chalet began in 1913 and was completed in 1914. Three and a half stories high, it is a combination of stucco and clapboarding, painted brown like the Great Northern hotels. All supplies had to be hauled in by boat; or, during the bitterly cold winter, skidded across on ice. The exterior was Swiss-appearing, but inside, it was Wild West. Especially dramatic was the three-story lobby dominated by a huge fireplace, so large that five-foot-long logs were routinely burned in it. A log-trussed ceiling and cedar balconies on three sides added to the warm ambiance. Great western cedar logs helped anchor the room. Lewis decorated the lobby with his own hunting trophies (elk, moose, mountain sheep, goat, eagle, etc.); animal skins and Navajo rugs were draped from the balconies. The walls were enlivened by Fred Kiser photographs and Frank Stick and H. Bartlett oil paintings. Famed Montana artist Charlie Russell was a frequent guest here; he it was who is said to have created the fireplace designs.

Beautiful Lake McDonald

The 65-room hotel opened in June of 1914; it had cost $48,000, less than one-tenth of its eastern competition. Early guests, after disembarking from trains, boarded a steamship to take them across Glacier’s largest lake. Their initial view of the alpine lodge framed against glass-smooth water, verdant forests, and snow-capped mountains made coming here and staying here a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

Not until 1921 was a road to the lodge completed. A road that proved to be a mixed blessing, for it brought with it more and more automobile traffic and noise. Now that the lodge received guests from both directions, there was no longer a focal center. The resultant remodeling altered the symmetry of the lodge. Successive owners accelerated the deterioration and blurring of focus. A flood didn’t help much either.

Finally, just in the nick of time, in 1988-9, a $1.2 million renovation took place. The object being to, as much as possible, restore the lodge to what it had once been in 1914. Fortunately, 60% of the original furniture was still intact. The Great Lobby was lovingly restored, and the dining room was rescued from its near-hopeless state. Once again, the fireplace rules supreme. The ambiance is back.

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Red Jammers

Several times we’ve ridden in Jammers over the Divide and down to the Lodge, and had lunch in the dining area. We have not yet stayed here over night. Consequently, I cannot accurately describe what it’s like at night.

Nevertheless, there is one reality that cannot help but dilute the overall experience. In the little village that clusters around the lodge are 38 cabins, two two-story motel units, support buildings, a store, and the resultant traffic that all this generates.

A pity.

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).