The Park’s Early Days
Under pressure from the railroads, miners, and settlers, the Blackfeet sold the eastern slope of what is now Glacier National Park in 1895 for $1.5 million, thus opening up the area for business.
Copper mining was a bust here, as was oil exploration. Tourism—amply advertised by the Great Northern Railway, which in 1891 completed its service through Marias Pass just south of the park—was left as the area’s economic mainstay.
Conservationists, in league with powerful railroad interests, sought to establish the area as a national park. In 1910 President Taft signed the bill creating Glacier National Park.
Between 1910 and 1917 the Great Northern spent $1.5 million developing tourist facilities. It built a series of huge lodges, chalets, and tent camps, each a day’s horseback ride away. The Great Northern’s recommended itinerary of hikes, fishing, and trail rides required a full week to “do” the park.
This leisurely, genteel, and recreation-oriented era was challenged in 1933 when the Civilian Conservation Corps finished the Going-to-the-Sun Road, thus introducing the automobile to Glacier.
The volume and pace of traffic in the park increased: In 1925 only 40,000 people visited Glacier; 210,000 visitors traveled through in 1936, many simply to experience the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The old Great Northern facilities fell into disuse, and strip towns grew up on the outskirts of the park to service the needs of motorists. Fragile ecosystems in the park began to deteriorate under the weight of increased traffic.
Tourism in Glacier reached a nadir during the late 1960s, when a survey found that the average tourist spent only 25 hours in the park.
Glacier Park’s backcountry is still not on the typical tourist’s itinerary, and many people still zoom over Going-to-the-Sun Road on a cross-country road-trip blitz. But increased environmental awareness since the 1970s has multiplied the number of people who linger among Glacier’s unique topography and wildlife haunts.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition