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  • Writer's pictureAmy Grisak

Rich History of Granite Park Chalets in Glacier Park

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

As part of their "See America First" campaign, the Great Northern Railway was integral in the visitors' experience during the early days of Glacier National Park creating a series of chalets, lodges and camps along specific routes for visitors to immerse themselves in the wonder of the area. Built it 1914-1915, Granite Park Chalets was the last of the chalets to be built, and the first stop of the North Circle Trip, which included tent camps at Fifty Mountain and Cosley Lake. Despite fire, weather and the changing nature of how we explore the park, we are fortunate to have the structures with us today.


Granite Park Chalet with Heaven's Peak in the background. Photo taken by Tomar Jacob Hileman. With thanks to the Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana as the source of this image.


Although it wasn't quite a "spare no expense" situation, the site was specifically chosen by Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, for its stunning location with Heavens Peak in the background. Hill brought in Italian stone masons who built the smaller dormitory the first year and stayed there while they built the two-story main chalet in 1915. The men quarried native stone roughly a mile from the site and harvested logs from the area. The argillite floor in the main chalet features water ripples, indicating the time period when this area was part of an inland sea. Ironically, there is no granite in Glacier, but because the speckled Purcell lava rock resembles the stone, the name stayed.


Because the easier route from Logan Pass and Going-to-the-Sun Road was still decades away, workers transported supplies via 60 pack strings of horses and mules nine-miles from Many Glacier to Granite Park over Swiftcurrent Pass every day of the season. For anyone who has hiked this narrow trail, the thought of bringing lumber and other bulky building materials along this route earns an additional level of respect.


Friends hiking from Granite Park to Many Glacier. This is one of the wider sections of the trail from Swiftcurrent Pass to Many Glacier. Imagine taking fully loaded pack strings along this route. Photo by Amy Grisak.


Because Granite Park was the final chalet constructed, it enjoyed a brief couple of years before shutting down during WWI. The horses used to transport guests to the camps were needed in the war effort. After the war, tourism rebounded and between the stone chalets, tents and a wooden crib built in 1924, Granite Park Chalets housed up to 144 people per night.


This 1924 photo taken by Morton J. Elrod shows a view of the chalets, along with tent camp and cribs added for additional occupancy. Thanks to the Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana as the source of the photo.


Yet, as with many of the early parks that offered travel via horseback early in their history, when automobiles dominated the scene, horse travel faded. By the 1950s, the chalets were a losing economic venture for the Great Northern Railroad, and they sold the remaining structures to the National Park Service for a dollar a piece.


Granite Park's history is not without troubles from Mother Nature, either. In 1936, the Heaven's Peak fire, which burned many of the Motor Inn (now Swiftcurrent) and Many Glacier cabins, along with threatening the Many Glacier Hotel, made a run at Granite Park. Initially the staff of the chalet opted to stay, but on August 31, Hugh Black, the owner of St. Mary intended to take horses to the chalet to retrieve the employees, but was cut off by the fire. Although the chalet is stone, the wooden shake roof was vulnerable to the flames, prompting the staff to place wetted down blankets in an attempt to fend off firebrands. Fortunately, the fire moved quickly through the stunted, alpine trees and nearby meadows before passing the chalets heading towards Swiftcurrent Pass.


While this is a black bear, not a grizzly, on the porch of the main chalet, both species of bears were accustomed to food rewards, ultimately one of the causes of the devastating night in 1957. Morton J. Elrod took this photo in 1924. Special thanks to the Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana for providing this resource.


On August 12, 1967, the area was one of two sites in the infamous "Night of the Grizzlies," when two grizzlies attacked and killed two women in different locations. At Trout Creek,19-year-old Michele Koons, could not escape from her sleeping bag and was dragged from her tent and killed. At Granite Park, a grizzly hauled off 19-year old Julie Hegelson after severely mauling her companion. Although she was alive when rangers rescued her, she passed during an emergency operation within the chalet.


Reinforced shutters prevent bears from breaking and entering to receive food rewards. Photo by Amy Grisak.


While the chalets continued in popularity throughout the decades, environmental concerns, including substandard sewage facilities, caused their closure by the early 1990s. Thankfully, a non-profit organization rallied to raise money and awareness to save both Granite Park and Sperry Chalets by upgrading the necessary systems.


Fire threatened the structures again in 2003, one of the worst fire years in the park with 136,000 acres scorched within its borders, when the Trapper Fire roared towards Granite Park. Because there was no time to escape, 35 people huddled inside the main chalet, waiting for its impact. According to the article, Fire on the Mountain, by Terry Tempest Williams who experienced this horrifying situation, they were told, "You’re going to hear a loud roar coming closer and closer. It’s going to get hot, real hot. The windows will shatter. The oxygen’s going to be sucked out of the room — temporarily — and then, hopefully, the fire will quickly move over us and shoot up Swiftcurrent Pass, and we’ll all be just fine." Almost miraculously, the fire split 200 feet before the chalet and went around the structures before rejoining and running towards Swiftcurrent Pass.


Granite Park Chalet with Heaven's Peak in the background is as magical today as it was over a century ago. Photo by Amy Grisak.


Although there have been many changes over the years, Granite Park Chalets continue to welcome guests. Over 400 people per day follow the 7.6 mile Highline Trail from Logan Pass to visit the historic stone structures and soak in the grand views along the entire route. To spend the night, or to bask in a few of them, reservations are available at graniteparkchalet.com.



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