The Best Of The Big Sky

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The first white men to explore the region were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who crossed just south of the Flathead Valley in 1805. A trading post appeared as early as 1809, and Jesuits established the St. Ignatius Mission just south of the lake in 1854 (it’s now the state’s oldest operating mission). In 1855, to make the area more hospitable to homesteaders, the United States government persuaded the Flathead Indians to forfeit much of their land and consolidate to the south, but until 1891 the white population only trickled into the valley.

The man who changed all this was James J. Hill, the indomitable head of the Great Northern Railway Company, who resolved to build a line that crossed Montana as far north as possible—over the state’s highest mountains—to become the most direct route to the port of Seattle. He began work on the ambitious new line in 1889, the year Montana became a state. News of the imminent railroad spread through the Flathead Valley, and people began preparing for it. In 1890 the few citizens of Whitefish built a hotel to attract visitors from the East. Even then they realized how important tourism would be for their little community.

A 1915 brochure gushed: “The air... blows you alive with vigor from illimitable space above the tallest peaks.”

That same year, a man named Charles Conrad settled in the valley. Conrad, a shrewd and intrepid entrepreneur, met with James Hill, who told him that a division point for his new railroad line would be located on the flatlands fifteen miles south of Whitefish near the Flathead River. With that information Conrad purchased seventy-two prime acres and founded a town called Kalispell after the local Indians. It’s now one of Montana’s largest cities, with a population of more than thirteen thousand.

Once the railroad hit the valley in 1892, a boom was on, and Conrad made the most of it. He established the Conrad National Bank, to finance the valley’s development as well as his own extensive cattle holdings, and built an enormous Norman mansion, now a National Historic Site. Mom and I toured the restored house on the second day of our visit. The place would have been a marvel in any city when it was completed in 1895, but in the fledgling town of Kalispell it must have been mind-boggling. The twentysix-room palace gloried in an elevator, bathrooms with hot and cold running water, and a two-story gallery with Tiffany glass windows—all still there.

Conrad was constantly entertaining in his home. His guests included Charlie Russell, Teddy Roosevelt, and local Indian leaders, who would arrive in full ceremonial dress to be ushered into the Conrads’ exquisitely appointed dining room for sumptuous meals served on the finest china, linens, and silver in Montana.

The house was passed to Conrad’s three children, who in the great American tradition frittered away the family fortune until there was no money left for its upkeep. When the house was donated to the city of Kalispell in 1975, many of the original furnishings were in place.

While there are still a number of impressive houses in Kalispell, most of the sprawling city is considerably less assuming. The downtown area is dominated by simple restaurants, memorabilia shops, and some of the best Western clothing stores anywhere.

In 1907 the Great Northern Railway was taken over by James’s son, Louis W. Hill, who championed western Montana’s beauty. It was his idea for the company actively to develop the area’s potential for tourism and thus drum up passengers, as well as freight, for the rail line. After Glacier National Park was founded in 1910, the railroad company built lodging and recreational facilities within its confines. By 1914 two huge luxury lodges and nine smaller chalets were ready for visitors, with more on the way. All these lodges still stand, but new safety and sanitary regulations have forced some smaller ones to close. Throughout, Louis Hill never lost sight of his real mission. “We do not wish to get into the hotel business,” he assured colleagues in 1911. “We wish to get out of it and confine ourselves strictly to the business of getting people there, just as soon as we can.”

And get people there he did. Targeting well-to-do Americans who generally vacationed in Europe, Hill initiated a huge advertising campaign with the slogan “See America First” and text that identified Glacier as the “Switzerland of America.” One 1915 brochure gushed: “Up on the mountains of Glacier National Park the air is laden with the fragrance of pine and hemlock. ... it blows you alive with vigor from illimitable space above the tallest peaks. Your eyes view a region of beauty at your feet, your ears hear the music of a primitive world and heed the silences of great places.” The publicity worked. In 1913 more than twelve thousand people visited Glacier, and most of them came by train. It’s still one of the few national parks that can be reached by rail; Amtrak’s Empire Builder takes visitors right up to its east and west entrances.

Last summer the park attracted more than two million visitors to hike its 730 miles of trails, shiver through a swim in the glacial lakes or rivers, and drive its astounding Going-to-the-Sun Road. This engineering marvel of the 1930s takes visitors up more than three thousand winding feet to Logan Pass on the Continental Divide.

Mom and I didn’t have time for the drive. We had yet to go south, through the golden flatlands around Kalispell to the village of Bigfork on the north shore of Flathead Lake. Once an Indian campground, Bigfork is now an established artists’ community, and its Summer Playhouse is one of the area’s main attractions.