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The Best Of The Big Sky

June 2024
7min read

Montana’s Flathead Valley has captivated tourists for more than a century

If you ever want to get your heart pounding, take a helicopter ride over the rugged peaks in Glacier National Park. When I did last summer, it started out calmly enough. After lifting off near the park’s west entrance, we gently bobbed up over the silvery middle fork of the Flathead River and dense forests, steadily gaining altitude as the pilot pointed out occasional landmarks. I was comfortably admiring the view, when I looked down and suddenly realized that the valley had squeezed into a jagged, vertiginous gorge far below us and we were now five thousand feet from the lowest ground. We continued to climb, hovering over rockier and rockier peaks where there were no hikers or trails, no signs of animals or even vegetation. There was only snow and ancient granite formations as we bounced over the summits above the tree line, out of the sight of the dark green valley where we started.

Everything was epic, cold, and primeval against the crystal blue sky, and I truly felt like a witness to the beginning of time. It’s one thing to see the Rocky Mountains from a distant jet overhead, but another to see them up close and personal from the window of a shaky helicopter, when their massive presence is as terrifying as it is beautiful. As we crossed eastward over the Continental Divide, an unexpected gust of wind hit us, and for a brief moment I thought the helicopter might come apart like a homemade kite. None of the other three passengers appeared to share my concern, and when the pilot announced the Jackson mountain peak on our left, he did so in such an uninterested monotone that I was reassured everything was all right. Even so, I’m ashamed to say that I felt relief along with my disappointment when he turned the craft around and began our descent from the peaks, over the emerald expanse of Lake McDonald, and out toward Montana’s glorious Flathead Valley to the south.

I have been lucky enough to spend parts of the last twenty-five summers in northwestern Montana. My family has a summer home about an hour north of Missoula and two hours south of the Flathead Valley. Situated west of the Continental Divide and thus protected from the dry winds of the plains, the valley enjoys relatively temperate summers. At its center is Flathead Lake, the West’s largest freshwater lake, with sailboats, windsurfers, and canoes punctuating its surface.

A smattering of small towns and the city of Kalispell are distributed in the valley. Farther north and east the region holds one of the largest continuous wilderness areas in the United States, with Glacier National Park and the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness comprising more than three million acres of protected public land, a space roughly the size of Connecticut. At the lake’s south end the Flathead Indian Reservation and National Bison Range preserve still further miles of natural resources. This territory has more than its share of national treasures.

It’s apparently a fluke that this region is part of Montana at all. The historian John Willard believes surveyors made a mistake when they were cutting up the American Northwest in 1864. The Continental Divide was supposed to be the boundary between Montana and Idaho. But the explorers, who were heading north, were confused by a knot of mountain ranges 140 miles south of Flathead at what’s now called Lost Trail Pass. They followed the western Bitterroot range up north, instead of the central Anacondas that are part of the Divide. By the time the surveyors realized their mistake the borders were already in place. As a result, Willard concludes, “Idaho was shortchanged quite a chunk of gorgeous real estate.”

Last August my mom and I took a three-day trip back up through the Flathead area. Our first stop was the town of Whitefish. Thanks to a thriving tourism business and an expanding population of wealthy retirees, the handful of streets are lined with art galleries, real estate offices, and boutiques; the place even boasts its own shiny microbrewery.

Cater-corner from the brewery is the recently restored Whitefish Depot, a formidable building that looks like an overgrown Tyrolean chalet. It houses the town’s chamber of commerce, Amtrak offices, and the one-room Stumptown Historical Society Museum. With its modest collection of photographs, manuscripts, and memorabilia, the museum almost feels like a large family scrapbook; while it doesn’t have the polished presentation of a larger institution, it does feature such intimate relics as dog-eared snapshots, vintage cafeteria menus, and scribbled personal memoirs that are both touching and informative. One writer reminisced about her job as a telephone switchboard operator in the 1930s. “We felt an awful responsibility toward our little corner of the world,” she recalled. “We really helped keep it running, one girl at a time all by herself at the board.” It’s appropriate that the historical museum is in the depot, for the railroad was responsible for the area’s development.

Before the 1850s the Flathead Valley was occupied almost exclusively by Indians who belonged to the Pend d’Oreille (or Kalispel), Kutenai, and Flathead tribes. The derivation of the name Flathead is disputed. Some say the tribe got that name because it came from the low, flat area at the head of the lake. Others say it was because the chiefs strapped boards onto their children’s foreheads to press them long and flat, like Coneheads. When we were kids, we heartily embraced the latter theory, even though it terrified us; the very words Flathead Indians sent chills down our spines. In fact, by all accounts the Flatheads were an unusually friendly and cooperative people.

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.

Before dinner on our last night, I took a little hike up a nearby hillside and paused at dusk to look out at the valley, with its endless forests and a rim of purple mountains silhouetted against what’s famously—and accurately—known as the “big sky.” It’s truly a beautiful sight, and I felt an urge to quibble with Louis W. Hill. The “Switzerland of America” indeed! Switzerland has nothing on this place.

—Catherine Calhoun

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