WEST GLACIER — The burned-out hulk of what remained of the main dormitory building at Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet held some surprises for the small team trying stabilize the structure against the oncoming winter.
“It looked a lot taller to me without a roof on it,” said John Lucke, the park’s facility manager who led the stabilization effort.
But, beyond that, what really caught Lucke’s eye was the intensity of the fire that consumed the century-old structure on Aug. 31 after a shower of embers managed to penetrate the defenses that firefighters had spent hours installing the protect the building.
The Sprague fire had been burning for just over 20 days when it flared on a red flag warning day just below the chalet. The cliff face where the chalet was perched acted like a chimney to push the embers under the eaves of the building. The firefighters on scene that day said they first saw the fire burning from inside the chalet.
Just three days earlier, fire officials reported that all structure protection was in place, including two water tanks, hose lays and sprinklers. Since the chalet was located in a rocky subalpine environment with sparse vegetation, the officials felt confident the protection measures and staged fire crews would be adequate to protect the historic building should the fire come near.
Once the 100-year-old structure caught fire, there wasn’t anything the small crew of firefighters could do to save it.
Lucke said the fire burned so hot that it left holes in the walls where the massive log beams had once rested. Its intense heat melted metal and turned everything else inside to ash.
“We only found four doorknobs,” Lucke said. “It had burned everything else down to ash. There was literally nothing left inside the building.”
That included the wood floor that thousands of visitors had walked since Sperry was built in 1914 by carpenters and rock masons employed by the Great Northern Railroad. That floor hid a secret that would give the stabilization crew yet one more challenge in its race against the cold and snow.
The ground underneath the chalet’s dormitory was anything but flat.
The workers had built the floor over a large slab of stone. The center piece of the slab was up to five feet higher than along the edges of the building.
“That created a new challenge that we overcame with additional scaffolding,” Lucke said.
Of course, all of that took time and the crew knew it didn’t have many minutes to spare. They worked 10-hour days before collapsing into the three buildings that remain standing at the site.
The 12-person crew included National Park Service carpenters, a cook and an archaeologist from Glacier. They arrived via a helicopter on Oct. 4 for a 12-day stint that included long hours, bone-chilling temperatures and the kind of challenging work conditions that would make anyone with soft hands cringe.
By the time they were done, they had placed more than 100 6-by-6-inch beams that measured as much as 18 feet long, and 24 sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood to brace the walls, gables, windows and chimneys against the coming snow and wind. Each of the beams weighed somewhere between 140 to 180 pounds, depending on their length.
All of them had to be muscled into place and, at times, with great precision.
The most challenging part of the construction came when the crew needed to sandwich the gables and chimneys between sheets of plywood.
“Those dormers, chimneys and gables looked like they certainly could tip without some kind of stabilization,” Lucke said. “We never know what kind of winter we will get. The snow load could certainly have had an impact on parts of the building if it hadn’t been stabilized. Other parts were surprisingly strong.”
The challenge of sandwiching those parts of the building that hovered far off the ground was that each piece of plywood needed to be placed on either side of the rock wall at exactly the same time. Otherwise, there was a chance the bracing on one side could push the structure over.
“All of that basically had to be done with manpower,” Lucke said. “There was no mechanized means that we found would work … . We tried pulleys and ropes and neither one did the job.”
The sandwich structures were built on the ground and then moved from one set of hands to another until they were placed simultaneously on both sides of the chimney or gable. Once in place, the crew tightened them together using long lengths of threaded steel.
All of this work was accomplished as the crews raced against winter weather that began its annual arrival about two days into their adventure.
“For the first two days, the weather was pretty nice,” Lucke said. "From there on, it pretty much snowed every day. We ended up getting about 14 inches of snow over 10 days. … After the first two days, we never were above freezing again. It’s winter up there right now.”
The snow wasn’t the worst of it.
On one night, the temperatures warmed just enough to turn the snow into freezing rain that coated every piece of equipment and material the workers needed to use.
“We had to chip off the ice on all the ladders and scaffolding,” he said. “It created a new challenge for us when it came time to fly out.”
The loads were carefully weighed to ensure the helicopter wouldn’t be overloaded. All of that extra ice coating the scaffolding had to be chipped off to keep the loads at the right weight.
Through it all, Lucke said he never heard any complaints.
The men and women that accompanied him to Sperry were used to the harsh conditions that are a part of working at Glacier National Park and happy to be part of stabilizing a structure important to so many people.
“Almost all of them have a lot of experience working with historic buildings,” Lucke said. “Most all of the buildings that we have in the park are historic. They understood the parameters that we needed to work under.”
Lucke said he and the others were thankful for the Glacier National Park Conservancy’s efforts to raise the lion's share of the funding needed to pay for the stabilization project.
Everyone is hopeful that will be just the first step in the restoration of the iconic chalet.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said rebuilding the historic structure was one of his “top priorities.”
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow recently told a group in Kalispell the park service will take the long view as it decides what's next for the Sperry dormitory.
While the walls of the dormitory are stout, no reinforcement is required under current building standards. Mow said it's possible the walls could be retained with a structure built inside to add stability.
That could help the building withstand the avalanches that sometimes roar through the area.
The park likely will take the same approach it took on the $14 million, 14-year-long project to renovate the Many Glacier Hotel, which included retaining the historical while making necessary structural upgrades.
“We want to take the approach of what’s the right structure for the next 100 years,” Mow said.
“The Sperry Chalet is iconic,” he said. “It is important to retain. It offers an experience that’s unlike any other offered in the park.”
Lucke said his crew took a lot of pride to do what they could to ensure that future visitors will be able to share that experience some day in the future.
“I’m really proud of my crew and the work they were able to accomplish,” Lucke said. “By the time were done, they were pretty proud to have been part of it. I think it gave them all a good sense of accomplishment.”