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WEST GLACIER - Maria Day swayed a bit in her seat as the train car rolled through curves soft and easy, like a luxury Lincoln Town Car out on the open road.

She nodded, without meaning to, in time to the rhythmic clack of wheel on rail, like a mantra, or a steel-rimmed lullaby.

"It's soothing," the Livingston native said. "It makes you totally relaxed."

Outside the vast picture windows, low clouds were thinning, tearing across the tops of ragged peaks, and a morning sun was just beginning to ignite a halo over bright summits.

"One of the prettiest sights, I think, is when there's a lot of snow, and the sun's coming up, and it all starts to sparkle and shine," Day said. "Sometimes it's orange. Sometimes it's gold. Today it's silver."

Silver like a polished steel rail, set afire in sunlit glare.

Day's ridden this route before, many times, up along a wild green river tucked tight to the belly of Glacier National Park. It is, she says, one of the most spectacular rides you can take by train.

In fact, the train runs here in part because of the views; and the views remain, in part, because of the train. The great irony of Glacier National Park is that its wild nature was saved from the clutches of eager industrialists by that most eager industrialist of them all, the railroad baron.

When the famous conservationist George Bird Grinnell first proposed that the area be set aside as a park, he did not take his suggestion to Congress. Instead, Grinnell approached the "Empire Builder," James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway. It was 1891 when Grinnell first made his pitch, the same year that Hill's railroad was climbing into the Montana mountains on its way from Minneapolis to Seattle.

C.W. Buchholtz, writing in his book "Man in Glacier," noted that "Jim Hill, while supporting Glacier as a national park, could not easily qualify as a regular ‘preservationist.' " Instead, Buchholtz wrote, Hill was concentrated on achieving a "monopolistic grip upon commercial and transportation interests."

This was not altruism, not the romance and nostalgia of the rail, not a great love of wild nature. This was business, and this was the same railroad king who had famously declared, as he laid his rail across the Heartland, that a population without the prairie was a mob, and the prairie without a population was a desert. In other words, his goal was to develop the lands alongside his railroad as he worked west, and to turn a profit at every siding.

Hill was, certainly, not alone in this business plan. The Northern Pacific already had a grip on Yellowstone National Park, and the Canadian Pacific treated Banff as a destination resort all its own.

"Since we can't export the scenery," announced Canadian Pacific president William Van Horne, "we'll have to import the tourists."

Hill's son and protégé, Louis Hill, was even more to the point: "Every passenger that goes to the national parks, wherever he may be, represents practically a net earning."

A century later, on the eve of Glacier's 100th birthday, Maria Day is one of those net earnings, happily riding the rail that made the park, beneath the park that made the rail.

***

"No matter where you travel in and around Glacier National Park, Montana, the legacy of the Great Northern Railway is to be found."

So wrote Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison, in their book "View with a Room."

Louis Hill was born in 1872, the same year that Yellowstone was made the world's first national park. He became president of his father's railroad in 1907, the same year the first bill was introduced to make Glacier a park.

Like his father, Louis Hill was a capitalist and a railroad baron, a bare-knuckled businessman who would come to be known as the "godfather of Glacier." But unlike his father, Louis also had some decidedly artistic leanings.

"He wasn't what you'd call an environmentalist," said author Carol Guthrie, "but he understood the aesthetics of a good view. He had an artistic bent, and that gave him a real feeling for the park."

"He appreciated Glacier's spectacular beauty," Djuff and Morrison agreed, "and he also knew the value of a national park linked to the Great Northern's mainline."

The first two Glacier Park proposals - pushed by preservationists - failed in Congress, and when the third also looked likely to stall Louis Hill began firing telegrams to influential lawmakers. The tide immediately turned.

The railroad steamrolled political opposition and local skepticism alike. A daily newspaper in Kalispell reported that "there may be some local people who favor the park plan, but we have observed only two."

Nevertheless, Hill spoke, and the park was declared.

"It is impossible," Buchholtz wrote, "to underestimate the influence of the Great Northern in engendering interest in Glacier."

Hill's political weight, he added, "apparently made the park possible."

"You never saw the railroad's hand overtly in the process," said Deirdre Shaw, curator of the park's museum, "but I think most people agree that without the railroad and its influence, it might not have happened."

Creating the park was, in the end, a relatively straightforward business equation, Shaw said - "the railroad needed riders, and riders needed a destination."

***

Hill and his Great Northern Railway, in fact, had been eyeing Glacier as a destination long before the park was a park. As early as 1897, railroad agents were hiring scientists and scholars such as Dr. Lyman Sperry, asking them to find "living glaciers" and other attractions for possible tourism trips.

And so it's not surprising, perhaps, the speed with which Great Northern was able to act once the park designation finally was declared in May of 1910. In a few furious seasons of construction, the railroad built a whole host of hotels and chalet complexes inside Glacier, linking them with roads and communication lines and trails.

Swiss-style chalets - "parkitecture" - at Two Medicine, Cut Bank, St. Mary, Sun Point, Sperry Glacier, Gunsight Lake, Granite Park and Belton. Luxury hotels at East Glacier and Many Glacier. Roads, power systems, supply routes.

There were no real rules yet, so they put them where they pleased.

"They did it all in about five years flat," Guthrie said, "so you know those plans were already on the table. Hill had his wheels in motion even before it was a park."

And by jumping in so quickly, he ensured that Great Northern had a lock on all things Glacier. By the park's seventh birthday, the taxpayers had invested only about $635,000 into Glacier, while Great Northern Railway had spent more than $1.5 million.

"All of these (railroad) projects," Buchholtz wrote, "unquestionably made the government efforts look puny by comparison."

There was little question, Guthrie said, as to who really ran the park.

Great Northern used its vested interest and political weight to wrest favorable and long-term contracts from Glacier's brass, locking in exclusive rights and special considerations. They were allowed to graze livestock, raise gardens, net fish for hotel menus. When other concessionaires moved guests from chalet to chalet, the railroad took a cut of the profit. At one point, they pushed hard to install their own man as park superintendent.

"Their reach was pretty much absolute," said John Chase, a Montana railroad buff and historian. "They had a finger in every pie, and they literally built the place from the ground up."

Glacier's first couple of decades - the 1910s and 1920s - were "a time when visitors arrived by train, then toured the park on guided saddle-horse trips," Djuff and Morrison wrote, adding that "this was the Gilded Age, and those who could afford to seek solace in the wilderness wanted an outdoor experience with all the comforts of home."

Which is precisely what the Great Northern advertised. Guests climbed off the train at East Glacier, were met by Blackfeet Indians (called the Glacier Park Indians in railroad promotions) in the hire of Great Northern, rode by coach to extravagant hotels with fine linen tablecloths. For weeks, they'd travel on horseback from chalet to chalet, fording rivers, skirting lakes, crossing breathtaking mountain passes.

A notorious micro-manager, Louis Hill involved himself in every detail, right down to the planting of hotel flowers. He even gave up his presidency for a seat as chairman of the board, presumably so he could focus more personal attention on Glacier.

"The work is so important," Hill said, "I loathe to entrust the development to anybody but myself."

The railroaders commissioned painters, writers, photographers, radio men, made Glacier Park famous coast to coast. Trying to capture travel dollars that might be spent overseas, they launched the "See America First" campaign, promoting Glacier as "America's Alps." Before the park was two years old, Great Northern already was spending upward of $300,000 a year promoting the place, and visitation was jumping by 100 percent per year.

Grinnell and other conservationists despaired that the mountains they'd fought to preserve were now "more or less full of tourists," but that, they knew, was the price of protection.

Great Northern promotional pamphlets promised "beauty at your feet," and the "music of the primitive world" mingling with the "silences of great places." One ad guaranteed "air of such delicious freshness as to make you tingle from head to toe."

A century later, Maria Day still remarks on the smell of fresh pine on snow, but for the railroad, the tingle couldn't last.

"They essentially had two solid decades," said Chase. "But that was it. They'd barely got going when times started changing."

***

John Chase grew up in Kalispell, summered in the park. His dad worked at Glacier Park Lodge in the 1920s, and "when I was a kid, there were still eight passenger trains per day coming through East Glacier."

But by the time Chase himself went to work at Great Northern's hotels during the 1950s, "they were desperately trying to unload those hotels on someone."

By 1929, when Louis Hill stepped down as chairman of the board, his railroad had invested millions in the park. The national economy was running red hot, and although many more had private automobiles, his train passenger service was still making money.

"Then came the crash, and the Depression," Chase said. Ridership plunged. By 1933, the railroad didn't even bother opening Cut Bank or St. Mary chalets, or the Prince of Wales Hotel.

Great Northern president William Kennedy complained of the hotels, saying "we must rid ourselves of all these parasites as quickly as possible."

Again, this was business, not the romance of trains and parks.

At the same time, automobiles were arriving in waves. In 1920, fewer than half of park visitors came in cars. By 1930, nine out of 10 drove themselves.

Cars were paralleling the tracks on U.S. Highway 2 by 1930, and within a few years more were crossing the Going-to-the-Sun Road's alpine heights, in places trains could never reach. The railroad monopoly went bust.

"Then they got hit with World War II," Chase said, and visitation crashed. One by one the great chalets were allowed to fall into disrepair. They tore down Sun Point in 1948, Cut Bank in 1949, Two Medicine in 1955.

By the time Louis Hill died in 1948, only 2 percent of Glacier Park travelers were arriving by train. A bit more than a decade later, Great Northern sold its Glacier Park holdings to a lawyer from Phoenix, netting a fraction of its overall investment. A decade more and it gave up on passenger rail altogether.

"The heyday was over," Chase said. "The Golden Age closed."

And yet here sits Maria Day, still watching from her train seat as the morning sky blushes pink, still marveling at the park passing by.

"There's a certain group of Americans," she said, "who are in love with the railroad, and in love with Glacier Park. It's all about early America, and a lot of us don't like the idea that early America is slipping away."

***

The power of Great Northern's early advertising blitz has, through an inertia all its own, carried right into Glacier's centennial year.

"When the train pulls up at East Glacier, it's still a very big deal," said Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak. "We're the connection between the past and the present. Nobody gets you closer to the park and the majesty of it than we do."

Sure, he admits, Highway 2 runs right there alongside the tracks, "but if you're on the highway," he said, "you should be driving, and not taking in the grandeur of the park."

And the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad - modern heir of Hill's Great Northern - is the single largest contributor to this year's centennial commemoration, staking $500,000 on the events.

"The railroad has continued this relationship with the park," said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. "We recognize the unique importance of this gem of a resource."

Chicago, remarkably, is still plastered with Glacier Park advertising, except now it's the state of Montana urging people to ride the rail west, rather than the railroad urging people to see Montana.

"I don't think it's an accident that the state advertises in Chicago's Union Station," Magliari said. "It's a carryover of history and tradition that's still alive."

A couple of the original chalets still exist in the park, as do a few of the grand hotels, "and all of those places speak railroad to visitors," he said. Railside layovers such as the Izaak Walton Inn preserve both park and railroad history, intertwined and inseparable.

***

During the summer months, the classic depots at East Glacier and West Glacier still are packed, "and you'd better get a reservation early if you want to ride then," Day advised.

The train moves slowly, Chase said, and lets you get up and move around, and visit, and see the sights, "and that's what the park is all about. People coming to Glacier are looking for that pace."

And, increasingly, they're also looking for a "green" vacation with a small environmental footprint. When Backpacker Magazine went looking for the holiday with the lowest carbon signature, it found a train ride to Glacier and a week of backcountry hiking.

"We are arguably the greenest form of travel," Magliari said, "because we can squeeze lots and lots of miles out of a gallon of fuel. In today's climate, train travel is very much on the uptick."

What used to be considered the only way to get there now is considered the best way to get there, Guthrie said, and ridership numbers are beginning to show that.

Amtrak's first quarter of this year has been its best quarter ever, Magliari confirmed.

It's not Hill's heyday, perhaps, but the godfather of Glacier might still recognize a glimmer of the Golden Age, were he to ride his rail today.

He'd see it in the lodges, now being fully renovated and preserved. He'd recognize it in the mountains, peaks unchanged over the century. He'd recognize it in the bustling depots, which for a few months of summer are some of the busiest on the entire line.

And he'd recognize it in the eyes of Maria Day, gazing yet again on an enduring view from the comfort of her train car.

"It's like a time machine," she said. "I guess I'm a little like the railroad itself - I might be a senior citizen, but I'm just getting going."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by e-mail at mjamison@missoulian.com. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at (406) 523-5244 or at kwilson@missoulian.com.

 

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