Back in the early 1900s when workers trudged up the mountainside to first build Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet, they were mostly limited to building materials nearby.
The Italian rock masons made good use of the plentiful source of rubble rock that was scattered about the mountainsides to build its iconic outer walls. When it came time to add the log work, skilled craftsmen looked for local lodgepole that were both straight, stout and small enough to haul back to the site and not too heavy to lift into place.
Last August all that century-old log craftsmanship went up in smoke when the chalet was badly burned by the Sprague Fire.
And so when the decision was made to rebuild the chalet in a fashion that closely matched its historical roots, engineers faced some unique challenges in meeting modern building codes while matching century-old log building techniques.
Dick Anderson Construction of Great Falls turned to the master log home builders of Pioneer Log Homes in Victor to make it work.
The company has a great deal of experience in building large log and intricate structures, including Bass Pro Shops across the country. They’ve also provided a good amount of logs that have gone into restoring historic buildings, including those at the ranger’s house at the Bitterroot National Forest’s West Fork Ranger District.
But this project presented its own unique challenges.
It didn’t take long for structural engineers to realize the 8- to 10-inch logs that were originally used to hold up the roof wouldn’t meet modern building standards for the kind of snow loads that a rebuilt Sperry Chalet would have to bear.
“Our challenge was to keep the historic size of the log the same to match that turn-of-the-century look,” said Pioneer Log Home senior designer Todd Haas. “Typically we would just use larger logs, but that wasn’t an option this time around.”
So they turned to steel.
Each one of the logs that would hold up the roof and the building’s second floor would have a specially-designed steel bar made in Great Falls and galvanized in Spokane inserted in carefully-crafted cuts into the wood.
“The idea of building a log structure with so much steel is something that I’m not sure has ever been done before,” said Rob Ridgway of Pioneer Log Homes.
Haas designed the steel inserts so they’ll be hidden from the thousands of guests who will enjoy the building once it’s completed.
“It’s cooler than all get out in the way that it’s all come together,” Haas said last week while looking over the intricate architectural drawings marked with dark lines showing how the steel bar fit into the structure. “People won’t even know they’re there.”
The challenge now is to get the work done fast so it can it be shipped north for the helicopter ride to the construction site.
“This has been a big push for us,” Ridgway said. “We know that they are going to be up against the weather soon enough. This log work needs to be done before the snow comes. We are on a very, very tight schedule.”
“Everyone is cooperating fantastically,” he said. “It’s really been impressive to see how focused everyone is on meeting this tight timeframe.”
It was pretty much all hands on deck last week after the first shipment of steel bars arrived at the plant just south of Victor. Two days later, the first of carefully packaged logs were being loaded for shipment.
The roof will be shipped in stages over the next three or four weeks.
Each of the log packages have to be carefully weighed to ensure that scales don’t top the 1,000-pound limit for the helicopter. By the time they’re done, Ridgway estimates the company will have shipped about 300 packages to the Sperry Chalet construction site.
Most of the logs being used in the project are dead Douglas fir harvested either in or near the Bitterroot.
Ridgway said everyone working on the project understands the legacy that they are creating for the valley.
If they happen to forget, his wife is there to remind them.
Since the company learned of the role it would play in rebuilding Sperry, Ridgway’s wife, Pamela Kempher, has gone to great lengths to learn everything she can about the history of the iconic building.
“She comes in here and lets us know what she’s learned,” Ridgway said, with a smile. “I think we have five books now that describe Sperry Chalet’s history and other interesting facts. Someday someone will write another book about how it was rebuilt and maybe we will be mentioned in a sentence or two.”