WEST GLACIER – One hundred years ago, on May 11, 1910, the people of the United States set aside 1 million acres of their finest federal land, protecting the tremendous mountain scenery of Glacier National Park.
And no one noticed.
Nearly a week later, the local Daily Interlake newspaper ran the following story: “There has been some local inquiry as to whether the Glacier National Park bill had been signed by the president. An inquiry sent to Associated Press headquarters brings back the reply that the bill was signed on May 11th.”
End of story.
Two sentences, buried at the very bottom of the page, beneath a story about a conference in St. Louis “on the education of backward, truant and delinquent children.”
“Clearly,” said Michael Ober, “it wasn’t a big deal for the locals. If anything, it was just a small blip on their radar. There were just so few people, and there was so much land out there. And these were hardscrabble people trying to scratch out a living; they didn’t even have a concept of a vacation, let alone a national park.”
The very notion of a park, he said, “was like nailing Jell-O to a tree. It just didn’t stick very well.”
And the headlines of the day – or the lack thereof – “are very revealing about how truly marginal the event really was,” Ober said.
Fast-forward exactly 100 years, to Glacier’s May 11, 2010, centennial, “and you can see how the locals’ relationship to the park has changed. Today,” Ober said, “that park is a big part of how we identify ourselves. It’s literally who we are.”
Michael Ober is librarian at Flathead Valley Community College, working in the shadow of Glacier Park. He’s also a longtime seasonal park ranger, teacher, hiker and historian.
He knows the creation myth of Glacier – the efforts of conservationists such as George Bird Grinnell, the influence of Louis Hill and his Great Northern Railway, the sway of Sen. Thomas Carter. He knows about the local indifference, interrupted only occasionally by the local grumblings.
The Kalispell Journal worried about timber that would be lost to market. The Kalispell Bee worried about property rights. The Whitefish Pilot worried about lost hunting grounds.
And the Interlake, which worried about nearly everything – including “throngs of wandering tourists” – at one point noted that “there may be some local people who favor the park plan, but we have observed only two.”
(Interestingly, talk of expanding Glacier’s northern neighbor, Waterton Lakes National Park, has recently sparked some of those same worries, leaving Ober with a feeling of “centennial déjà-vu. We don’t seem to have learned much.”)
“People of that time had no idea of what Glacier could be in the future,” said Joe Unterreiner, head of today’s Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.
What it could be, it turns out, is an economic engine, a marketing brand, a reservoir for wildness, a natural laboratory, a playground and a link, Unterreiner said, “to the past and to the future, too.”
Grinnell lobbied publicly, the railroad lobbied privately and Congress fell in line. Grinnell, by all accounts, likely envisioned some sort of getaway for his wealthy East Coast friends. Hill saw a destination for riders on his railroad. And Sen. Carter saw the political expediency of joining forces both with East Coast money and the nation’s railroad barons.
“None of them could have imagined what would eventually happen,” Ober said. “It’s actually pretty amazing that we even pulled it off, with so few local stakeholders. If they had left it up to us locals, it never would have happened at all.”
In fact, the headlines of the day were wholly unconcerned with recreational parks, Glacier or otherwise. The news was filled with the death of England’s King Edward VII, and with the search for gold on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Homestead filings were attention-grabbers, as was the arrival of Halley’s Comet. The governor had been giving a speech in Polson when the dock gave way and dunked the audience, and there were “insurgents” in the Republican party.
“The creation of the park,” Ober said, “was a total nonstarter, at the state and local level. We were creating something that was way, way ahead of its time.”
So far ahead, in fact, that it would be decades before Montanans had any modern understanding of what the park could mean.
“It wasn’t until the common folk had the time, the money and the access,” Ober said, “that the park really became the park.”
In 1910, Glacier became Glacier. Also in 1910, Henry Ford opened his assembly-line automobile plant in Michigan, cranking out another Model T every three minutes.
Slowly, the park experience “democratized,” shifting from “a corporate haven for Easterners” to a “family recreation spot for everyone.”
By the time Going-to-the-Sun Road was opened in the early 1930s, Ober said, “all the pieces were finally in place.”
George Ostrom, who has hiked more miles of Glacier Park trail than he’d care to count, remembers clearly when “Dad got our first car in 1936, and we drove right up to Glacier Park. It was becoming very popular with all the families.”
“Now,” Ober said. “it’s seen as a lost element on the landscape. It’s an island of wild nature, and our attitudes toward it have changed tremendously. We all feel this little bit of proprietary interest.”
It’s not lost on Unterreiner that some 150 local businesses and organizations have borrowed “Glacier” for their name – Glacier Auto, Glacier Church, Glacier High School, Glacier Real Estate, Glacier Symphony.
“It’s an economic engine,” he said. “People here really connect to the park as a sort of icon for the whole region. And it’s an ancient place; it harkens to our founding. It’s part of our self-image.”
It is, said raft company owner Sally Thompson, “just part of me.”
It was what attracted her here, and what anchors her here. “It’s my way of life.”
Jane Ratzlaff, at the Glacier National Park Fund, sees the park as the local connection to health and well being, and the connection to local heritage, and the connection to livelihood as well. In the next century, she said, the local relationship to Glacier will be marked by an even "deeper understanding of the importance of preserving and protecting this magnificent landscape and soul-touching place, so that future generations will possess the same, perhaps even closer, connection."
A century ago, no one noticed. The Kalispell newspaper apparently couldn’t even be bothered with writing a story about the park’s birthday until someone asked, and then it only merited those two sentences.
Today, people here are very possessive about their park. Outsiders may have established it, but locals have taken ownership in powerful ways.
“Glacier National Park is like no other place on Earth,” said U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. “It’s the pride of Montana. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never be the same.”
For Ostrom, it’s even more fundamental. “It’s my god,” the longtime hiker and climber said. “It’s my church.”
“And people’s relationship with Glacier Park will continue to grow in importance during the next century,” he predicted, “as we try to make a more meaningful contact with nature and our natural roots.”
“That place,” he said, “has really gotten into us.”
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at email@example.com.