Some 330 private and park-owned cabins ring Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, many with storied pasts that earned them listings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Details trickled in slowly, but the Howe Ridge fire that blew down off the mountain to the north end of the lake Sunday destroyed at least eight buildings in Kelly’s Camp Historic District on the west shore, and threatened the Burton K. and Lulu Wheeler cabin and camp on the north shore.
Other historic buildings and enclaves at the top of the lake, from west to east, are the Upper McDonald Lake Ranger Station and the privately owned Clack family inholdings and Thomas Walsh Lodge.
Kelly’s Camp was homesteaded by Frank and Emmeline Kelly in 1894, 16 years before the national park was created. Twenty-five buildings at the camp were built between 1910 and 1920. The property is one of seven on Lake McDonald whose ownerships have been transferred to the National Park Service in the past decade, according the park's 2018 environmental assessment of a property management plan.
The Kellys began developing a cabin resort to cash in on the increasing number of visitors to the park. When the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed, a road was built to Kelly’s Camp for automobile travelers. The summer tourist cabin resort was operated by family members through the 1960s, and is considered one of the most extensive summer cabin districts left in in Glacier.
Montana U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler and his wife Lulu purchased a cabin there in 1916. It burned in 1941, and Lulu supervised construction of the current cabin. Wheeler was one of Montana’s representatives in the Senate for 24 years and was considered the leading Democratic candidate for president in 1940 until Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-nominated for a third term. FDR visited the Wheeler cabin in 1933 when he came to Glacier to dedicate Going to the Sun Highway.
An email from Park Superintendent Jeff Mow obtained by the Missoulian said he’d heard that some outbuildings and the boathouse at the Wheeler complex were lost. There was fire burning in the main house but it was saved.
One-half mile to the east, an earlier but equally prominent Montana senator built a lodge in 1910. After two failed attempts, Walsh was elected in 1912 but spent many summers on Lake McDonald. He died in 1933, days before he was to take office as Roosevelt’s attorney general.