MANY GLACIER – In August 1936, a wildfire burned on the far side of Heaven’s Peak in Glacier National Park for weeks – the flames unseen here at Many Glacier Hotel, but their presence still very evident.
Smoke filled the sky of the Swiftcurrent Valley that month. The sun became a duller version of itself, and ash covered the surface of Swiftcurrent Lake.
And then – as wildfires can – it went from a long-running annoyance, to an imminent threat, in what probably seemed like an instant.
High winds blew the fire across fire lines on Aug. 31, and by the next day the blaze was marching uphill toward Swiftcurrent Pass. That evening, longtime Many Glacier Hotel employee Ray Kinley looked up toward the pass in the darkness and saw two glowing red spots that he said “looked like dragon eyes.”
Then the dragon opened its mouth and breathed a fast-moving fire into the Swiftcurrent Valley.
Omar Ellis, the hotel manager, ordered the guests to be evacuated. With some protesting loudly about the interruption of their vacations – even as several chalets on nearby Mount Altyn were about to go up in flames – they were loaded onto buses and taken out of the park.
Ellis and his seasonal hotel staff then dragged blankets and mattresses out of rooms and onto balconies and the roof of the sprawling hotel. They used hoses to soak them with water, and raced around smothering the burning pine knots that flew out ahead of the flames, across Swiftcurrent Lake, and landed on and around the hotel “like missiles fired from a catapult,” according to one description.
How many hours they battled to protect Many Glacier Hotel has been lost to the ages, but the inferno’s flames were eventually parted by the lake the hotel overlooks, and did not reconnect until it was past the Swiss-like structure on the far side.
As the danger passed, an exuberant Ellis fired off a telegram to the Great Northern Railway, which owned Many Glacier Hotel.
“WE HAVE SAVED THE HOTEL!” it read.
Not long after, Ellis got a one-word reply.
All it said was, “WHY?”
Great Northern’s lodges and hotels in and near Glacier Park had become a significant money drain on the railroad during the Great Depression, and the railroad’s executives were not nearly as tickled as Ellis that Many Glacier Hotel hadn’t burned to the ground in the Heaven’s Peak fire.
Thankfully to almost everyone else who has visited Many Glacier in the 79 years since the fire, the hotel still stands, now – as of the Fourth of July – 100 years old.
It looks out on its stunningly symmetrical view across Swiftcurrent Lake: Mount Grinnell, the near-perfect pyramid-shaped mountain, at the center, with other peaks and cliffs fanning out on either side in harmony.
On either side of the pyramid, Mount Gould balances Mount Wilbur, the Garden Wall balances the Pinnacle Wall, Mount Allen balances Mount Henkel.
Many Glacier Hotel is both the largest, and youngest, of the biggest lodgings built by Great Northern in the park’s early years. Glacier Park Lodge celebrated its centennial in 2013, and Lake McDonald Lodge did so last year.
Now it’s Many Glacier’s turn.
There are a century’s worth of stories, like the “telegram story,” from this place. While the walls of the grand old hotel can’t talk, John Hagen can.
Hagen, president of the Glacier Park Foundation – founded by people who once worked in the park for concessionaires, but open to anyone who loves Glacier – wrote an anecdote-filled history of Many Glacier Hotel and some of the colorful characters who worked here over the years, which can be found on the foundation’s website, glacierparkfoundation.org.
He spent 10 summers working as a bellman at Many Glacier starting in 1970, and loved the place so much that the Minneapolis attorney finagled ways to continue the summer gig even after graduating from Harvard Law School and starting his career as a lawyer.
It is Hagen who likened the flying embers of 1936 to “missiles from a catapult,” and it is Hagen who has relayed several stories from Many Glacier’s history.
Some are better known than others.
One of the most famous comes from 1925. Upset that the sawmill used during the construction of the hotel was still standing inside the park, the director of the National Park Service himself showed up here.
Bill Mather brought dynamite with him.
Without so much as a written or verbal warning – and with a federal permit still in place allowing for the sawmill’s existence – Mather ordered park employees to place 13 dynamite charges around the mill.
Then he “vented his annoyance at the Great Northern by rounding up all the guests he could find, and leading them out on the hotel porch to witness a ‘birthday surprise’ for his daughter,” Hagen wrote.
Mather personally pushed the plunger, and as the sawmill was blown to smithereens, he wished his daughter – who may have been as shocked as everyone else by the explosions that rocked the park’s peaceful valley – a happy 19th birthday.
Did you know that, prior to World War II, the only source of electric power at the hotel was a small hydro plant just downstream from Swiftcurrent Falls?
Wooden pipes captured water through conduits in a concrete dam and dropped it some 40 feet to the hydro plant turbines, which harnessed power for the generators. Hagen writes that the noise level “was tremendous, approaching that of a jet engine.”
“At times, a branch would penetrate the intake screen and disintegrate in the turbines, with the sound of an explosion,” Hagen says. “The hydro plant operators had an insulated telephone booth for communication with the outside world. A firehouse bell was installed to alert them when the telephone was ringing. Nothing else would penetrate the din.”
In the 1950s, Great Northern, anxious to sell its Glacier Park holdings, authorized a massive renovation program designed to make the hotels and lodges more attractive to buyers.
At Many Glacier, Hagen writes, old-timers called this time “the reign of terror.”
The beautiful double helix staircase in the lobby – scheduled to be rebuilt in the next year – was torn out during this era to make room for a gift shop. Several guest rooms were removed, and a lounge built in their place. Private bathrooms were installed in most every guest room, and the original hardwood floors were replaced by tile.
You have free articles remaining.
“The laying of the tile floor was an especially messy project,” Hagen writes. “The underlying wood was tarred, and drunken or careless workmen would step in the tar and track it all around the hotel. The tar seeped up for years through cracks between the tiles. Squads of summer employees used to crawl along 15 abreast, with gas-soaked rags, to clean it up.”
Perhaps most amazingly, most of the renovation was completed over the course of several years during the brutal winter months, when snow can drift more than 20 feet deep and Many Glacier is closed.
The workmen “lived in the women’s dorm, and worked in the hotel amid arctic temperatures,” Hagen says. “At mealtimes, they would sometimes leap out the upstairs windows and slide down the snowdrifts – the shortest route to the dorm.”
One hundred years of welcoming guests – save for 1943-45, when it was closed during World War II – have also brought almost 100 years of employees to Many Glacier.
Some of Hagen’s best stories are about them.
Like Bertha Hosford of Chicago, who worked as a nurse at the hotel in the years leading up to World War II.
Hagen says Bertha was sometimes called to the employee dorms the morning after an employee party to tend to a “very sick” patient, and Bertha would quickly and silently diagnose the “illness” as a self-induced hangover.
She would grab two husky hotel employees and have them hold down the victim while she spooned liberal doses of cod liver oil down the “ill” person’s throat. Then, in her sweetest voice, Bertha would advise them, “We’ll be back to give you the second dose in an hour.”
“The sick youth invariably revived and reported for work in a matter of minutes,” Hagen says.
Typical of Hagen’s anecdotes is one about a wrangler at the Many Glacier horse concession. Let’s let Hagen tell it in its entirety.
“One of Many’s most colorful characters was the horse concession wrangler ‘Blacky’ Dillon. Blacky was named for his thick black beard, which gave him the look of a genial bandit. He had a powerful odor of horse manure and alcoholic drink.
“Blacky had a sense of the dramatic, and often came sweeping through the doors of the hotel in a long black operatic cape. A tourist, fascinated by the cape, once asked, ‘Blacky, where did you get your costume?’ Blacky indignantly answered, ‘Lady, this is no costume. These are my clothes.’
“Blacky figured in Many Glacier’s only recorded riot. He was drinking late one evening in the downstairs bar, with two young sturdy cowboys. The cowboys ignored a security guard’s request that they finish their beers by midnight. The guard whisked the bottles away, and was promptly attacked by the cowboys. Five airmen seated nearby in the bar leaped into the fight on the guard’s behalf, as did several employees. Blacky, a peaceable fellow, crawled away under the tables. The cowboys escaped, but later were captured when they returned to beat up Blacky for not coming to their assistance.
“Blacky worked for decades as a Many Glacier wrangler. In his older days, he drove a four-horse ‘tally-ho’ between Many and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. One fateful day, Blacky took this drive while in a state of intoxication. He whipped up the horses, who ran wild and terrified several elderly ladies aboard the coach. Moreover, the runaway tally-ho struck and damaged the wrangler boss’s new car. Poor Blacky was fired for this episode, and lived out his years as a stagecoach robber at Knott’s Berry Farm in California.”
Hagen’s history of Many Glacier, including the famous "Stagger Alley" that led from the bar, is a treasure trove of such stories, many of which include Ray Kinley, the man who first spotted the “dragon eyes” of fire headed the hotel’s way in 1936.
Kinley arrived in the Swiftcurrent Valley as a fishing guide in 1919, was hired at the hotel in 1922 and worked there until 1977, when he retired at the age of 86.
“In his final summers, Ray was still doing heavy labor as Many’s gardener, rowing tourists around on fishing expeditions, and ruling firmly over a dormitory of spirited young employees,” Hagen says.
Kinley had only one arm, the other having been lost in a long-ago railroad accident, and it was reportedly quite the sight to watch him get his outboard motor started.
Hagen says much of his knowledge of the history of Many Glacier is due to Kinley, and one of his shortest stories is about the vast collection of oddball hats Kinley had, most of them ones guests had left behind.
One was “an enormous Sherlock Holmes hat” with a bill at either end. When a startled employee asked Kinley, “Why do you wear THAT hat?” Kinley replied, “So the manager won’t know if I’m coming or going.”
The Cross of Helvetia – Helvetia is the female personification of Switzerland – hangs on the door of all 215 guest rooms in the Many Glacier Hotel, which would become known for the hootenannies, musical productions and Broadway shows put on by the hand-picked maids, bellhops, waiters and dishwashers who spent their summers working here during Englishman Ian Tippet’s long run as manager (see related story in today's Territory section).
Construction on Many Glacier began in 1914 and, even though it wasn’t completed until 1917, the hotel opened to guests in 1915.
Railroad tycoon Louis W. Hill oversaw every last detail of the hotel, and was responsible for its – shall we say “eclectic”? – décor.
The hotel was an odd conglomeration of Germany, the Orient, the Swiss Alps and the American West.
“The work is so important that I loathe to entrust it to anyone else,” Hill said, and he had his reasons for the mishmash that resulted in a mounted moose head (that still hangs in the lobby), bearskins and bison skulls overlooking Japanese lanterns in a building straight out of Switzerland, where bellmen in German lederhosen greet guests.
Great Northern’s whole purpose for building Many Glacier, Lake McDonald Lodge and Glacier Park Lodge was to lure wealthy Easterners to ride their trains to the park.
It was located in the American West, after all, but Great Northern’s Glacier marketing campaign invited those Easterners to “See America’s Switzerland.”
And the Asian influence? Hill’s railroad could take those Easterners beyond Glacier Park, to Seattle, where Great Northern also had steamships that, for a price, could take them all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. The touches of the Orient were an early form of subliminal advertising.
Even as construction on Many Glacier began, there were already eight chalets in the area that the railroad company had built in 1913. Two were by Swiftcurrent Falls and near the “Puff and Blow,” a combination dance hall and pack-horse depot that’s now gone.
These two chalets are the only ones still standing, and today house Many Glacier maintenance workers. One of the others was destroyed by an avalanche after just a few years.
The rest disappeared in the flames of the 1936 Heaven’s Peak fire. Louis Hill’s successors were sorry the wildfire didn’t take down Many Glacier, too.
Their disappointment has not been shared.