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Great Railroad Stations - Glacier Park, MT

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

 

Glacier Park, Montana

The “Empire Builder”, James Jerome Hill forged his Great Northern railway across the northern prairies and the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Completed in 1893 to Seattle, the Great Northern linked St. Paul, Minnesota to the developing Northwest. Northern Pacific was already there when the Great Northern pushed its own line west and the two railroads would be competitors for many years. 

James J. Hill was born of Scottish-Canadian ancestry in humble beginnings. An accident early in his life has left him blinded in one eye. In spite of this, Hill developed a keen business sense, and established himself in St. Paul in the then booming steamboat era. Soon however, railroads caught the young man’s attention, and Hill was in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the financial panic of 1873. The little St. Paul & Pacific Railroad went into receivership, and Hill saw his opportunity. Sinking his life savings into the line, he soon was extending it to a connection to the Canadian border to Winnipeg. Hill developed as he built, exploiting lumber in Minnesota and wheat in the Red River valley. The Dakotas were wide open in those years, and Hill foresaw the huge wheat farming potential of the plains. The high plains and mountains of Montana were soon crossed by Hill’s railroad as its transcontinental line pushed toward Puget Sound. In the northwest, the seemingly endless timber reserves were exploited. Montana yielded timber, coal, copper and other mineral resources. Ever watchful of his railroad and the bottom line, Hill inspected everything with the economical eye of a Scot. A story is told that he had discovered a brand new track spike lying loose on the roadbed. Hill, in a huff, set off to find the wasteful track section foreman. The foreman however, must have been a quick thinker. When he saw Hill approaching, he hurried toward him and exclaimed “Thank goodness you found that spike, Mr. Hill. I’ve had three men looking for it for nearly a week.” 

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt assumed the Presidency after the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt had set the precedent in establishing many of the great national parks. He wisely set aside many of the national forests we enjoy today. It would take three attempts in Congress before Glacier National Park would finally be created. At the urging of the Great Northern’s Louis Warren Hill, one of J.J.’s three sons, and successor as president of the railroad, a bill authorizing the national park passed in 1910 and was signed by President William Howard Taft. Called the “crown of the continent”, Glacier National Park was a spectacular array of snow capped peaks, deep glacial lakes and virgin forests. The Great Northern Railway heavily promoted passenger service to the park, and commissioned construction of nine chalet hotel complexes as well as the showpiece Glacier Park Hotel in East Glacier. The station is known as Glacier Park on the railroad. 

The rustic log construction of the Glacier Park station complements that of the Glacier Hotel located a short distance away. The station accommodated the thousands of summer visitors to the park who began their exploration of its scenic splendors when they stepped off one of Great Northern’s Pullmans. The railroad heavily promoted the park and the many hotels throughout the 1920’s. Leisure travel to Glacier Park reached all time highs in 1929, and the railroad introduced a new first class train, the Empire Builder, in honor of J.J. Hill. During the ensuing Great Depression, passenger traffic to the park plummeted, and the railroad closed several of the chalets. During World War II, Glacier Park Hotel itself was not opened for the 1943 season. Even before the War, automobile traffic had started to erode the passenger business, but the Great Northern Railway still was a busy place. The station was a beehive of activity twice a day when the Oriental Limited arrived. This train later became the Empire Builder. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the railway introduced a new Empire Builder streamliner. Advertisements extolled the scenery, the “smoothest roadbed in the Northwest” and the train’s new diesel powered consists with domes, modern coaches, and new sleepers. In the dining car, the railroad introduced new china with a western evergreen motif, “Glory of the West” to complement the train and the signature Great Northern Rocky Mountain goat.  

Glacier Park, (East Glacier) Montana. Built by the Great Northern Railway, this station served as the eastern gateway to Glacier National Park. Today it is one of the three stations Amtrak uses to serve Glacier. The others are the flagstop at Essex ( home of the Izaak Walton Inn), and Belton (West Glacier). 

Photo August 15, 2001 by John C. Dahl.

 

Today the station serves Amtrak’s Empire Builder twice daily, eastbound about midmorning and west bound in early evening during the summer months. The spectacular scenery that J.J. and his son Louis saw as a great passenger draw is still there drawing large crowds to both the Park and the convenient Amtrak services. The well maintained tracks of successor railroad Burlington Northern are alive with freight trains carrying the commerce of the Northwest just as James J. Hill foresaw over one hundred years ago.   

 

The elegant Glacier Park Hotel is approached from the station by a meticulously maintained flower garden. The garden theme continues right up to the depot platform, making the station one of the most pleasant locations in Amtrak’s timetable to wait for a train.  

Photo August 15, 2001 by John C. Dahl.  

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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

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