Western Trips

Western Trips

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Glacier National Park And The Great Northern Railway



A scenic low budget driving vacation is a visit to one of our national parks. Glacier National Park is no exception. The park is located in the far northwest corner of Montana. To say that Glacier is a great place for beautiful photo taking is an understatement. One interesting story about Glacier is how the Great Northern Railway, popularly referred to as "The Empire Builder",  played a major role in the parks awareness to the general public. The Great Northern Railway was built from St.Paul, Minnesota all the way west to Seattle, Washington. The building of this railroad was a major undertaking as was the case with any transcontinental railroad since the tracks and bridges had to be built over the Rocky Mountains. Survey teams were very challenged to find a suitable route.                                             

The area was first explored by trappers as was the case with most western areas. Following the trappers came the miners and after them came the cattle raisers searching for land. With the Great Northern Railway in operation since 1891, travelers had an efficient way to reach northwest Montana. Roads were not easily passable until after 1900 and the railroad provided the best mode of travel. 

The driving force for the creation of the park was a conservationist by the name of George Bird Grinnell who appreciated the areas beauty and wanted to keep it that way. Since many western mountain areas were exploited by industry, Grinnell wanted to ensure that this area stayed untouched. Rather than approaching the government with his request, in 1891 he approached the Great Northern Railway. The railway agreed that the park was an excellent tourist attraction and a destination in it's own right and promoted it as such to the general public. The railroad's motives however were based on a workable and profitable business plan to earn money for it's investors as opposed to simply advancing conservation. The Canadian Pacific Railroad did the same thing with it's promotion of Banff as a unique tourist destination.  The Great Northern commissioned writers, photographers and painters to spread the word about Glacier and it's name was soon heard from coast to coast. The result was that travelers came in large numbers and the Great Northern had a profitable venture.

In the early 1900's, the Great Northern Railway built hotels and chalets in the area which allowed summer tourists a comfortable place to stay while visiting the park. To explore the park's interior a typical visitor in the early 1900's was required to ride horseback, hike along it's many trails and perhaps take a boat ride.  After the railroad was built, towns, settlements and stores sprang up along the tracks and the population increased, both with tourists and settlers. George Bird Grinnell did eventually achieve his goal. In 1910 President Taft named Glacier a National Park, the nations 10th. 

The same rail route is still in operation today as Amtrak's "Empire Builder". 

You'll also be interested in our Trips into History article about the Avalanche Disaster at Wellington Washington that buried a passenger train in 1910.

Here are sites to give you all you need to plan your visit:

www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm 

www.glacier.national-park.com 

www.amtrak.com   Select routes and click "Empire Builder".

                                                                                                              

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