Glacier by the Grace of God and the Great Northern

“Empire Builder” James J. Hill (1838 – 1916) built the nation’s fifth transcontinental railroad across the top of the country without governmental subsidies. When he threw the weight of the Great Northern Railway behind the failed efforts to create Glacier National Park, Congress listened and the park was born.

Many Glacier Hotel in 1912 GN Brochure
Once the park was born, the railroad was subsidizing the government.

Louis W. Hill (1872 – 1948), who replaced his father as Great Northern CEO in 1907 and board chairman in 1912, made Glacier National Park his personal project. By 1917, the Great Northern Railway had spent twice as much as the Federal Government developing the park. Within another three years, the railroad had outspent the government by a factor of ten to one.

Early roads, trails, power systems, telephone systems, hotels and chalets were built by the railroad so quickly that one suspects that the plans for the region had been on the drawing board for years. As the playground evolved, Louis Hill’s “See America First” publicity campaign brought passengers to the park via Great Northern Trains: Glacier Park Limited, Oriental Express, Western Star, Empire Builder.

Swiftcurrent Lake
Authors Jennifer Bottomly-O’looney and Deirdre Shaw note in the current Glacier Park commemorative issue of Montana The Magazine of Western History that in spite of occasional friction between the railroad and the government, the park service had a sparse budget and welcomed the Great Northern’s investment.

Amrak’s Empire Builder still serves the park today and Great Northern Railway successor line Burlington Northern is the largest contributor to the 2010 Glacier Park Centennial.

Louis Hill visited the park often, taking frequent pack trips out of railroad-built Many Glacier Hotel. But the man who has been called “the Godfather of Glacier Park” was not a John Muir or a George Bird Grinnell. Like his empire builder father, he saw the park as a spectacular place that could also be very profitable.

He once said that “Every passenger that goes to the national parks, wherever he may be, represents practically a net earning.” Author C. W. Guthrie (All Aboard for Glacier) adds that he “had an artistic bent, and that gave him a real feeling for the park.”

Louis W. Hill
In his 1988 book Stars Over Montana, Warren L. Hanna laments the fact that Louis W. Hill is relatively unknown today when compared with the other patriarchs of the park. Hanna says that Louis Hill did more than anyone else at the outset to plan and develop the park and make it known.

“In all of Glacier’s more than 1,500 square mils, there is no peak, pass, lake, valley, or road named for this remarkable pioneer,” said Hanna.

Louis Hill knew a good view when he saw one. He knew exactly where each hotel and chalet should be placed and how to connect them with roads and trails, and he knew best of all how to get the people there to see it all.

More Information

Parallel tracks: Glacier National Park born from Great Northern Railway in the “Missoulian.”

“Producers of a Playground” in Man in Glacier by C. W. Buchholtz.

The lavishly illustrated All Aboard for Glacier: The Great Northern Railway and Glacier National Park by C. W. Guthrie.

Glacier’s Historic Hotels And Chalets: View With A Room by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison.

“Glacier National Park: People, a Playground, and a Park,” by Jennifer Bottomly-O’looney and Deirdre Shaw in Montana The Magazine of Western History, Summer 2010.

Each purchase of this Glacier adventure benefits the park.

2 thoughts on “Glacier by the Grace of God and the Great Northern

    1. There’s no shortage of interesting material for writing about the park and the railroad. Glacier’s centennial has made this a fun year on the blog, posting all these historical snippets.

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