Restoring the Historic Character of Glacier Park Lodge

Glacier Park Lodge was originally constructed in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway.

Immense Douglas-fir timbers were brought to East Glacier by train from the Pacific Northwest of the United States and maple floors were transported from the east—it was a symbolic joining of the nation's coasts. Now, more than one hundred years later, the time has come for some of these original giants to be replaced.

"Big Tree Lodge in America's Switzerland"

Glacier National Park has been attracting visitors from all over the world for over a century. In its early days, the park was deemed “America’s Switzerland” for its intense mountain peaks and rugged terrain. Each of the park's original lodges (Glacier Park Lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel and the Prince of Wales Hotel) were built to resemble Swiss-style architecture with exposed beams, gabled roofs, decorative moldings and large windows.

A man stands in construction clothing and gear outside a large wooden building.

Photo: Timbersmith Jake Steck from Wild Mile Woodworks at Glacier Park Lodge.

Glacier Park Lodge was the first lodge to be constructed by the Great Northern Railway. It took a crew of 75 men a year and a half to build the original structure which included the lobby, dining room and 61 guest rooms. Sixty original timbers were carefully selected from the west coast to satisfy the extremely specific dimensions that would give the lodge its iconic look. These timbers were then brought in by rail and erected in the iconic placement we recognize today.

For over one hundred years, these giants withstood the test of time—from surviving harsh Montana elements each season to accommodating heavy visitor traffic year after year. The time has come, however, for some of the original timbers to be replaced with new ones so that future generations can continue to marvel at the “Big Tree Lodge.”

Massive Logs, Complex Project

This project has been no simple task, requiring careful planning and technical maneuvers that will be completed over several years. Luckily, Jake Steck and his team at Wild Mile Woodworks are up for the challenge. Their involvement in the rehabilitation process of historic buildings in Glacier National Park began over a decade ago and now includes work at Glacier Park Lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel and the Two Medicine Camp Store.

The replacement began over a year ago when the Wild Mile team began their search for new timbers that would match the existing dimensions. It was determined that four timbers would be replaced in the first phase of the project. Once the trees were selected, each one was felled and transported to Wild Mile’s workshop in Bigfork, Montana where they were peeled, joined and prepped for their final journey to East Glacier.

Steck, a born and bred Montanan, was eager for his team to make their mark on Glacier’s longstanding history. “You think about the era that lodge was constructed in and the work those guys went through," he says. Glacier Park Lodge has lasted for more than one hundred years and some of the components need to be replaced at this point. Steck says he's thrilled about his involvement. "We get to be the ones to put it together.”

Old Ones Out, New Ones In

In the spring of 2018, work began to prep the area for the replacement that would take place later that fall. When Labor Day finally arrived, everything was ready for the replacement to occur. The decks and railings surrounding the area were removed in order to make room for a large steel structure that would bear the weight of the building during the swap. Then, one by one, the original timbers were removed and replaced by their identical counterparts.

"This project was especially challenging because we had to stabilize the building while managing lateral movements from the replacement," says Keith Smith, Director of Engineering for Glacier Park Collection.

A team of wordworkers stand atop a large timber.

Photo: Jake Steck (third from right) and his team at Wild Mile Woodworks in Big Fork, MT.

"We feel good about working with Wild Mile because they are extremely adept at considering structural details and bringing in the proper engineering techniques."

And for Smith, who oversees all aspect of heritage preservation for Glacier Park Collection, it's important to keep the project close to home. "It's always nice to work with a local company," Smith says. "We always try to give our big jobs to small businesses."

Ultimately, he says it's for the long-term benefit of Glacier National Park and Glacier Park Lodge.  “It’s a rewarding investment for future generations."

Once the new columns were in place, the difference was hardly noticeable. The rest of the replacements will continue in phases for the next several years, ultimately reinforcing the longevity of the lodge so it will stand for years to come.

“The entire process is historic and hopefully we can put together a product that will last as long as the original or longer,” Steck says. 

"Maintaining these heritage properties is our responsibility and we take it seriously," Smith says. "It's not only an investment in the future, it's a privilege."

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