Glacier National Park Feature


The History of Glacier National Park

The history of Glacier National Park started long before Congress named the spectacular wilderness a national park. American Indians, including the Blackfeet, Kootenai, and Salish, regularly traversed the area's valleys for centuries before white immigrants arrived. For the most part, these migratory people crossed the Rocky Mountains in search of sustenance in the form of roots, grasses, berries, and game. Many tribes felt that the mountains, with their unusual glacier-carved horns, cirques, and arętes, were spiritually charged. Later, white people would be similarly inspired by Glacier's beauty and would nickname the area atop the Continental Divide the "Crown of the Continent."

White trappers arrived in the area as early as the 1780s. Then, in 1805, Lewis and Clark passed south of what is now Glacier National Park. Attracted by the expedition's reports of abundant beaver, many more trappers, primarily British, French, and Spanish, migrated to the region. For most of the early to mid-1800s, human activity in the area was limited to lone trappers and migrating Indians.

On their journey west, Lewis and Clark sought but did not find the elusive pass over the Rockies, now known as Marias Pass, on the southern edge of the park. Whether their scouts were unaware of the relatively low elevation—5,200 feet—of the pass, or whether they feared the Blackfeet that controlled the region, is unknown. The pass went undiscovered until 1889, when surveyors for the Great Northern Railway found it in the dead of winter. By 1891 the Great Northern Railway's tracks had crossed Marias Pass, and by 1895 the railroad had completed its westward expansion.

As homesteaders, miners, and trappers poured into the Glacier area in the late 1800s, the American Indian population seriously declined. The Blackfeet were devastated by smallpox epidemics—a disease previously unknown in North America—from the mid-1800s until the early 1900s. The disease, and a reduced food supply due to the overhunting of buffalo, stripped the Blackfeet of their power and, eventually, their land. In 1895, the tribe sold the area now within the park to the U.S. government, which opened it to miners. Returns on the mines were never very substantial, and most were abandoned by 1905.

Between the late 1880s and 1900, Forest and Stream magazine editor George Grinnell made several trips to the mountains of northwestern Montana. He was awed by the beauty of the area and urged the U.S. government to give it park status, thus protecting it from mining interests and homesteaders. At the same time, the Great Northern Railway company was spreading the word about the area's recreational opportunities. The company built seven backcountry chalets to house guests, and promised tourists from the East a back-to-nature experience with daylong hikes and horseback rides between the chalets. Visitors arrived by train at West Glacier, took a stagecoach to Lake McDonald, a boat to the lakeside Snyder Hotel, and began their nature adventures from there. Between Grinnell's political influence and the Great Northern's financial interests, Congress found reason enough to establish Glacier National Park; the bill was signed by President William Howard Taft in 1910.

Updated: 2014-03-07

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