The History of Glacier National Park

The history of Glacier National Park started long before Congress named the spectacular wilderness a national park.

Spiritually Charged Terrain

Native Americans, including the Blackfeet, Kootenai, and Salish nations, regularly traversed the area's valleys for centuries before white immigrants arrived. For the most part, these migratory people foraged the Rocky Mountains for sustenance in the form of roots, grasses, berries, and game. Many tribes felt that the mountain terrain, with its unusual glacier-carved horns, cirques, and arĂȘtes, was spiritually charged. Later, European colonizers would be similarly inspired by the region's beauty and would nickname the area atop the Continental Divide the "Crown of the Continent."

Trappers Arrive

White trappers arrived as early as the 1780s. 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 the next few decades, though, human activity was limited to lone trappers and migrating Native Americans.

Elusive Pass

Lewis and Clark sought but did not find the elusive pass over the Rockies, now known as Marias Pass, on the park's southern edge at elevation 5,200 feet. Their scouts may have been unaware of the relatively low elevation, or perhaps they feared the Blackfeet, who controlled the region. The pass went undiscovered until 1889, when surveyors for the Great Northern Railway found it. By 1891 the company's tracks had crossed Marias Pass, and by 1895 the railroad had completed its westward expansion.

Native Population Declines

As homesteaders, miners, and trappers poured into the Glacier area in the late 1800s, the Native American population seriously declined. The Blackfeet were devastated by smallpox epidemics 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 substantial, and most were abandoned by 1905.

Protecting the Beauty

Between the late 1880s and 1900, the Great Northern Railway 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. Congress found reason enough to establish Glacier National Park and, in 1910, President William Howard Taft signed the bill that did so.

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