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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Preserving the Landscape

Roads in parks were not simply engineering projects, they were also works of "landscape engineering." This concept was rooted in fundamental National Park Service policies: first, that the landscape be preserved, and, second, that all necessary construction harmonize with nature. The Glacier highway project helped define the role of Park Service landscape engineers. "Landscape protection" needed to be central to the fundamental civil engineering decisions that now loomed large in plans for development at Glacier and at many other parks.

The section of the route for the Going-to-the-Sun Road over the Continental Divide was the first test. In 1918, National Park Service Chief Engineer George Goodwin proposed a route that followed the Logan Creek Valley, ascending about 2,600 feet to Logan Pass. The proposed route crossed Logan Creek seven times in a series of hairpin turns, or switchbacks, ascending the steep slope. Goodwin claimed that this direct route would "meet every requirement for park travel or commercial hauling"--requirements that he assumed were more or less identical.1

Stephen Mather, Director of the National Park Service, went to Glacier during the summer of 1924 to inspect the proposed route with Goodwin, Park Service landscape engineer Thomas Vint, and the park superintendent. Dismounting a few miles west of Logan Pass, the group took in the view of Logan Creek and the summits of the Livingston Range that marked the Continental Divide down the center of the park. Dominated by the huge, almost vertical cliff called the Garden Wall, the green valley of Logan Creek provided the foreground of a stunning panorama of the Glacier high country. Thomas Vint complained that building switchbacks up the valley would make it look "like miners had been in there." Instead, he urged the director to replace the series of switchbacks with a road carved directly into the rock of the Garden Wall. This relatively straight roadway would preserve the valley below completely untouched. The solution called for a much longer road benched into solid rock for many miles. Although more challenging and expensive, it resulted in a simple and elegant design.

Mather faced an important choice. Considering the dramatic views from the approaches to Logan Pass, there were expectations that the Glacier road would be the most spectacular scenic drive in the country. But the potential for failure was great. If the road permanently scarred the scenic heart of Glacier National Park, or if the project was merely bungled through bad management, the reputation of the Park Service might never recover. Two days later, Mather enlisted the aid of the Bureau of Public Roads, a federal agency whose high standards of highway construction he admired. The Bureau assigned Frank Kittredge to survey the route.

In his 1925 report to the Park Service, Kittredge presented three alternatives. Goodwin's 1918 proposal was the first; the second was a revised version of the 1918 proposal. The third alternative was the Garden Wall route that Vint had suggested the previous summer. Kittredge "strongly recommended" this alternative, since it "met the requirements more than any other." The route would "permit safe grades and curvature," would be "capable of future improvement," and could be kept free of snow for the longest possible season. Beside these practical considerations, the engineer added that the third alternative would "exhibit the grandeur of the park to the maximum."2 In Kittredge, Vint had found an ally who could validate landscape preservation not only as good policy, but also as good engineering.

In April, representatives of the Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads met to lay out the ground rules for how the Service and the Bureau would cooperate on Going-to-the-Sun Road. The interbureau arrangement allowed the Park Service to take advantage of the expertise and organization of the Bureau of Public Roads without giving up control over where, when, and how park roads would be built. Park Service landscape engineers retained the right to review and alter location surveys and contract specification to assure that construction met their standards for landscape preservation, as well as the Bureau standards for sound and economical engineering. In January 1926, these arrangements were formalized in a memorandum of agreement between the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads that defined park road projects for the next 25 years.3

The construction of the western portion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road guided the evolution of the interbureau arrangement. The construction contracts had been written to prohibit blasting that would scar trees over a wide area. Excavated materials were to be thrown over the side of the road only in areas where roadsides and trees were less likely to be damaged. Both clauses were sometimes ignored. In one case, the blasting crew packed 12 and a half tons of black powder and 80 boxes of dynamite into a series of large holes. When the charge was ignited, an eyewitness reported that he "saw, or had the impression of seeing...what looked to be a half of a mountain slowly rise, crumble, move out, and drop over a cliff...[leaving] a horrendous scar on the mountainside."4 Only after Kittredge became chief engineer of the Park Service in 1927 was he able to ensure enforcement of provisions intended to protect surrounding landscape features, even at the cost of convenience and economy.

Park Service commitment to "preserve the landscape" at any cost and the high construction standards of the Bureau of Public Roads greatly increased the expense of building the road. When Going-to-the-Sun Road was finally dedicated in 1933, it had been eight years since Kittredge re-surveyed the western approach to Logan Pass, and 11 since the first Congressional appropriations. The road that Goodwin had estimated at about $600,000 had cost over $2,500,000. But it was, according to Superintendent Scoyen, "the most beautiful piece of mountain road in the world." And the road had helped inspire a policy for roads in other parks, as the letter from National Park Service Director Albright that Scoyen read at the dedication made clear: "The major portion of Glacier Park will always be accessible only by trail....Let there be no competition of other roads with the Going-to-the-Sun [Road]. It should stand supreme and alone."5

Questions for Reading 3

1. What were the alternate proposals for the route over Logan Pass? How did they differ?

2. Why was the Garden Wall route selected?

3. One historian of Park Service landscape design said that "finalizing the location of the route over Logan Pass presented the most important single road-building decision yet faced by Mather and the Park Service." Why do you think he might have thought so?

4. Look again at the quote from Director Albright. What do you think the new park policy on road building in the parks was?

Reading 3 was adapted from Ethan Carr, "Going-to-the-Sun Road" (Glacier and Flathead County, Montana) National Historic Landmark documentation, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1996; and Kathryn Steen, "Going-to-the-Sun Road" brochure, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, n.d.

1 George Goodwin to A. J. Breitenstein, August 17, 1921, Glacier National Park, Central Files, Entry 6, RG 79, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
2 Frank A. Kittredge, "Trans-Mountain Highway, Glacier National Park, Report to National Park Service," February 5, 1925, 1-3, 9-10, 22. Glacier National Park, Central Files, Entry 6, RG 79, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
3 "Memorandum of Agreement Between the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads Relating to the Survey, Construction, and Improvement of Roads and Trails in the National Parks and National Monuments," January 18, 1926, Papers of Horace M. Albright, Entry 17, RG 79, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
4 Gordon L. Harrison, "Looking Back on the Sun Road," c. 1989, p. 67. Unidentified article in Glacier Park Library.
5 Horace M. Albright, "Memorandum for the Secretary," re: Glacier ceremonies, July 17, 1933, Glacier National Park, General File, RG 48, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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