Man in Glacier
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Chapter Three:

Exploitation of Glacier's mineral wealth attracted hundreds of individuals to the mountains. Whether for copper or oil, the speculators eventually gave up their hopes of easy wealth. The minor strikes at Midvale (now East Glacier Park), at Java (along U.S. Highway 2), and on Divide Creek had little long-lasting impact. A gold strike on Divide Creek was just big enough to establish St. Mary village; the Swiftcurrent boom lasted just long enough to leave a ghost town and a lingering group of participants. A more gradual and more significant development was occurring in the Lake McDonald "country" and was promoted by the Great Northern Railway.

The key to Jim Hill's success and the Great Northern's future lay in the development of the country adjoining the railroad. Hill prospered because, as he built the system, he managed to attract settlers to the plains of North Dakota and Montana and to develop agriculture, industry, and commerce along his transportation route. According to biographer Stewart Holbrook, writing in James J. Hill, Hill stated: "Population without the prairie is a mob, and the prairie without population is a desert."

By 1892, the Flathead Valley to the west of Glacier had already experienced some agricultural development and substantial settlement. The railroad provided the Flathead with a means of communication with the rest of the country and transportation of their produce to markets. The country lying to the east of the Flathead had very few settlers and practically no "development" in any sense. The railroad immediately brought some centers of activity. McCarthysville, a camp town established during the railroad construction activity and located just west of the Marias summit, boasted of being the "toughest town in Montana." But the toughest town soon became a ghost town as the construction crews moved west.

early settlers
(Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

Encouraged by permanent communication with the outside world, the first settlers began to drift into this virgin wilderness. The temporary stopping points of the railroad became transitory centers of population and activity, and only their names remain today. Java, Red Eagle, Blacktail, and Nimrod provide a few examples. Belton was one of the temporary stops during railroad construction. Named for the camp cook, Andrew Belton, and marked by an old boxcar, this railroad site became a regular stop for the trains during the 1890s. (While the railroad retained the name Belton Station, the Post Office was changed to West Glacier in 1949). The first settlers in the region followed the Great Northern tote roads into this country or came via the railroad, first to visit and later to establish homesteads, and Belton became their starting point for their northward journey and their crossing of the Middle Fork.

early settlers
Early settlers needed to exploit the natural wealth of the area in order to prosper. Meadows became fields; trees were cut for cabins; venison took the place of beef; trapping and fishing became essential; but economic success for homesteaders was not easily obtained. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

In 1892 and 1893, the first permanent families reached Lake McDonald, established their homesites, and built their first cabins. Charlie Howe (or Howes), Milo Apgar, and Frank Geduhn, all built homes at the foot of the lake. Geduhn later moved to the head of the lake near McDonald Creek where he was joined within a few years by Denny Comeau, George Snyder, and Frank Kelly, among others. These men homesteaded on land that was impossible to farm, and they had to be enterprising in order to remain there. Hunting and trapping in the area was no problem, so most of these men kept trap lines on a regular basis. Frank Kelly obtained jobs in the Flathead Valley in order to keep his homestead. Milo Apgar and Charlie Howe began to cater to the visitors who occasionally got off the train at Belton and wanted to see Lake McDonald. Mrs. Apgar began to furnish meals. All of these homesteaders saw the possibility of catering to tourists and the local miners for a potential livelihood, since several parties of visitors arrived in 1894 and the mines were "showing up fine" in 1895.

According to Dr. Lyman B. Sperry, the general passenger agent of the Great Northern Railway, F. I. Whitney, approached him to travel on the newly completed railroad and "make such observations as you shall find practicable regarding our scenic attractions." Whitney then instructed Sperry: "If you can make it convenient, please stop off at Belton Station . . . and go over to Lake McDonald . . . and see if you can find evidence of living glaciers in that region." Whitney concluded: "It is reported that there are interesting glaciers in the Montana Rockies, between our road and the International Boundary line. If any of them are of sufficient size, or of such striking features as to be of interest to the public, and near enough to our line to be made accessible, we would like to know it, and arrange to bring them to the attention of travelers." Whitney was furthering the Hill concept of expanding the Great Northern company by developing adjacent regions, and tourism, even though it was merely an idea in 1893, certainly was a logical consideration.

Thus, in 1894, Dr. Sperry disembarked from the Great Northern at Belton and was conducted to Lake McDonald by Charlie Howe, where he met Apgar and Geduhn. Sperry inquired about the presence of glaciers in the region and Howe replied: "I do not know of any; but, if desirable, they can be obtained—for a man can find anything he wants in this region." Sperry spent the evening with Charlie Howe and his "lonely wife," observed that Howe "was more interested in fish and game and furs—and the cash they would bring" than he was in "geology and scenery."

hotel guests
During the 1800s, the nearby railroad brought visitors to the Lake McDonald area. The "Glacier Hotel" and a number of guest cabins were built to provide accommodations at the head of the lake. Since Lake McDonald freezes only once in four or five winters, the early builders were fortunate in transporting material across it by sled. The Glacier Hotel became a center of activity during the summer months and the starting point for ventures into the back country. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

The next day Howe rowed Sperry around Lake McDonald and, after a cursory investigation, Sperry noted: "I detected faint indications of glacial action; but in McDonald Creek, at the head of the lake, there was abundant evidence of living glaciers, not far away." After he "carefully described" what a glacier looked like, Sperry hired Howe to climb some nearby mountains and look around. A few days later, while Sperry was in Great Falls, Howe wrote a letter reporting that he had climbed Mt. Brown and had some good indications that a glacier had been located (later this "indication" was named Sperry Glacier). The following year Sperry returned, bringing a Great Northern photographer, as well as several other interested individuals, and began to travel to such areas as Avalanche Basin and Granite Park. Sperry would return many times and did much to publicize those areas of Glacier. Tourism had begun.

Within a couple of years both Frank Geduhn and George Snyder began to provide housing for visitors, with Geduhn building some cabins and Snyder building the "Glacier Hotel." By 1898, according to early visitor L. O. Vaught, visitors could get off the train at Belton and go to a new store-saloon built by Ed Dow. Since the train stopped at 4:30 in the morning, however, the store was not open and the Vaught party of fourteen had to build a fire along the tracks to keep from freezing. After crossing the Middle Fork and walking to the foot of Lake McDonald, they were able to secure transportation up the lake on George Snyder's new steamer, the F. I. Whitney. The Vaught party from Illinois then established a camp, named for their hometown "Jacksonville," on the present site of Sprague Creek campground. At that time, Denny Comeau and another settler, Ernest Christensen, began providing horse trips toward Avalanche Lake, to the Camas Valley, and as far north as the Fifty Mountain region. Trail construction progressed rapidly as the miners used the McDonald and Mineral Creek route, as the local forest ranger at Belton had time for building, and as Dr. Sperry encouraged local settlers and the government to open the region.

Sperry was not alone in encouraging development around Lake McDonald. Walter Raymond, founder of Raymond and Whitcomb's Tours, reported to F. I. Whitney that the scenery and attractions around Lake McDonald were just as fine as any along the Canadian Pacific line and it would certainly attract tourists if the area were made accessible. Raymond encouraged the Great Northern to develop the road between Belton and Apgar's, saying, "it ought to be as good as any road in the Yellowstone Park that the government has built." Raymond added: "I would also suggest having some good systematic trails made from Snyder's to the various glaciers, lakes and other points of interest within a radius of twenty-five miles from there." But conditions in the Lake McDonald vicinity regarding limited visitation and the accommodations provided by the settlers remained relatively stable until the park was formed in 1910.

One brief incident, possibly a legend, revealed the relationship between developing tourism at Lake McDonald and the creator of the Great Northern. One day James J. Hill, while traveling incognito over his line, got off the train at Belton, walked to Apgar, and ordered a meal at Mrs. Apgar's. Upon eating his steak dinner, Hill supposedly complimented Mrs. Apgar on the fine meat and asked where she obtained it. She informed Hill that it came from Kalispell, and he responded that it must have cost a lot to have it shipped up on the railroad. Mrs. Apgar replied that transportation did not cost anything because she knew the baggageman who simply tossed it off the train at Belton. Hill then introduced himself and Mrs. Apgar replied: "Well, I'm damn sorry to meet you." Even though Hill made some notes in his little book, the baggageman continued to deliver the groceries for Mrs. Apgar.

horses and sled
(Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

As tourism stabilized, government attention toward the area was changing. The protection of this mountainous region began as early as 1885 when a bill was introduced to establish a forest reserve in the region. It was not until 1891, however, that Congress authorized the establishment of forest reserves, and that same year the Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve was designated. When the "Ceded Strip" was purchased from the Blackfeet, it also became part of the Forest Reserve and was administered by the Department of the Interior. It was not until the late 1890s that any substantial protection was provided by the government. A forest ranger was stationed at Belton, with a primary responsibility of putting out railroad-caused fires—but as evidenced by a few reports, trail construction was also accomplished. In 1900, Frank Herrig, one of Theodore Roosevelt's "Rough Riders" became a forest ranger in the North Fork area. Wearing his conspicuous badge, carrying his revolver and rifle, accompanied by a huge Russian wolfhound, and riding his horse, Herrig became one of the first Federal officers in that region.

Frank Liebig
Frank Liebig was one of several rangers who patrolled Glacier during its Forest Reserve and National Forest status. After, his appointment in 1902. Liebig cleared trails, fought forest fires, rescued tourists, hunted animals, generally protected the region from misuse, and, following the summer of 1910, turned his charge over, to national park administrators. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

Another ranger, Frank Liebig, arrived in the area in 1900, and was employed by one of the oil companies to survey oil claims. During 1902, German-born Liebig gained his citizenship, quit the oil company job, prospected in the Belly River country, and then received an offer to be the forest ranger working out of Lake McDonald. Liebig accepted the job at $60 per month, agreeing to furnish his own food and horses. He was given the area from Belton to the Canadian border and from the North Fork eastward to the Blackfeet Reservation (the entire area now designated as Glacier National Park). He was told to look for fires, to keep the main trails open, to prevent the stealing of timber, to keep squatters and game violators out, and to turn in his daily reports at the end of each month in order to get paid. Then his supervisor gave him a double-bitted axe, a one-man crosscut saw, and a box of ammunition and told him to "Go to it and good luck."

From 1902 until 1910, when the park was formed, Liebig patrolled the mountains. With rangers Herrig and Frank Geduhn, Liebig chased some "Cree" Indians hunting moose back into Canada. In addition, he fought forest fires, watched sawmill operations in the Swiftcurrent and St. Mary valleys, rescued an ungrateful lady from a crevasse in Sperry Glacier, and during numerous escapades came close to being burned, drowned, and frozen.

As the first decade of the twentieth century closed, the tempo of exploitation appeared to increase. Demands for greater land settlement ultimately were successful when part of the North Fork was opened for settlement. In 1906, twenty-nine claims were filed east of the North Fork River. Some of that land remains in private ownership today. In 1908, both the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture recommended that the mature timber of the region should be harvested and that waterpower in the area should be developed. Similarly, in 1909, the Great Northern Railway and the Milwaukee Road engaged in a final display of acquisitiveness when word came that the proposed park would permit existing railroad routes to remain in the area. Competing railroad surveys raced northward to beat the deadline, sometimes using each other's markers, in order to guarantee future exploitation.

While the attitudes of many individuals later would change, the period from 1865 to 1910 was frequently one of exploitation. Miners exemplified the crass search for quick wealth but their numerous "discoveries" proved fruitless. The Great Northern's interest became the economic development of its adjacent territory to secure a seemingly monopolistic grip upon commercial and transportation interests. In the period prior to 1910, Great Northern development in the region amounted to little more than the train tracks. That would change radically after the park was formed. Visitors like Grinnell, Stimson, or the Barings exploited the recreational activity of hunting game animals in the area. Certainly they became enthusiastic about the scenery and Grinnell, especially, became enchanted with the preservation possibilities, but that was a slowly developing idea. Even Dr. Sperry, who was an avid publicist for the region, hoped to acquire land for himself in one of the most scenic locations. He wrote to Frank Geduhn in 1895 to "locate two of the most desirable fronts on Avalanche Lake" and just in case anything might happen, to "take a third claim in your own name so that . . . the most desirable location may be available." Possibly only the most idealistic visitors, like L. O. Vaught, refused the opportunity to "own" part of that country. The settlers themselves, like Apgar, Howe, Kelly, and numerous others along the North Fork and in the old mining areas lived off the land. They extracted its fur, fish, and timber for their personal use. Most significantly, they extracted a profit from the scenic attractions surrounding their land. Many times that profit was not considerable as Frank Geduhn wrote in 1896: "I have been here six years, working up trade with summer tourists, when there were any; trapping for marten and other furs in the winter. It has been a continual fight for a bare existence; but loving these romantic surroundings and hoping for better times. I keep battling on." Private ownership and the many attempts to exploit the region made others realize that these mountains needed greater protection from the Federal Government.

park visitors
By 1910 the function of Glacier was changing from an openly exploited region to an area recognized for its scenic value, recreational possibilities, and other less extractive uses. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)


Man in Glacier
©1976, Glacier Natural History Association
buchholtz/chap3b.htm — 28-Feb-2006

Copyright © 1976 Glacier Natural History Association. All rights reserved. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and publisher.