Fire-Fueled Finds

By Stephanie Metzler

Light blue lake and mountains are seen through a patch of charred, standing trees.
The Reynolds Creek Fire started on July 21, 2015. It grew and consumed the forest on both sides of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, leaving behind a new landscape and new archeological finds.

NPS/Tim Rains

Driving Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR) has become a must-do summer activity for those touring Glacier National Park, and—though it is freshly repaved and the vehicles are far more comfortable—that driving experience is much the same now as it was for early motorists. Squeezing past oncoming traffic, hugging the wall on turns, and gazing awestruck from the incredible perspective of Logan Pass are things all GTSR travelers have done since its completion in 1933. But the scenery itself is not unchanging.

On July 21, 2015, a fire was spotted in the St. Mary Valley. It grew and spread and became the Reynolds Creek Fire, which burned for several weeks on both sides of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Now the views of the park are spectacular in a different light. Winding through the eastern half of GTSR, drivers pass through charred snags surrounded by low, often sparse vegetation. Never-before-seen glimpses of St. Mary Lake appear. It’s a whole new perspective. And just as those forests once hid these views, they hid other, more personal finds.

Rusted, old pans and utensils, broken plates, and a rusted, metal cheese grater lie in a pile.
Trash from a historic trapper cabin was exposed after the Reynolds Creek Fire burned the surrounding vegetation.

NPS/Melissa Sladek

Fire is one of the most useful natural disturbances for uncovering historic sites and artifacts, especially in a highly vegetated area like Glacier. The Reynolds Fire did not disappoint. Once burned, the forest allowed researchers to see many hidden sites. And yet, if you were to stumble upon one of these locations, it would look more like an old trash pile than a place for archeological study. Brent Rowley and Kyle Langley do not agree. As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Rowley and Langley are seasonal archeologists at Glacier National Park. Following the Reynolds Creek Fire, they explored the newly burned swath. The Baring Creek Cabin, a historic backcountry patrol cabin still used by park staff, was known to have been in the fire’s wake. But previously unknown were a historic trapper cabin and construction camp sites used by road crews during the building of GTSR. These recently discovered locations provide a new glimpse into Glacier’s colorful past.
Small, bright-blue bottle lies on the ground.
Much can be learned about how people lived in the past by looking at the things they used and discarded.

NPS/Melissa Sladek

Piles of debris lie scattered around these sites (broken plates, rusty metal, glass). Time has taken its toll, but also given these discarded objects new value. Langley holds a small glass container that looks to be a medicine bottle. “So this logo here is only from 1915 to 1929... the Illinois Glass Company.” Rowley responds with an “oh, wow” and they discuss how this time frame matches the road construction period. These little pieces of trash are no longer trash at all, but clues to lives lived decades ago.
Archeologist holds an oddly-shaped object that looks like crystallized rock.
An extremely hot fire does not leave much behind. Items like this melted glass from the windows of the Baring Creek Cabin are one of the few things that remain.

NPS/Melissa Sladek

At the remains of the Baring Creek Cabin, Rowley picks up an oddly shaped object that looks like crystallized rock. “So this is what happens in a really hot fire. This is what the windows to the Baring Creek Cabin now look like... It depends on what type of glass it is as to what temperature it melts. This was burned at...maybe even as high as 1800 degrees.” The fact fuel was cached in the cabin may have something to do with that extraordinarily high number. Fire destroys most things—80-year-old wood walls were no match for the blaze—but it leaves non-combustibles like stone, metal, and some glass. Another little object found near the cabin is a glass vial that may have been left by a long-ago visitor. During Glacier’s early days when visitors toured the park on horseback, horse wrangler/tour guides issued the day’s coffee ration in these little tubes.

Shape, size, materials—every piece of information about a site or artifact is important. And nothing is more important than context. Where was this found? Around this cabin structure children’s toys were discovered, telling us families probably lived here. Conversely, the lack of toys or household items at the construction camps points to the fact it was probably only men living there in makeshift barracks.
A crouched young man holds an artifact while another archeologist stands surveying site.
Archeologists are essentially investigators of life. Looking at household items, tools, and structure remains provide them a window into how people lived in the past.

NPS/Melissa Sladek

Think about your home. You probably have tools or toys or other things scattered around your house. How about your trashcan? Scraps there would tell interested investigators a great deal about your diet and habits. If viewed 100 years from now, your trash would tell tales of your daily life. Archeologists are essentially investigators of life. They strive to find all the evidence they can to create as complete a picture as possible. Within the burnt remains of the Reynolds Fire, before new vegetation grows in the nutrient-rich soil and obscures these sites, archeologists get to study and piece together lives from a not too distant Glacier past.

There are no plans to remove the artifacts found in the burn area. They help tell the story of this place. If you happen upon one of these sites, remember the objects aren’t litter that needs to be cleaned up. Nor are they souvenirs to put in your pocket. They are protected park resources, just like the rocks, bears, or buildings. Each artifact and its location on the ground provide information about the people that used this space. If you choose to handle them, please replace them as closely as possible to the way you found them. These resources show human connection to the land. A story that is still unfolding today.

Photos and quotes from July 2016 exploration of burn.

Last updated: November 22, 2017