The Great Northern Railway

Much of the early history of Waterton-Glacier is the story of the Great Northern Railway. The railway helped promote legislation that established Glacier National Park in 1910. James J. Hill, president of the railroad, not only built a railroad, but he created an empire of towns and ranches along the tracks from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. This route today is still called the Empire Builder.

With the help from his son, Louis, JJ's vision was to make the area the "Playground of the Northwest." The Hills invested a substantial amount of money in the area. A chain of hotels, chalets, boats, roads, and trails were designed and built to attract tourists. The railroad tapped into the market of wealthy Americans who generally took lengthy trips to Europe and lured them to Glacier with the slogan "See America First." Of course, to get to the parks they would ride the railroad. The railroad was the major concessionaire and developer of visitor facilities in Glacier from 1910 until after World War II.

Louis Hill first visited Waterton in 1913, selecting the knoll overlooking the Townsite and Upper Waterton as the spot for a new hotel. The park’s administration was in favor of a grand hotel in Waterton and on February 1, 1926, they granted the newly-formed Canadian Rockies Hotel Co., Ltd., a forty-two-year lease. The Prince of Wales Hotel opened at the end of July in 1927. With the hotel, the Great Northern Railway built a 22-meter (72-foot) passenger launch, the largest in their fleet, to ferry their guests across the upper lake. The MV International was designed and built by Captain “Billy” Swanson at Goat Haunt, Montana.

The hotels and chalets were closed for three seasons during World War II. The hotels recovered from the lack of use and upkeep, but most of the chalets suffered irreparable damage. The only two remaining chalets, Sperry and Granite Park, continued to operate, offering overnight accommodations. However, in 1992 they were closed because of substandard sewage and water systems. In 1997 Granite Park reopened as a hikers' shelter. Sperry reopened in 1999 under full service.

After 1940 the hotels and chalets had not realized a profit and were losing $500,000 per year. Previously, the railroad had offset these losses with profits from its touring cars. But eventually, buses and private automobiles and buses were carrying more visitors to Glacier, undermining the railroad's original interest in the hotels.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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West Glacier, MT 59936



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