Early tourists arrived at Belton Station via Great Northern Railway. In the late 1800s, the west entrance to what is now Glacier was shrouded and tree-lined with towering, ancient western red cedars. There was no bridge across the Middle Fork until 1897. Guests were rowed across the river. It was not until about 1895 that a rugged dirt road connected the river to the foot of Lake McDonald. From there, guests would board George Snyder's steamboat for the trip up the lake to the Snyder Hotel. It took most of the day to reach the hotel, if all the equipment ran smoothly. After a night at the hotel, visitors could ride horseback into the mountains.
The first buildings here were homesteads, but the early trappers, loggers, and miners quickly realized the opportunities of tourism. By 1892, settlers Milo Apgar and Charlie Howe were offering rental cabins, meals, pack horses, guided tours, and boat trips for visitors who arrived in Belton on the Great Northern Railway. Frank Geduhn offered cabins and services at the head of the lake.
Settlement in the surrounding area predates the park's establishment in 1910. Land was quickly patented and much of it is still privately owned today. The National Park Service purchases this land as it becomes available and sellers are willing.
A big fire in 1929 swept through the Apgar area, burning the dense forest and some buildings. Apgar's appearance changed, but its spirit and function remained the same, which was a port of entry for trips into the roadless wilderness.
The Kootenai Indian name for the lake translates as "Sacred Dancing" and is believed to refer to ceremonies the Kootenai’s performed at the foot of the lake. It is commonly thought that the present name of Lake McDonald was named after trader Duncan McDonald, who carved his name on a tree nearby in 1878.
In 1895 George Snyder, who also ran the steamboat shuttle, built the two-story frame Snyder Hotel at the head of the lake and ran it for nine years. In 1906 John and Oliver Lewis purchased the Snyder Hotel, moved it back behind the building site and turned it into a general store. They contracted an architectural firm from Spokane, Washington, to design a new hotel "worthy of the park" and historically significant in being an independent enterprise, separate from the developments of the Great Northern Railway.
Lewis Glacier Hotel (Lake McDonald Lodge)
The new lodge was built during the winter of 1913-1914 with locally available materials, native stone and western red cedar. Without any railroad or road service to the building site, building supplies were hauled from Belton to the foot of Lake McDonald and ferried by boat in the summer or skidded ten miles across the lake ice in winter. Luck was with Lewis since Lake McDonald froze solid during the winter of 1913. On the average, it only freezes every four or five years.
Lewis' hotel design was in keeping with the Great Northern's Swiss design of a stone ground floor, wood frame construction and alpine detailing on the shutters and balconies. Although a comparatively small structure of 65 rooms, the lodge is as luxurious as the Great Northern hotels.
The interior of the main hotel was intended to give the impression of a hunting lodge. A totem pole was included in the exterior scene even though local tribes did not use them. Because no roads were built to the lodge until 1921, its front faces the lakeshore to greet guests who arrived by boat from Apgar landing. For some, this hotel was the final destination, while others rode horseback into the backcountry.
In 1929 Going-to-the-Sun Road opened to Logan Pass from the west. In 1930 Lewis sold his hotel and the surrounding property to the National Park Service, which changed its name to the Lake McDonald Hotel and leased it to the Great Northern Railway. After 1961 when Glacier Park, Inc. took over the management of the hotel the name was changed to Lake McDonald Lodge.