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The DeSmet tour boat recalls the days when visitors to Glacier National Park could only reach the Lake McDonald Lodge by water.


COLUMBIA FALLS — Everyone recognizes the fact that history runs deep in Glacier National Park.

They see it in the park’s grand, century-old hotels and the Red Jammers that first began double-clutching on the steep Going-to-the-Sun Road in the 1930s.

But there’s another piece of history that people sometimes miss even though they’re standing right on it.

The tour boats that ply the waters of the park’s larger lakes have a history that stretches back to a time before people depended on automobiles to get from one place to the next.

“Most people get on a boat and think ‘great, it’s a boat ride,’ but they don’t realize that boat they are riding in has been plying the waters for 80 years,” said John Boughton of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office. “That might bring a new twist to it if they knew.”

That recognition is coming.

For the second time in two years, historic boats operated by the Glacier Park Boat Company have been added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Last year, the 1920s-era tour boat originally named the Rising Wolf was added to the national register.

In December, its sisters, the 45-foot-long Little Chief and the 56-foot DeSmet, were accepted.

They were the first boats in Montana to be added to the prestigious historic register.

The 56-foot DeSmet was built in Kalispell and launched on Lake McDonald in 1930. Stored in the winter in a boat house that was constructed that same year, the DeSmet has never left the park.

The Little Chief is four years older than the DeSmet. It was renamed the Sinopah in the 1940s. The boat provides scenic tours and transportation to trails at Two Medicine Lake.

“The Glacier Park Boat Company is doing a fantastic job of getting their historic resources out there for people to see and acknowledge just how important they really are,” Boughton said.

The boats were constructed by a prolific master boat builder named John Swanson.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1883, Swanson’s family moved to Seattle 15 years later. By the time he was 13, he had already built his first boat. One year later, Swanson built a twin-screw, steam logging tug boat and made his first trip to Glacier National Park.

He eventually would move to Kalispell, where he began building boats in earnest. Most were used to haul freight on Flathead Lake. None of the 11 larger boats that he built for Flathead Lake survives.

In 1915, Swanson undertook a two-week journey to move one of his large Flathead Lake boats up the Flathead River and McDonald Creek to Lake McDonald.

James Hackethorn of the Glacier Park Boat Company documented the history of Swanson’s efforts for the national historic register nomination.

Besides the sheer number of boats that Swanson built over his lifetime, Hackethorn said the story of his trip guiding a 60-foot boat up the river and creek was one of his favorites.

“It was an amazing feat,” Hackethorn said. “At one point, he describes how this little skiff that was assisting suddenly sank. So he ties up the big boat and builds another skiff overnight and then they were right back at it.”

After Swanson arrived at Lake McDonald, he added another 10 feet onto the Lewtana.

The remnants of that boat are resting on the bottom of the lake, where it was burned and scuttled after its usefulness for hauling freight was undermined by the completion of the road.

“They just lit it on fire in the lake and it sank,” Hackethorn said. “It’s right near Fish Creek campground. If you know where to look, you can snorkel over. It’s in 10 to 15 feet of water. You can still see the keel.”

The DeSmet was built to replace a number of aging vessels on Lake McDonald.

“It’s really tragic that more information doesn’t survive about Swanson,” Hackethorn said. “There’s just not a lot there… He was someone who deserves that recognition.”

Swanson acquired his own concession in the park in 1920. He operated the Glacier Park Boat Company until he sold it to Arthur Burch and Carl Anderson in 1938.

At the end of the summer tourist season, the boats are removed from their respective waters and carefully maintained using the same techniques that Swanson perfected decades ago.

“We do thousands of hours of work on the boats every season,” Hackethorn said. “It’s difficult because some of the boats never leave the park. The DeSmet has been inside the park since it was first launched almost 90 years ago. It’s out on the water on Lake McDonald in the summer and then in its boathouse in the winter. We do all the maintenance in the park.”

That maintenance includes replacing cedar planks on the boat’s hull, oak ribs or maybe some of the fir on the superstructure.

“A wooden boat is always a work in progress,” Hoackethorn said. “There are definitely a lot of original materials on all of these boats, but it does require a lot of maintenance to keep them floating.”

That work on the Swanson-built boats has been a “labor of love” for three generations of Scott Burch’s family.

“My children will hopefully be the fourth,” he said.

Burch’s Glacier Park Boat Company took the lead in putting together the documentation necessary to have the boats placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I think it was seriously important to do that for the park,” Burch said. “When you think about the history of Glacier National Park, it’s the wonderful old hotels, it’s the Great Northern Railroad, it’s the Red Jammer buses and it should be these old historic boats.''

Unlike trails and roads that have left permanent, physical marks on the park, the boats represent a piece of history that "make waves and they go away,'' he said.

“The boats have been there forever, and there’s no evidence of them,” Burch said. “All the boat houses where the boats reside have been on the historic register for a long time, but the boats themselves haven’t been. People need to know how important and significant they are.”

From an environmental standpoint, Burch said the boats’ impact is small.

“We burn like 25 gallons of fuel a day,” he said. “That’s all we go through to power these big giant boats. A visitor driving up from Kalispell and traveling through the park can burn more fuel in a private vehicle than we do in a day.”

“The old boats are super cool and I’m glad they are finally being recognized as an important piece of Glacier National Park's history,” Burch said.