GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – The unique nature of Lake McDonald Lodge, with its distinctive cedar timbers, wildlife mounts and cozy feel, can be traced back to its origins more than a century ago on land that was not part of Glacier National Park.
One hundred years ago, the lodge was formally opened to visitors and guests by owners John and Olive Lewis.
Unlike the large hotels erected on the east side of the park by the Great Northern Railway, Lake McDonald Lodge was “not a corporate structure,” said Deirdre Shawn, Glacier’s longtime historic curator.
“It reflects their interests and tastes,” Shaw said of the Lewises, who decorated the lodge with wildlife mounts from their personal collection.
“It’s the fact that it is smaller and more intimate. You’re not in the large lobbies” that are found in the Glacier Park Lodge and the Many Glacier Hotel, Shaw said.
“And it certainly reflects the habitat in which it was built,” she said, referring to the surrounding cedar and hemlock forest.
“The thing that’s interesting to a lot of people is that the area around Lake McDonald Lodge has been hosting tourists for a lot longer than 100 years,” said Mark Hufstetler, a professional historian who worked various jobs at the lodge for six years starting in 1978.
During his last two years at the lodge, he was the head bellman, a position that involves giving historic presentations to arriving guests.
According to a paper written by Hufstetler, Lake McDonald’s settlement history stretches back to 1891 when the Great Northern Railway was extended to the Flathead Valley, enabling people to travel from the Belton train station to Lake McDonald.
In 1895, a colorful settler named George Snyder established a two-story framed building at the present site of the lodge. The Snyder Hotel became a destination for visitors who were transported from Apgar to the head of the lake by a steamship owned by Snyder. With the hotel as a centerpiece, other people built cabins nearby, including Frank Kelly, the namesake for the Kelly Camp cluster of structures at the head of the lake.
Snyder ended up selling the hotel and his homestead in 1906 to the Lewises, who then added 11 guest cabins. By 1910, when Glacier National Park was established, there was a growing interest in expanding visitor opportunities around the lake.
“The Park Service recognized the need for adequate visitor services but were concerned with the sometimes haphazard and often poorly delivered services provided by the early entrepreneurs,” Hufstetler’s paper states.
“When visitation in the McDonald Valley topped 5,500 in 1913, however, the government happily welcomed an application from John Lewis to cut timber near his hotel for the construction of a larger facility at that site – the new Lewis Glacier Hotel. Construction started in November of 1913 and the hotel was completed 10 months later.”
For the building’s design, Lewis sought out Kirtland Cutter, a renowned architect from a Spokane firm. Cutter also designed Kalispell’s Conrad Mansion.
The three-story hotel featured steam heat, electric lighting and running water. It had 64 guest rooms and 20 additional rooms in adjacent cabins. Other buildings were constructed to provide housing for employees and necessary operations such as a barbershop building and a laundry building.
“It was an interesting property because all of the other services in the park were operated by the Great Northern Railway, but this one was owned privately and it was on private land,” Hufstetler said. “And Lake McDonald Lodge had a more homey feel to it. It was kind of the Montana place instead of the tourism place.”
Hufstetler said that another interesting feature of the lodge is that its “front entrance” faces the lake, where visitors on boats arrive. By 1921, however, the lower portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road reached the lodge, and there was a surge of visitors arriving by vehicle to the building’s back entrance.
“Lewis did quite well” through the 1920s, Hufstetler said.
However, by the end of the decade, the Roosevelt Highway, now U.S. 2, had been built along the park’s southern boundary. To compete, Lewis figured he needed to invest more in his Lake McDonald properties and he was facing pressure to sell from the Great Northern Railway’s Glacier Park Hotel Co. and the National Park Service.
In 1930, he sold the entire lodge complex, which soon after came under National Park Service ownership and was renamed Lake McDonald Hotel.
After significant refurbishing work was done in 1958, the hotel became known as Lake McDonald Lodge.