Anyone who takes a trip to Glacier National Park can tell that it’s a special place, but to the region’s native peoples, the majestic peaks of park are holy. Evidence of human habitation around the park dates back about 10,000 years, but by the time American settlers arrived in the 19th century, the land was primarily used by the Flathead and Blackfeet nations, which lived in the western and eastern sides of the present-day park, respectively.
The Blackfeet in particular held the strong beliefs about the mountains in the park’s southeastern region, which they considered to be the “Backbone of the World.” Chief Mountain and the peaks at Two Medicine were traditional places visited during vision quests, rites of passage in which the celebrant spent a period of days fasting in the wilderness to help determine his place in society.
The first westerners to visit the region were largely trappers that came searching for beaver pelts, followed by homesteaders and miners. Gradually, tourism interest in the region grew, due largely to the efforts of George Bird Grinnell, an explorer and writer who would become the leading advocate for the establishment of a national park there. He wrote of the area’s grandeur, dubbing it “The Crown of the Continent.” Many would heed his call to the wild, coming by rail and horseback to witness its splendor. Glacier National Park was established in 1910.
Investment in infrastructure was key to the growth and development of the park. Starting in the 1890s, the Great Northern Railroad promoted the region in an effort to increase use of its new rail lines servicing this part of Montana. Operating through a subsidiary called the Glacier Park Company, it built numerous lodges and Swiss-style alpine chalets in the park during the 1910s. Three of those chalets are still in operation today, and are listed as National Historic Landmarks.
The Civilian Conservation Corps made significant contributions to the park’s infrastructure as well, building campsites, trails and making much-needed improvements to important roads, including portions of the 51-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road — although that road was not totally paved until 1952.