Century-Old Chalet Falls Victim to Glacier Park Wildfire

Five firefighters and four helicopters made a ‘valiant’ effort to save historic Sperry Chalet

By Justin Franz

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Photo Courtesy of Glacier National Park

It took more than a year to build. It took less than an hour to destroy.

The 104-year-old Sperry Chalet was lost on Aug. 31 after a wildfire in Glacier National Park doubled in size in just a matter of hours. Five firefighters and four helicopters made what National Park Service officials called a “valiant” effort to save the National Historic Landmark, but in the end those efforts fell short.

According to park officials, the main two-story dormitory has been destroyed, while a number of outbuildings were saved, including the stone kitchen and dining room.

The chalet fell victim to the lightning-caused Sprague Fire that has been tormenting the Lake McDonald Valley since the middle of August. Soon after the fire was discovered, the Sperry Chalet was evacuated and closed for the season. A sprinkler and pump system was set up around the chalet, and for weeks officials said the Sprague Fire didn’t pose an immediate threat to the building.

A portion of the chalet was wrapped with fire-resistant material. Other nearby structures, like the Mount Brown Lookout, were completely wrapped in protective material. Diane Mann-Klager, public information officer for the incident management team at the helm of the fire, said fire managers believed that wrapping the entire stone chalet would have been challenging.

“They felt that the sprinklers were enough,” Mann-Klager said.

At approximately 6:10 p.m. on Thursday, the on-scene firefighters who had been battling the “ember shower” from the approaching fire suddenly noticed puffs of smoke under an eave, fire managers say. The firefighters sprayed the area with water because they thought it was an ember on the roof. Almost instantaneously, the window broke out and flames were licking at the eaves. In a short amount of time, the chalet was engulfed.

On Friday, Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow thanked the firefighters for their “tireless” efforts to save the structure. He noted that the Sperry Chalet was widely loved by park employees and visitors from around the world.

Kevin Warrington, Sperry Chalet manager for concessioner Belton Chalets, Inc., said the loss of the chalet was a tragic day in Glacier Park’s history.

“I have been around Sperry for my entire life and I have never expected to see anything like this,” he said. “It has been a privilege to share Sperry with the great many people that love it.”

Although it is unclear what remains of the chalet dormitory or if the National Park Service will attempt to rebuild it, the Glacier National Park Conservancy pledged Friday to support any future preservation efforts. The group set up a website, www.glacier.org/support-sperry-chalet, to gather emails from people interested in supporting future efforts.

Immediately after Glacier National Park’s creation in 1910, the Great Northern Railway began to build a series of lodges and wilderness chalets to entice people to ride their trains to America’s newest park. The railroad even launched an ad campaign urging wealthy easterners to visit the “American Alps” before venturing overseas for holiday.

Railroad President Louis W. Hill, son of “Empire Builder” James J. Hill, played a major role in selecting where the lodges and chalets would go. Throughout the 1910s, Hill took on an almost-obsessive role in Glacier’s development — even selecting what type of soap was stocked at the Many Glacier Hotel — and at one point said, “The work is so important that I am loath to entrust the development to anybody but myself. For that reason, I shall give a major part of my time to the park.”

In 1911, the Great Northern established a tent camp just below the Sperry Glacier, named after Lyman Sperry, a geology professor from Minnesota who first reached it in 1896. The following year, the railroad hired a group of Italian stonemasons to build a 22-by-80-foot kitchen and dining hall at the site utilizing local rocks. The kitchen opened in time for the 1913 season.

With the kitchen open, builders turned their attention to constructing a two-story dormitory that would become the heart of the Sperry Chalet complex. Kirkland Cutter, a well-known Pacific Northwest architect who crafted the Lake McDonald Lodge and the Conrad Mansion in Kalispell, designed the building. The 32-by-90 chalet was capable of hosting 152 guests. It opened in 1914.

Visitors would often stay at the Sperry Chalet as part of weeklong horseback tours of Glacier that commonly started at East Glacier Park. The wilderness chalets — including ones at Two Medicine, Cut Bank, St. Mary, Going-to-the-Sun, and Granite Park — were strategically placed to be a day’s ride apart. Upon arriving, weary guests could get a warm meal and a clean bed, welcomed accommodations in the middle of the wilderness. Meals were often elaborate affairs, and some guests recall feasting on massive roasted turkeys prepared right there at the chalet.

“The chalets were a welcome respite for backcountry travelers and offered incredible service in the middle of nowhere,” said Ray Djuff, an historian and author of the book “View with a Room.”

The creation of Going-to-the-Sun Road, along with the Great Depression, radically changed Glacier National Park. Fewer and fewer people were venturing into the backcountry and the railroad started to close and demolish the wilderness chalets. By the 1950s, only the Sperry and Granite Park chalets survived inside Glacier Park. The railroad, looking to get out of the hotel and concessions business, stopped serving food at the chalet in 1953. The following year, it sold the Sperry Chalet to the National Park Service for $1.

The Park Service hired Ross and Kathleen Luding to manage the surviving chalets. Since the 1950s, both chalets have continued to host legions of backcountry travelers. In the 1990s, as decades of deferred maintenance took their toll, Sperry and Granite Park were temporarily closed and restored at a cost of more than $3 million.

A century after it was built, the Sperry Chalet continued to welcome hikers with warm food and a place to lay their head. Sperry’s accommodations were so popular that rooms would frequently sell out months in advance. Granite Park is the only remaining wilderness chalet of the original six, not counting Belton, inside Glacier Park.

“I’m stunned (it’s gone),” said Djuff just hours after the chalet burned. “But we have to count our blessings that we had the Sperry Chalet for so long.”