WEST GLACIER, Mont. - The first director of the National Park Service, Stephen T. Mather, saw the Going-to-the-Sun road as a way to hold Glacier National Park together. Mather proposed building the road in the early 1920s to lure a "great flow of tourist gold" to remote northern Montana, and to convince miners and loggers that the park's beauty was more precious than its minerals and timber.
Mather didn't want just any
old road in his park. He wanted to blend it with the landscape,
"with the least marring of native beauty."
engineering feat remarkable for its time, the National Park Service
worked for eight years with the Bureau of Public Roads to hang a
road across the glacier-carved walls of Haystack Butte and the
Garden Wall and through 6,646-foot Logan Pass. Workers faced sheer
cliffs and 60-foot snowdrifts. They bored through solid rock and
laid thousands of cubic yards of masonry guardrails and arched
bridges. Three men died during construction.
road was officially opened to traffic in 1933, and named after
nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, said to bear the image of a deity
who taught the Blackfeet Indians how to
Going-to-the-Sun Road helped to forever wed
national parks with the automobile. Today, 65 years after the road
opened, more than 600,000 vehicles follow the narrow, winding track
each summer, stopping for photo shoots of wildflowers and lolling
Each spring, the Park Service
blasts through snowdrifts with dynamite and snowplows to get the
road open. Business people in surrounding towns eagerly anticipate
the first car over Logan Pass, marking the symbolic opening of the
summer tourist season.
But the 10-mile alpine
stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road is going to the dogs. The upper
stretches of the only road designated a National Historic Monument
need a major overhaul and locals fear their "flow of tourist gold"
will be cut off.
Casual motorists driving up to Logan Pass
probably don't see the extreme damage. They may notice a few frost
heaves, cracks in the hot top, and places where the original stone
guardwalls have been replaced by concrete "Jersey"
But water seeping from the
mountainsides and tumbling streams and avalanches have taken their
toll, says Glacier landscape architect Bob Dunkley. The park's
roads budget hasn't kept pace with the damage, he says, and
officials worry that portions of the road could wash out completely
before repair crews get to them.
As a part of the
park's General Management Plan, due out this summer, officials have
proposed several different solutions (HCN, 9/30/96). One plan would
close the road for four to six years and spend $70 million to fix
it all at once. Another plan calls for partial road closures for 10
years, including shutting it down after Labor Day and during the
night. Work would be restricted to one side of the road at a time,
allowing traffic to and from Logan Pass on the opposite
Any talk of closing the road for an
extended period of time brings vehement protests from local
"They might as well close down
every business here," says Wayne Mackie, owner of Rawhide Trading
Post a few miles west of the park entrance. "It would not only be
devastating to the economy around the park, but also to nearby
towns." Economic models show that tourism generates about $160
million and 2,400 jobs in Glacier each year, mostly during the four
or five months the road is open.
A 1997 survey
showed that 62 percent of park visitors would still visit the park
if the road were completely off limits. About 80 percent said they
would visit if they had one-way access to Logan Pass. But most
locals don't trust the numbers.
says Don Demoret, owner of the Montana Fur Trading Company. Demoret
wants to see the work completed quickly, even if it means
modernizing the road. "It's not worth trying to save historic
aspects if they have to close the road for five years. They need to
do what needs to be done without closing that road."
"We all know the road needs the work," says
Chris Drake, manager of the Tamarack Lodge. "But to modernize it
would take away from the park. People don't come here to see metal
guard rails. You can see cement retaining walls anywhere."
The park's Bob Dunkley agrees. "Driving
Going-to-the-Sun is an historic experience," he says. "The look of
the road is very important. This is not just a way to get across
the pass." Dunkley and other officials want to preserve the
historic integrity of the original stonework on 117 retaining walls
that are capped by 40,000 feet of crenelated stone
John Kilpatrick, Glacier's chief of
facilities management, sympathizes with business owners. "It's easy
for engineers to focus on the fix and not take in other
ramifications," he says. "These people provide necessary services
that the park can't, or can't do well."
A third option under the General
Management Plan would allow the Park Service to stretch the repairs
out over 50 years, a piecemeal approach engineers estimate would
cost $196 million to $210 million. But Mother Nature may not give
them the time, says Kilpatrick. "Whenever you drag out a project
like this you leave yourself open to catastrophic problems."
In 1995, the park got a good look at what's in
store for construction crews when workers began rebuilding the
parking lot at Logan Pass, and a three-quarter-mile stretch of
road. Officials thought the visitors center would be closed for
only one season; instead it was closed for two. The entire project
took three years to complete and cost $4
"All the work becomes weather related,"
Dunkley said. "It's a whole different world up there, with frequent
low visibility, rain and wind. Even within the Park Service, it's
hard to convince people in Washington, D.C., that these are the
conditions we have to work under."
will have a chance to comment on the alternatives later this summer
when the park releases its General Management Plan. For details,
call Glacier National Park at 406/888-7800.
freelances from Missoula,