In 1926, pack horses burdened with 80 boxes of dynamite and 500 barrels of black powder struggled over 25 miles of glacier terrain to the interior of Glacier National Park. Waiting for them at the high end were construction workers with ropes and drills. The men wore wool socks over their boots to avoid striking a spark from the explosives in hand. For hours, holes were drilled into ancient rock to be packed with TNT while detonating wire was run up the rock wall.
McDonald Creek Valley lay 1000 feet below the workers. As the charge was set off, 10,000 cubic yards of shattered rock exploded into the valley, filling the sky with dust. After the dust cleared, members of the construction crew were dazzled by a breathtaking view unlike any other. Before them stood a dozen white glaciers packed in rugged pockets of the Lewis Mountains that stood endlessly into the horizon. At the time, construction of the Sun Road was halfway into a 13-yr, 2.25-million-dollar project.
Observing ice masses so large as to flow under their own weight is good enough reason to visit Glacier National Park, especially given their days are numbered. Ironically, the 26 remaining glaciers within the park are not easy to see because they tend to be tucked away in the mountains out of view. But that’s OK because what really brings people to Glacier National Park is the jaw-dropping scenery that was created by those glaciers and what makes “The Crown of the Continent” stand out among national parks. For most visitors, the views of glacier-carved craggy peaks that frame a U-shaped valley or reflect boldly on a clear glacier lake are seen by way of a transmountain highway. And it is this highway, known as the Going-to-the-Sun Road that draws our attention and demands our highest adoration for this national park, as well as for all others that followed in its scenic road-building footsteps.
Aside from seeing a grizzly bear, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is likely the most anticipated experience for thrill-seeking visitors to Glacier. And for some, driving on it may be as feared as seeing a grizzly. When Glacier National Park was established in 1910, there were two obstacles for park planners – bringing people to Glacier and the greater of the two, moving them through Glacier. At the time, an east and west side of Glacier existed, but no automobile road connected the two through the park.
The idea of building a road through Glacier National Park was popular at the time as the era of automobile touring and national park visitations had begun. Several ideas for a road were brought forth but the only one that never dropped from the original plans was for a road along Lake McDonald, up and over Logan Pass (elevation 6,646 ft), and back down into St Mary Valley. By 1920, road construction on the west side allowed better access to Lake McDonald and on the east side access to St Mary Lake. By 1922, the Transmountain Highway (before given its current name) had reached an end, practically speaking. Continuing it was an unprecedented and monumental feat.
The first director of the NPS, Stephen T Mather was hired to help give the underfunded park system a boost. Automobiles were being manufactured at high rates and in 1916, 335,000 people visited the 11 parks that existed at the time. Mather took the idea of a transmountain highway and ran with it. He hired engineer Frank Kittredge who led a survey team into Glacier in 1924. He started with a ragtag team of surveyors and was later quoted as saying “There were really three crews; one coming, one working, and one going.” Every day, someone quit as the team bushwhacked brush, skirted narrow ledges, crossed paths with grizzlies and endured blizzards. Kittredge came out of the survey and presented his proposal for “a road so marvelously engineered as to be an attraction in itself.” A new route was established, and funds and efforts began on the 12 ½ mile stretch from McDonald Creek (west side) and over Logan Pass.
Glacier National Park has explicit restrictions for driving the 52-mile Going-to-the Sun Road including vehicles longer than 21 ft (including bumpers) and wider than 8 ft (including mirrors). Consequently, Vivian and I were not keen on taking our 21-ft long, 8-ft wide truck up and over the hairpin turns of Logan Pass. With campground reservations in East Glacier, we were saddened to think we would miss out on West Glacier. Acquiring a shuttle reservation had to be done online at specified time periods and the chances of that were looking dim. Rather than taking the chance of missing the road experience, we signed up for a tour led by a Blackfeet company. The tour bus met us at the Saint Mary Visitor Center, took us up to to Logan Pass and then tracked back to the Visitor Center. Our tour itinerary meant that the infamous westside 12 ½ mile stretch from McDonald Creek to Logan Pass would elude us.
On October 20, 1928, the western leg of the Transmountain Highway finally reached Logan Pass. Bears, gravity, and dynamite were each a concern during the construction of the road, but the latter two posed the more immediate threat. To help compensate for dangerous work and weather conditions, meals for the workers were abundant and gourmet. While the highly valued cooks did a superb job keeping the hungry bears at bay, the Sun Road claimed one life during those three seasons of construction (Charles Rudberg fell 60 ft after losing his grip on a rope one mile above The Loop). The dangerous work conditions created a whopping 300% turnover in workforce during the first three months alone. The road was open to car traffic on June 15, 1929, followed by a 46% increase in auto visitation to the park.
While waiting for our tour bus at the visitor center, we learned that scoring a shuttle bus seat was not as difficult as the online system led you to believe. Local knowledge given to us prompted our return to the visitor center the next day where we boarded the shuttle. After transferring to another shuttle at Logan Pass, we continued all the way west to Apgar Visitor Center. The ride was spectacular. From the large bus window, there appeared to be no ground between us and the valley floor as the bus driver skillfully negotiated the narrow space between sheer rock cliffs or drop offs on one side and a passing vehicle on the other.
Two years after the 12 ½ mile western route was completed, the eastside construction began, and the name Transmountain Highway gave way to “Going-to-the-Sun Road”. There, 60-ton capacity pontoons lashed together were used to bring in power shovels and other gear to the head of St Mary Lake. The most challenging section of the east side would be the 408-ft tunnel, 2 miles below Logan Pass. Engineer in charge, A.V. Emery, expected a man in good physical condition to carry a 50-lb box of dynamite down the trail and ladder in 30 minutes. According to one worker, “On several occasions men stood at the top of the cliff, looked down the ladder, and turned in their resignations.”
During the final summer of work in 1932, two more workers tragically lost their lives. By the time snow began covering the project in the fall of 1932, the road was almost completed. With just a few touch ups needed in the spring, the road was scheduled to open in the summer of 1933. Come June, the road crews began clearing the west side. On the east side, the road was buried with 80 feet of snow. Tractors and dozers cleared it out and by July 7 it was ready. The opening ceremony for the Going-to-the-Sun Road on July 15 was observed by 4,000 visitors that streamed into Logan Pass from both directions. That year, over 20,000 vehicles entered the park. Between 1938 and 1952, crews paved the gravel road and currently, it accommodates more than 3 million visitors annually.
Indeed, “…a road so marvelously engineered as to be an attraction in itself.” Think about the Going-to-the-Sun Road as you read the following quote from Stephen T Mather, national park director 1917-29: “Who will gainsay (deny) that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness… He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.”
Enjoy this slideshow of more photos from our hike along Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park.