Saturday, June 27, 2009

What If?

Yesterday's entry took us halfway up the Going-to-the-Sun Road where road repairs halted our trip to St. Mary at the eastern entrance; today will cover the return trip to West Glacier.

While you look at pictures from a portion of the road through the center of Glacier NP, I would like to pass along a story about how a cloudy day and budgetary matters changed the history--and possibly even the existence--of Glacier.

Marias Pass at the southern border of what is now Glacier NP was at the center of searches for hunting, trading, and railroad routes through the mountains in the 1800s.

The eastern prairies of Montana and Alberta were home to great herds of American bison, a primary food source for the Blackfeet Indians.

The Blackfeet people of the northern plains dominated "The Backbone of the World"
long before any European explorer confronted the area now known as the Rocky Mountains. The Blackfeet were aggressive and protected their east-slope buffalo hunting grounds from incursion by the western tribes of the Kalispell and Kootenai and tribes from the south such as the Crow, Sioux and Assiniboine. Fur traders traveling through Marias Pass were attacked to prevent the route from becoming known to all.

Lewis and Clark's famous expedition across the American West took them very near the area that is now Glacier in 1806. Captain Meriwether Lewis took three men with him to find the headwaters of the Marias River on the east side of the Rockies, but the weather was overcast, and they had little idea of what lay around them. The clouds blocked their view of Marias Pass, which, had they found it, probably would have simplified their journey over the mountains.

When the Washington Territory was formed in 1853 and Isaac I. Stevens was appointed governor of this new territory, the first job assigned to him was to make a survey of possible railroad routes into the northwest, along the northern border of the country. James Doty led an expedition the following year and looked into a low pass through the mountains. Ordered back to Fort Benton, he was unable to complete the survey.

Plans to return and continue the survey the following year were cancelled by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, who felt enough money had been wasted on the long search for a pass through the mountains.

It wasn't until 1889 that an explorer for the Great Northern Railway named John F. Stevens finally figured out where the vital Marias Pass lay. Marias was important because it is the lowest mountain pass between Canada and Mexico, so its low altitude and easy grade made it perfect for trains to cross the Continental Divide.

The railroad line crossed the mountains in 1891. However, by this time, the last bison in the area had been killed, a smallpox epidemic had devastated the tribe, and starvation was rampant among the remaining Blackfeet.

James Willard Schultz, an American who had long traveled with them and had become a full member of one band, decided to help his friends. He wrote to George Bird Grinnell, the influential editor of Forest and Stream magazine. Through his magazine and his powerful government friends, Grinnell helped increase government aid to the Blackfeet.

Grinnell was introduced to the area by Schultz and he declared it, "The Crown of the Continent." Visiting many times between 1880 and 1900, he initiated the movement to declare the area a national park. Grinnell is celebrated today as the "Father of Glacier National Park."

Next year, the Glacier Park will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

By then, the road repairs should be completed. This pod, dangling over a cliff with a drop of hundreds of feet, seemed to be the perfect location from which to work on patching the reinforced wall.

Fortunately, the repairs will benefit visitors to one of the gems of the national park system--the Glacier portion of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

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