A little bird watches as Lake McDonald Lodge gets a makeover

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On a frigid afternoon last week as a light snow fell, Cornelius Jirod was busy carefully cutting out an old log support from the famed Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park.

A white-breasted nuthatch watched as the saw cut into the wood, hopeful that a grub or other insect would be dislodged. The bird has been the crew’s companion all winter, Jirod noted.

Since January, contractor Meadowlark Log Homes of Libby has been painstakingly replacing all the exterior beams and supports of the lodge, part of an ongoing effort to remodel the 100-plus-year-old structure.

To date, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the concessionaire for Glacier’s main lodges, has invested about $3 million into the lodge and surrounding buildings, said Glacier Park Lodges general manager Marc Ducharme. Glacier Park Lodges is the division that oversees Xanterra’s operations in Glacier.

The Park Service hasn’t been paying for the work — Xanterra pays as part of its concession contract.

The cedar beams are unique in that the bark is left on them. It took awhile to source the logs, noted brothers Elvie and Joas Miller of Meadowlark. Not only did they have to match the existing beams, they had to be harvested in the late fall, so the sap was out of the tree, which would make the bark tight. The Millers finally found a supplier in Northern Idaho.

Normally, you’d never build a structure and leave the bark on, the Elvie noted, because bark attracts moisture and insects.

Leaving the bark on the cedar beams was likely decorative of the time period and now that it’s an historic landmark, the bark had to stay.

The lodge wasn’t the first building on the site. George Snyder built a hotel there in 1895 and it was later bought by Olive and John E. Lewis of Columbia Falls in 1906. Lewis was also part-owner of the Gaylord Hotel in Columbia Falls. The Lewises were in competition with lodges being built by the Great Northern railroad, so in 1913 they tore down the original Snyder Hotel and work was started on the Lake McDonald Lodge.

On June 14, 1914 the lodge opened to visitors. Getting there wasn’t as simple as it is today. There was no Going-to-the-Sun Road, just a horse trail to the site, so nearly everyone came by steamboat up Lake McDonald from Apgar, which is why the back of the Hotel looks like it should be the front — at one point, it was the front of the hotel.

Lewis wanted his hotel to “be something worthy of the Park.”

It was designed by architectural firm of Kirtland, Cutter and Malgram of Spokane, Washington and patterned after a Swiss Chalet.

The hotel has been modified over the years. In 1935 the loop road for dropping off guests was constructed. In 1964 the kitchen and dining room were remodeled after they were damaged in the flood of 1964. It was initially called the Lewis Hotel and officially called the Lake McDonald Lodge in 1957. In 1930, the Glacier Park Hotel Company, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway, acquired the concessions rights to the lodge.

The lodge is owned by the Park Service today and was last renovated in 1988-89.

The lodge was built in a little over a year and today, is far from being plumb. The beams and supports have to be carefully fitted into place, the Millers note — one at a time.

All told, there’s more than 100 of them.

“It’s going very well,” said Marc Blackwell, director of engineering for Glacier Park Lodges. “We’re very pleased with the workmanship and craftsmanship.”

Steven Byrd, concessions management specialist and asset manager for the Park Service keeps track of the work for the Park. He said they’re happy with the way the project is going. Last year the exterior railings were all replaced by the Millers and the interior rooms were gutted, remodeled and refurnished under a separate contract.

This year, Xanterra is also remodeling the Lodge’s kitchen and completely replacing the floors at Jammer Joe’s restaurant across the lawn from the lodge.

Xanterra is also partnering with the Park on the Many Glacier Hotel. In that project, the Park Service and the company are both doing remodeling on the lobby and the South Annex.

“We’re doing a lot of good work on these buildings,” Byrd said.

The beam work on the Lake McDonald Lodge should be done in about six weeks, the Millers said. The Many Glacier Hotel work, save for the some exterior projects, should be done this June.

The Lake McDonald Lodge will see more work next year as well, when the exterior of building is slated to get a fresh coat of paint.

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