There was a deep and profound sense of sadness among the Glacier Park hiking and historic community Friday at the loss of Sperry Chalet to the Sprague Fire.
“I’m totally numb,” said author Beth Dunagan.
Dunagan had one of the most unique childhoods in Montana — she worked at the chalet for her aunt Kay and uncle Ross Luding in the 1950s for more than a decade. The Luding family took over operations of the ailing chalets that year and, save for a few years when the chalets were closed by the Park Service, the family has been running them ever since under the company name of Belton Chalets.
A few years ago Dunagan wrote a book on her experiences, “Welcome to Sperry Chalet.”
Now they’re just memories.
“It’s not just our family (mourning the loss), it’s all the families over the years that have grown to love it,” she said. “There’s a legacy of people across the U.S.”
When Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow first heard of the loss, he said it was “sad and disheartening. So many staff here were heartbroken.”
The chalet brought home and comfort to the wilderness of Glacier, Ray Djuff noted. Djuff is a noted Park historian and author of “View with a Room,” which chronicles the history of Glacier’s famed lodges.
“This is a significant loss to Park history,” he said.
The lodge staff cooked fantastic meals, and you didn’t have to be a guest to eat there or come into the dining hall and warm your cold, tired bones by the fire.
“It was a refuge in the wilderness,” Djuff said.
Completed in 1913 and opened in 1914 by the Great Northern Railway, the chalet was designed by Kirtland Cutter, the same architect who designed the Lake McDonald Lodge and Granite Park Chalet.
A National Historic Landmark, the rustic building, built of native rock quarried from the nearby mountains, had survived countless other challenges over its 103-year history, including an avalanche that went through several of its windows in the winter of 2011 and damaged its roof.
When Djuff learned the main dormitory had burned down, he was “at a loss of words.”
For Dunagan, it was the place where her fondest memories were made.
“It was like the bedrock of my life had disappeared,” she said. “It was more than a building. It’s the home where our hearts were.”
There was also a glimmer of hope that perhaps it could be rebuilt, if the stone structure is not too heavily damaged by fire. The dining hall and other infrastructure is still intact, including a backcountry bathroom the Park Service spent $1 million on back in the late 1990s.
“It’s a part of history that’s partially disappeared,” Djuff said. “Let’s hope there’s a future.”
“We are grateful for the efforts made by the National Park Service and the exceptional team of firefighters. Unfortunately this fire could not be contained,” Belton Chalets said on its website.
There was also an outpouring of grief on social media when the word hit the Internet. Most folks recalled staying there or hiking to the chalet, which is 3,300 feet up and 6.5 miles from the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the trailhead near Lake McDonald Lodge.
The hike is forever changed as well. Once a steep hike in the woods, it promises to be a hot hike in the coming years, as the fire has also consumed miles of the forest along the Gunsight Pass Trail, which leads to the chalet.
The Glacier National Park Conservancy has already stepped up and said it’s willing to help in any way it can.
“All of us at the Glacier National Park Conservancy are heartbroken by the loss of the historic Sperry Chalet. While it’s too early to predict what the needs may be, join us now so that we can call on your support when the time comes,” the Conservancy said . The Conservancy is taking emails from people interested. The direct link to sign up is: https://glacier.org/support-sperry-chalet/