Flathead historian Kevin McCready has spent 14 years digging through historic newspaper articles, conducting interviews and sifting through old family photo albums.
His hours of research have resulted in a digital archive of local history containing more than 69,000 items that he expects to soon make available to the public so others may learn and do their own research.
“The point of the whole project was to make it as accessible as possible,” he said. “I didn’t want to write a book, the research is what I like.”
McCready, a Whitefish native, began his research project after retiring from a career in information technology and telecommunications, and he began searching for information about the history of the Great Northern Railway in Whitefish. His initial curiosity soon grew to include all aspects of the history of the original Flathead County, with the Great Northern Railway being the primary focus.
“I’ve always had an interest in history and my dad was a railroader so those two things came together,” McCready said. “My mother always said I should study history, but I never took her seriously and then I didn’t have the time to think about it until I retired.”
McCready says the time has come to wrap up the project so others can enjoy it, but he is also fairly close the exhausting local resources for his research, though he’s already been surprised by “incredible pieces of history that turn up in a box in an attic.”
The digital archive contains items including legacy newspaper articles, ads, interviews, other audio recordings, images and photos. The archive follows the history of the area centered around the railroad from roughly 1890 to 1970, though it does include more modern sources that reference that time period.
McCready’s collection also includes dozens of railroad and Glacier National Park books, more than 400 Great Northern Railway Historical Society reference sheets, railroad rule books, blueprints, other printed material, along with contemporary and historic photos and videos. Most of the print collection has already been donated to the Whitefish Community Library.
The remainder of the print collection and a copy of the entire digital archive will be donated to the Whitefish Community Library late this year or early in 2018. The Museum at Central School in Kalispell, and the Stumptown Historical Society in Whitefish, will each receive a condensed copy of the digital archive.
McCready is donating the entirety of the work in the names of his children, Michael and Dana.
The archive is set up in a webpage format so that it is fully searchable, includes an index and links to digital clips of source materials, McCready says with the idea that the information is “put together all in one place.”
While McCready initially wanted to keep the history project focused on the railroad, he found that nearly impossible as he sifted through materials for his research — much of which was done with historic copies of the Whitefish Pilot, Hungry Horse News and Daily Inter Lake.
“The railroad really touched every aspect of life,” he said. “It connected all material of life in those early days.”
His focus soon expanded to include Glacier National Park, logging, industry, and the Good Roads Movement, a national political movement in the late 1870s and the 1920s that McCready says ultimately lead to the demise of passenger rail service.
He admits that the project doubled beyond his initial scope, and at times it could feel a bit overwhelming, but the hunt for information kept him going.
“It could be boring and arduous when you’re looking,” he said. “But it was always worth it once you turned the next page, and then find that thing you’ve been looking for for a year.”
“It turned into much more than I ever imagined and I learned more than I ever wanted to know,” he said. “I enjoyed the hell out of it. It was a lot of fun.”
The most enjoyable part of the past 14 years has been the opportunity to share history with others who may be interested, he noted, especially people trying to find information about their family history. The most disheartening part has been those occasions when evidence of lost history is discovered.
“Sometimes family members do not appreciate that those old family photo albums, or other heirlooms and artifacts, can be very historically significant, so they are discarded,” he said. “I would hope that more folks consider a museum first and the garbage can second.”
He also enjoyed preserving old-timers memories through oral history interviews and recording the stories that are often cast off as not interesting, but provide a great depth to the historical record.
“The one common thread that ran through everything was that when you compare lifestyle from then to now it boggles your mind,” he said. “A lot of people today would not make it back then — it was a hard, difficult life.”
McCready has received two awards for his research work on the Great Northern Railway and other local history. The Great Northern Railway Historical Society recognized his extensive research and his collaborative participation in the society since 2005 with its award, the “Rocky,” named for the iconic mascot of the Great Northern Railway.
In addition, he was awarded a first place 2016 Coke Wood Award for best published monograph or article dealing with Western American history based on individual research. The honor was the result of a 19-page history he wrote of the Hicken fur-bearing fish, a bit of Whitefish, Great Northern and Glacier Park lore from the early 1900s.
The article was originally published in the Northwest Montana Posse of Westerners members’ magazine, the “Posse Dispatch” last year. The article was then later submitted to the Westerners International by the local chapter. The Westerners International awards committee unanimously selected this article to receive the award, which was announced this month.