Friday, January 12, 2007


The boundary created when Glacier National Park was ripped out of the side of the Blackfeet Reservation, like God taking Eve out of the side of Adam, caused three small towns to form, each serving in its own way the tourists who are their economic core. East Glacier was unique because of the “high-line” of the Great Northern Railroad which enters Marias Pass on the east side of Glacier Park and emerges at the west side of the Park, mostly tracing the southern boundary. It was the discovery of this pass by John Stevens that allowed the high-line to be built, just in time to keep the transportation business from migrating across the Canadian border to the Canadian railway.

For many years there was no highway for automobiles to cross through this pass, so folks who didn’t care to traverse the skyline route of “Going to the Sun” -- for instance, Charlie and Mamie Russell -- would load their autos onto flatcars in East Glacier, driving them back off in West Glacier where their cabin was a cool forest refuge in summer. The railroad station in East Glacier was the main debouching point for Eastern tourists, who were likely to stay in the flagship “Big Hotel,” built from huge Douglas fir logs brought in from the Pacific Northwest. The style was Adirondack; the view was Swiss in its mountain grandeur.

Behind the Big Hotel is a mountain peak with a kind of stone thumb on the side. To some this provoked thoughts of an old Indian woman with a dog companion; to others it was an Indian mother with a child following her. The name commonly used was “Squaw Mountain,” which became politically objectionable since “squaws” were supposed to be dirty, stupid, and easily dominated. The name has been formally changed to “Dancing Woman” or “Dancing Lady” mountain. Donald Little Dog and Joe Eagle Child suggested this because the mountain was once called Ikaki (“Small Woman” -- “aki” is the suffix meaning woman.) She was the mother of Curly Bear, a visionary, and a Holy Woman. The mountain is indeed a rather small mountain. Once some energetic young men carried up a load of sheets from the Big Hotel and draped the “thumb” in the style of Christos. Everyone was impressed and mystified to see it turn white.

One of those creative culprits was Terry Sherburne, who also installed and maintains the town’s NPR radio transmitter high on a ridge. When he is not climbing, he helps to run the Sherburne family motel, “Mountain Pine,” which has so many repeat visitors that they form a small summer community of their own. Across the street from the motel is the John Clarke Art Gallery, run by the daughter of John Clarke, Joyce Clarke Turvey. The present building was never John’s old art and woodcarving studio, though it stands on the same spot and is marked out front by the same mountain goat statue, commemorating the goat that was the logo of the Great Northern Railroad. Charlie Russell would have stopped in often to practice signtalk with his good friend, John, who was famously successful and good-natured in spite of being a deaf-mute. Or maybe these traits were an advantage!

The road along the side of the motel, on up the hill towards the East Glacier water supply, leads to a copse of tall evergreen trees among the meadows. A path threads through the trees to the old Clarke graveyard where John Clarke, his father Malcolm Clarke and his grandfather Malcolm Clarke are buried. It was the first Malcolm Clarke (then ranching in what has become Sieben, Montana, where Senator Max Baucus grew up) whose death triggered the Baker Massacre. One of the most elaborate gravestones is the tall Victorian marker for Helen Clarke, the original Malcolm’s daughter -- thus, Joyce’s great-aunt. Helen’s mother was a daughter of Mountain Chief, one of the most visionary and defiant chiefs. Helen was asked by the government to guide the process of dividing the reservation lands according to the Dawes Act. (She was also Montana’s first Superintendent of Schools, the first in Montana to own a piano, and an actress in a European touring company.) Her own family was assigned the allotment where the Big Hotel now stands and the family ranch is just to the west of the hotel and golf course. The fact that the Big Hotel was on the Clarke allotment (and possibly East Glacier was, as well) has snarled many legal matters of jurisdiction and title. Other members of the Clarke family also lived in East Glacier and their contacts with artists and movie stars often brought those celebrities to the ranch and the Big Hotel.

East Glacier itself has also had name changes. Once called “Glacier Park Station,” it was earlier called Midvale, which is still the name of the creek. The railroad, now the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, still dominates the layout. On the west side, through an underpass, are the Big Hotel with its long sloping lawn, English perennial borders, dormitories, laundries and garages. In the early days Blackfeet people of some prominence and diplomacy were asked to put up lodges on the lawn and to present themselves in costume for interviews and photography. The white buckskin parade suits and familiar Sioux-style eagle feather warbonnets were what tourists expected. In the evening there might be bonfires for story-telling and Indian dancing. Today people like musician Jack Gladstone and historian Curly Bear Wagner give talks and concerts indoors by the big stone fireplaces.

On this side of town are also the saddle horse string, motels, a log youth hostel that was once a dormitory for railroad workers, and a forest of lodgepole pines interspersed with vacation homes. Several small and notable restaurants are also along this road. The golf course stretches up this way, sometimes invaded by moose and once occupied by a fox that had the impression that golf balls were eggs. When her burrow was found, it was packed with them. Bears are likely to climb up on roofs on this side of town.

On the east side of town along Highway 2 are a grocery store, motels, a bar, small businesses and homes. East Glacier has an elementary school. When the government began to replace much of the housing in Browning with tribally managed housing at the same time that the school population of Browning exploded, many teachers began to live in East Glacier, convoying the thirteen miles down to Browning when the weather was tough. Also, the tribe built some “middle class” houses here. This elementary school probably has a higher proportion of white students than any other reservation school, but is also a notoriously difficult place to teach because most of the parents are teachers!

In the middle of the highway through town is a huge hall that has served many purposes over the years: dance hall, skating rink, museum, two outstanding restaurants (one a cafeteria and one serving fine meals in the evenings only), and even a dwelling. In the Twenties “Mike’s Place” was a jumping dance hall. Until recently, the Lutz family operated here in the summer and on Big Mountain, a ski resort on the West side in the winter. Maureen Little Dog, the Lutz daughter, is particularly renowned for her marvelous pastries. Today the town is growing quickly enough to need a new laundromat and a new post office.

In the old days, during the long deep-snow winters, there were two grocery stories -- one on each side of the railroad -- because feuds would spring up between the sides so they wouldn't patronize the same store. If spring didn’t come soon enough, people ran off with each other’s spouses or even set fire to each other’s houses! Or so the stories go. Today, interestingly, perhaps because of the long-time presence of several highly-respected and productive gay people, the town is welcoming to persons of such orientation, but doesn’t support the flamboyant lifestyle of more tropical resorts. It’s a bit of a hide-out, but a person wouldn’t know that without living there long enough to hear rumors about who is in the witness-protection program.

Always, at the edges and the interstices, Blackfeet families have lived in small cabins, minding their own business. The road that goes along the railroad on the west side continues on to become what was once called “the cut-across” between East Glacier and St. Marys but is now usually referred to as “Looking Glass Pass.” A branch goes farther west into the beautiful campground at Two Medicine Lake where Wolf Rising Mountain presides and one can often see mountain goats far up the mountainside. These roads are closed in winter and sometimes the spring opening is delayed while cave-outs and avalanches are repaired. These happen often enough that no jurisdiction wants to claim this expensive road, so East Glacier merchants must band together and mount a political campaign to keep it open.

Since the drive is exceptionally beautiful, a sort of miniature Going to the Sun, the public helps to demand it be opened. It is always a favorite “loop” drive of mine, though I prefer to drive from East Glacier to the connection at Kiowa Kamp so that I’m on the inside of the roadway! One winter a bear hibernated at the top of the pass and we all went up in snowmobiles to snowshoe the last bit so we could lean over the little wisp of vapor coming out of a hole in the snow and smell bear breath. In summer I am always moved by the first sight of Browning out there on the prairie, so small and far away.


Peter Kershaw said...

Would it be possible to turn Mikes Place in to a dance hall again? I run Ski & Dance group holidays around the world, and would love to make this a new venue for my group. Contact me with any dance hall venue details for ski resorts and I will be most gratefull. +44-1625-874262

prairie mary said...

Peter, I think that Mike's Place is long past rehabilitation. The talk is tearing is down. Contact Bear-on-the-Roof Realty in East Glacier if you want direct discussion.

The thing is, the weather is so rough in East Glacier (140 mph winds a couple of weeks ago, 20 below F last night) that no one has been able to establish much in the way of winter sports. The Big Hotel is not winterized. Only a few of the local businesses stay open on the highway, mostly for the sake of traveling salesmen who get trapped there when the roads close, which is often.

I've forwarded your question to Bear-on-the Roof Realty.

Prairie Mary

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bluecrane2 said...

Hi. This is a nice description of East Glacier. I grew up there and am the granddaughter of John Clarke. I'd like to make a correction on the name of John Clarke's father. John's father was Horace Clarke and Horace's father was Malcolm Clarke. There wasn't two Malcolms.

And yes, the weather there can be brutal in the winter! I was there one winter when super high winds blew in the skylights over at the hotel and the wind chill was about 80 below that night. We lost power all over town with that one.

Anonymous said...

I can attest to the winters! I was a child resident in about '75-76. One day the wind actually blew me back every time I stood up trying to walk 4 blocks to the grade school. The after effect of the warm "chinook" winds was ice and bone chilling cold gales! The south end of Dawson seemed far from the school then. I recall the Little Dog family and others. I now live in the upper mid-west, missing the mountains and prairie daily. I will visit soon.
Is the spring along the highway to Two Medicin lake still flowing?