Working in Glacier National Park, Jack Potter

Citizen Science in Glacier National Park, Jami Belt

Going to the Sun Road is a Glacier National Park Highlight, Paul Fugleberg

The Crown of the Continent, Steve Thompson

European Exploration and Growth

Figure 3.10: David Thompson. Source: U.S. National Park Service

Historians suggest that the first Euro-American to explore the Flathead Watershed region in the late 1700s was Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor, Peter Fidler. One of Canada’s greatest exploratory surveyors, Fidler was the first non-Indian person to indicate the Rockies on a map. Explorer David Thompson, who apprenticed and then worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1790 to 1797, defected to the North West Company in order to pursue his work in surveying while working as a fur trader for that company. He made several journeys to the Rocky Mountains, eventually establishing Kootenae House and Saleesh House (the first trading post west of the Rockies in Montana) and Kullyspell House on Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho, extending the fur trading territory of the New West Company. He surveyed his way through western Canada, northwestern Montana, Idaho, and Washington creating high quality and highly regarded maps as he traveled, and leaving an intriguing legacy behind.

In the early 1800s, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery to “…explore the Missouri River and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean may offer the most direct and practical water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce.” The historic Lewis and Clark Expedition (Figure 3.11) traversed thousands of miles of territory up the Missouri River, over the Rocky Mountains, and on to the Pacific, bringing back details of beautiful lands rich in biodiversity and ripe for settlement. Their stories are told in books and films, on trails and landscape markers. But the Lewis and Clark Expedition was also the beginning of an invasion of native territory, a usurpation of land that had been inhabited and shaped by ancient cultures for millennia prior to the arrival of the Corps of Discovery. Conflict and loss followed Lewis and Clark into the Indian territories. At the same time, the Jesuit missionaries were building a series of missions across the land, further altering traditional tribal ways of life.

(click to enlarge)  
Figure 3.11:
Map of Lewis & Clark Expedition. Source: National Park Service
Figure 3.12: U.S./Canadian border. Source: Traveler100

In 1846, Scotsman Angus McDonald established the Fort Connah trading post just north of present day St. Ignatius. He remained manager of the post until it closed 25 years later in 1871. He and his Nez Perce wife Catherine had 13 children. McDonald Peak and McDonald Lake in the Mission Mountains were both named for him. Also in 1846, the U.S. and Canada came to terms with a decades-long dispute over national boundaries by agreeing to use the 49th Parallel over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean as the dividing line between Canada and the U.S. A large stretch of land along the boundary was cleared for demarcation (Figure 3.12).

Figure 3.13: Old mine shaft. Source: Todd Berget



The 1850s brought mining expeditions, the Pacific Railway Expedition, and the Royal Geographic Society-sponsored Palliser Expedition in 1857. Lasting two years, the Palliser Expedition explored and surveyed the rugged wilderness of western Canada searching for possible routes for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and seeking to discover new plant species.

From 1870 to 1890, permanent settlement and the introduction of livestock grazing significantly changed the land of the watershed. Farming boomed as settlers discovered nutrient-rich soil and a climate conducive to growing fruits and vegetables in the valleys. Carnivore and ungulate populations and the ecosystems that supported them declined dramatically as a result of habitat loss from the conversion of wildlands to livestock grazing and farmland, and the unregulated hunting that followed.

By the early 1880s the slaughter by European homesteaders of bison for meat and hides and to make room for cattle took on cataclysmic proportions. Bison populations were reduced from an estimated 60 million pre-European settlement to less than 300. This loss forever altered the ecosystem—and the lives of Native Americans who long depended on bison for food, clothing, and tools.

In 1884, Ashley—the first town in the upper Flathead region—was established not far from today’s Main Street of Kalispell. Demersville, once the largest town in the valley and located at the edge of the Flathead River near today’s Lower Valley Road, was founded in 1887 by T.J. Demers, but was abandoned after the Great Northern Railroad arrived in Kalispell. Kalispell was named for the Kalispell Indians, adding an “L” when making it official. Kalispell is a Salish word meaning “flat land above the lake.”  From about 1885 to 1930, large steamships traversed Flathead Lake to enable the transport of goods from just south of Kalispell to Polson. The three-to four-hour trip in each direction was the only reasonable route until a road was built along the west shore of the lake.

Figure 3.14: Railroad tracks through the Flathead. Source: Lori Curtis

The growth of and competition between railways heated up throughout the 1800s, and by 1891 when the Great Northern Railroad extended to Marias Pass, homesteads and small towns were flourishing.  The railroads had many impacts on the people and land of the Flathead Watershed including opening the area to increased exploitation and exportation of natural resources. The Northern Pacific Railway reached the southern part of the Flathead Reservation in 1883. From 1883 to 1891, the Flathead Watershed was connected by rail to Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis, bringing groundswells of new homesteader to the area.

As sales of livestock expanded from a local market to one that became regional and national, land use changed to support the expanding agricultural communities. Government programs made the acquisition of land very attractive for ranchers and farmers. Montana Territory became a state in 1889. The years from 1890 to 1934 brought huge increases in livestock populations and the first, though ineffective grazing controls. Much land passed into private ownership, and by the 1900s there were over 700 farms near tributary streams in the lower valleys growing wheat, barley, oats, and potatoes.

The late 1800s and early 1900s also brought numerous prospectors looking for coal, gold, silver, and other metals. With the exception of coal prospectors, most miners abandoned their mines after a few disappointing years. Oil wells were drilled in several locations on both the western and eastern sides of Glacier National Park, but produced far less than hoped for. Small lumber mills began providing timber for railroad ties and mine beams. The timber industry eventually expanded to provide building materials for not only the Flathead Watershed, but throughout North America and even international markets.

Figure 3.15: Glacier National Park. Source: National Park Service

In 1893 cherries were first introduced to the Flathead Watershed. Margaret Estey, sister-in-law to John Wood, for whom Woods Bay was named, planted that first orchard on the east shore of Flathead Lake. It was not until 1929 that cherries were considered for commercial crops when the Robbin brothers of Kalispell planted seven hundred trees near Yellow Bay. They found cherries did well in the long, warm days and cool evenings of the Flathead Lake microclimate. The glacier-fed water supply and well-drained soil still help produce the large, sweet fruit the Flathead Watershed is now famous for.

During this era, people became aware that the land was not only valuable for homesteading, mining, and harvesting, but also for its spectacular beauty. In the late 1890s crude facilities sprang up around the area now known as Glacier National Park where visitors took stagecoaches across the land and boats across the water to enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

The railways brought many sight-seers to the parks, including George Bird Grinnell from New York. Editor of Field and Forest Magazine, conservationist, and hunter, Grinnell advocated for Native Americans and for the preservation of the region. He also coined the phrase “Crown of the Continent” to describe the central spine of land of today’s Flathead Watershed. In 1910, after great efforts by Grinnell and others, President Taft signed a bill establishing the 10th National Park – Glacier. The effort did not come easily as there was little support for the park’s establishment at the time. Initially, virtually every local business owner was strongly and vocally opposed to the park.

Travel in the park was made on horse or foot prior to the audacious Going-to-the-Sun Road which took from 1921 to 1932 to build. An increasing number of park visitors led to the building of secondary roads and trails, as well as hotels. The park includes 800,000 acres (323,749 hectares) of land that the Blackfeet ceded in 1895 through a purchase agreement with the U.S. government. The agreement was made with the understanding that the Blackfeet would maintain usage rights on the ceded land for hunting. The arrangement established the current boundary between the park and the Blackfeet Reservation. The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal leaders understood the park and the Flathead Valley were encompassed within the Flathead Indian Reservation. Today the park includes over one million acres (404,686 hectares) of protected land.

Similarly, several locations in and around the area that would become Waterton Lakes National Park had been used for recreation and enjoyment. In 1858 Lt. Thomas Blakiston, who broke off from the Palliser Expedition, began searching for a possible railway pass over the mountains. An encounter with members of the Ktunaxa Tribe led him to follow their directions over the South Kootenay Pass. Blakiston heeded their advice travelling along what would later become Blakiston (Pass) Creek and arrived at a chain of three large lakes. Blakiston named the lakes “Waterton,” after British naturalist Charles Waterton.

Rancher Frederick William Godsal, an avid outdoorsman, had the greatest influence in reserving the area as a park. At his urging, William Pearce, Superintendent of Mines for Canada, wrote to the Department of the Interior. His letter was sent attached to Godsal’s plea for establishing a park. In May of 1895, the Governor General created a 54 square mile (140 km2) Dominion Forest Park in the area that is today Waterton. Waterton Lakes National Park now encompasses 203 square miles (526 km2) of rugged wilderness. In 1931 the Rotary Clubs of Alberta and Montana joined Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park to inspire congress to create the world’s first “peace park,” a symbol of friendship between the two countries. In 1932 Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was dedicated by the Canadian and U.S. governments.

Figure 3.16: Cameron Lake at Waterton Lakes National Park. Source: Waterton Lakes National Park

“After two hours travelling on level ground along Red-stone creek (Red-Rock) we emerged on the Saskatchewan plains, just six geographical miles north of the 49th parallel and camped at the lakes... The scenery here is grand and picturesque...game is abundant, including, Grizzly bears...and we obtained both fresh meat and fish.”
- Thomas Blakiston, Sept. 6, 1858

The early decades of the 20th century brought continued population growth to the Flathead Watershed. Housing and commerce were densely developed in the city of Kalispell during the first half of the century, but suburban and rural growth dominated the second half.

From 1934 through 1960 there was general acknowledgement by public land managers and land owners that the area had capacity limitations for grazing. Range conservation programs and major changes in grazing management that were put in place to protect and restore grazed areas had a positive impact on the land. However, many landowners quit ranching and farming, and some began leasing their properties which sometimes brought greater problems. Others began operating dude ranches allowing visitors to experience the West on horseback. During this time, recreational fishing increased dramatically.

The decline in grazing and increase in recreation altered the mountains as the foothills saw periods of tree invasions resulting from less grazing and more fire suppression. Pack stock and camps destroyed vegetation, introduced non-native plant species, and invaded wildlife corridors. Conflicts over land and resource use and management grew among wilderness advocates, recreational enthusiasts, land managers, and traditional ranchers and farmers.

The 1940s were overshadowed by World War II. Many Flathead Watershed residents enlisted, were wounded, went missing, or were killed in the war. A number of heroes emerged, including Marine Private First Class Louis Charles “Chuck” Charlot, a great-grandson of Chief Charlot, who died at 18 years of age. Chuck Charlot was one of the marines who participated in the scouting and initial raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. He was killed a week later while attempting to carry a wounded private to safety.

In the early 1950s, tourism in Glacier National Park, the development of Big Mountain Ski Resort (now Whitefish Mountain Resort), and increased demand for wood products began to fuel economic growth which continued for many years. In 1979 California Businessman Ray Thompson (a Flathead native) moved his California company Semitool to Kalispell, bringing a number of engineering and manufacturing jobs to the Flathead Watershed. As more areas were annexed into the city of Kalispell in the 1980s, growth increased by about 12%. This growth increased to over 19% from 1990 to 2000. By the mid-1990s, a long-term decline in agricultural revenues and increasing encroachment of development caused a large amount of agricultural land to be converted to 40-acre (16-hectare) and smaller parcels for subdivision. The loss of agricultural land was felt not only in the watershed, but across the nation.

Further changes came in 1997. On the heels of the wettest year in Flathead Valley history, and fueled by near-record snowpacks, the Stillwater and Swan Rivers experienced 100-year floods. Groundwater levels rose high enough to cover Montana Highway 35 near Woods Bay and closed West Valley Drive. The Stillwater River flooded parts of Evergreen and the causeway road on Echo Lake was submerged. Following on the heels of those near record snowpacks was the development in 1998 of the Blacktail Mountain Ski Area above Lakeside, giving the Flathead Watershed a second winter recreation area.

Flathead County has grown significantly since 2000, particularly north and northwest of the center of Kalispell with the addition of major retail and specialty stores. Continued growth throughout Lake County has resulted in business and town expansions, building renovations, and the addition of numerous support facilities. Today, the Flathead Watershed encompasses a diverse mix of towns and cultures surrounded by the rugged beauty and natural resources that continue to attract so many people to make the watershed their home.


For more information, send email to info@flatheadwatershed.org or info@flatheadcore.org.
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