Introduction from Larry Len Peterson

Nancy, son Jack, and Charlie Russell at Bull Head Lodge, summer 1924. Nancy, son Jack, and Charlie Russell at Bull Head Lodge, summer 1924. Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson

Nancy, son Jack, and Charlie Russell at Bull Head Lodge, summer 1924. Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson

Glacier National Park has the type of views that keep postcard publishers in business. The mountains fanned the flames of Charlie Russell’s creative genius. He understood that the mountains don’t need us, we need the mountains. His favorite place in the world was Bull Head Lodge, a log structure nestled among the cedar, fir, and tamarack along the shoreline of beautiful Lake McDonald on the west side of the park. At this special retreat, the Russells hosted friends, fellow artists, family, and some of the most influential people in America from the time it was built in 1906 to his death in 1926.

Brothers Dimon and Milo Apgar built rental cabins along the south side of Lake McDonald, and in 1905 the Russells purchased a lakefront lot from Dimon Apgar, one-quarter mile west of Apgar’s village. Originally accessible only by boat, the cabin was completed by Dimon by the summer of 1906. Located one hundred feet up a gradual slope from the water, it measured thirty feet across and twenty feet deep. The Russells originally named it Kootenai Lodge but changed it later that year to Bull Head Lodge, after copyrighting Russell’s trademark buffalo skull cipher. Subsequently, a studio was built west of the main cabin, along with other structures.

Large, forty-eight-by-twenty-one inch medium-weight muslin privacy screens served as room dividers for guests because there were no separate bedrooms. These also served as a guest book of sorts because visitors signed the screens during their stay. Some added illustrations. The Bull Head Lodge guest book also survives with over 300 guests listed. A different privacy screen was used every year from 1906 to 1926. More than 150 individual names are recorded on the screens, which served as wonderful reminders of Charlie’s happiest times. Six of these privacy screens are on display in the C.M. Russell Museum, donated by my wife LeAnne and me almost twenty-five years ago.

Like the Russells, most guests traveled to the lodge on the Great Northern Railway’s Oriental Limited, disembarking at Belton—West Glacier—for a short wagon ride to Apgar’s village. Majestic mountain peaks and the azure, crystal-clear water of Lake McDonald dazzled the weary travelers as Charlie warmly greeted them and rowed them to the lodge in his boat. Only a buffalo skull marked the lodge from the water due to heavy undergrowth which made it undetectable from the lake. Filtered light, lush vegetation, heavy humidity, and towering evergreens, along with numerous “little people” and gnomes handcrafted by Charlie, made for a magical setting. Activities included hiking, horseback riding, fishing, playing cards on the large octagonal table in the kitchen, boating, photographing, playing cowboy and Indian, model boat racing, and lots of socializing.

Business manager and wife Nancy Russell welcomed the national park designation in 1910 because she believed it would draw more potential, wealthy patrons to the area, and she wasn’t disappointed. Charlie just viewed it as civilization encroaching on paradise. Still, admiring Hill’s passion to promote the park, Charlie submitted three 1910 oil paintings—A Mix Up, Trouble Hunters, and A Doubtful Handshake—that along with John Fery landscape paintings of the park, were exhibited around America in 1911 on a Great Northern Railway promotional tour touting the park. In addition, Nancy supplied images of ten of Russell’s most famous paintings, which were reproduced on the Great Northern Railway’s “See America First” promotional stamps, issued later in the decade. It’s hard to imagine anyone who had a greater impact on Montana tourism than Hill—such an important part of Montana’s economy today.

This article was a salute to the dreams, imagination, and grit of Minnesotan Louis W. Hill, his Great Northern Railway, and the artists of the park. The content was derived from my book, The Call of the Mountains: The Artists of Glacier National Park (2002), which proved to be a very popular publication and is still available today in paperback. The year it was published, the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, Montana ran a summer-long exhibition based on the book. Banners promoting the show adorned the downtown. It was quite a pageant. Linda Engh-Grady, then Executive Director, did an outstanding job organizing the show.

If you want to learn more about Louis W. Hill’s fascinating life, I would suggest The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill, Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder, James J. Hill (2010) by Biloine W. Young and Eileen McCormack. The finest publication on the infrastructure that he built in the park is View with a Room: Glacier’s Historic Hotels & Chalets (2013) by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison.

Yet don’t just read about Glacier National Park. This summer, especially, would be a great time to visit the “Crown of the Continent” and the “Alps of North America.” Thanks to Louis W. Hill, many have answered the Call—will you?


Bearded James J. Hill (left) and Louis W. Hill (center) in front of John Fery landscapes and, in the center, three 1910 Charles M. Russell paintings: (upper center clockwise) A Mix Up, Trouble Hunters, and A Doubtful Handshake, 1911. Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson.

Bearded James J. Hill (left) and Louis W. Hill (center) in front of John Fery landscapes and, in the center, three 1910 Charles M. Russell paintings: (upper center clockwise) A Mix Up, Trouble Hunters, and A Doubtful Handshake, 1911. Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson.



Louis Hill and Glacier National Park

Larry Len Peterson
Russell’s West, Vol 9, No 1
Summer, 2002

The “Call of the Mountains” is a real call. For centuries man has been drawn to Glacier Country. Without a doubt, this land of pristine mountains, alpine lakes, and cascading waterfalls is a national treasure. From the beginning, artists have expressed its wonders in varied and effective ways. Some of America‘s most outstanding talents have answered the “Call” capturing in print, paint, photography, and three dimensional art the beauty of the land, its animals and native people. Charlie Russell spent every summer from 1906 to 1926 at Bull Head Lodge on beautiful Lake McDonald in the Park.

For good reason, George Bird Grinnell is known as the father of Glacier National Park. Grinnell, conservationist and editor of Forest and Stream, with tireless effort fought for Park status that finally came to fruition in 1910. Along the way, he and other authors like James Willard Schultz, William McClintock, and Frank Bird Linderman captured a passing way of life. Some were educated at the finest schools in the East while the only education others received was that provided by growing up in Glacier country. Their rendering of Indian life had a broad appeal across an America that was nostalgic for the Old West. But books and magazine articles weren’t enough. Some lectured throughout America and abroad bringing to thousands the beauty of Glacier and its native people.

If George Bird Grinnell is the father of Glacier, then Louis Hill is the godfather. His father, James J. Hill was one of the richest and most powerful men in America who through tireless effort created the Great Northern Railway. Seeking his own legacy, Louis spent much of his time as President of the Great Northern building lodges, chalets and other infrastructure that represents man’s presence in the Park as we know it today. Hill, somewhat of an artist himself, recruited dozens of artists to create work to adorn the buildings and to publicize the attractions of Glacier. Hundreds of promotional brochures, advertisements, and memorabilia were distributed throughout the country to attract tourists to the area. Early on, the preferred method of transportation there was the Great Northern‘s Oriental Express. As competition from auto travel squeezed profits, the Great Northern added the luxurious Empire Builder.

With initial service in 1929, the Empire Builder, was without doubt one of Louis Hill’s finest triumphs. It allowed travel across the Northwest in a style and elegance that no other rail service was able to offer. When Louis Hill took over for his father, the Great Northern precedence for excellence did not falter. However, Louis’s real interest lay not with arrival and departure times, but with developing the infrastructure necessary to lure rail travelers and other tourists to Glacier National Park. With rail lines in place, and passenger trains comfortably transporting sightseers, it was up to him to make certain the Great Northern Railway played a substantial role in making the Park accessible by constructing the necessary roads and bridges, horse and hiking trails, chalets and lodges These improvements came with considerable cost, but it was hoped that in the long run, the company would realize a tidy profit. It was obvious to Hill; just entice more and more visitors. Aware of the need to increase public recognition of Glacier, he began commissioning artists for advertising campaigns. Although many gifted individuals worked on various projects, four men in particular became forever linked with the Great Northern and Glacier National Park. Painters John Fery and Winold Reiss, and photographers Fred H.Kiser and Tomar Jacob Hileman received the most recognition for their unique depictions of either the scenic splendor of Glacier or the native Blackfeet who lived nearby. Unfortunately, many artists went uncredited for their work, but they left their mark on a large body of material published by the Great Northern Railway.

Perhaps to appease his father‘s concern over the railroad’s increasing involvement in Glacier National Park, Louis Warren Hill once stated, “We wish to get out of it and confine ourselves strictly to the business of getting people there.” Despite his words, Glacier had already stolen his heart, and Louis was not about to abandon it. Indeed, it was his father ‘s initial influence that prompted legislation finally securing National Park status for Glacier in 1910. As with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Banff and the Northern Pacific in Yellowstone, the Great Northern maintained complete control over Glacier. Hill was born the second of three sons to one of the richest and most powerful families in America. Educated at Exeter and Yale, he joined the Great Northern Railway in 1893, became its president in 1907, and served as chairman of the board from 1919 to 1930. Hill created the Glacier Park Hotel Company to oversee expanding tourism, and as president of this subsidiary, he began improving the roads, trails, and bridges on the east side of the Park. Taking advantage of the spectacular scenery, Hill chose locations for hotels stating, “The work is so important, I am loath to entrust the development to anybody but myself.” Ten hotels and chalets were planned in and around Glacier; including, Midvale, McDermott Lake (now Swiftcurrent), Belton, Sun Point, Cut Bank Creek, Granite Park, St. Mary Lake, Gunsight Lake, Sperry Glacier, and Two Medicine Lake.

First to be completed was the Glacier Park Lodge in 1913, with easy access to the new Glacier Park railroad station. Located within the Blackfeet Reservation, the 155-room hotel became the starting point for Great Northern tour packages of the Park. The massive structure was modeled after the giant timbered Forestry Center constructed for the 1904-1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Elderly Blackfeet marveled at the hotel’s giant fir and cedar columns and promptly named it Big Tree Lodge. The hotel was billed as “one of the most novel and interesting institutions of its kind in the country.” The lodge was barely opened to guests before enlargement became necessary. Between 1913 to 1914, an annex building, power plant, employee’s quarters, laundry, and expanded dining room were constructed. The Lodge facilities were further expanded in 1929 to include tennis courts, croquet grounds, a putting green, and a nine-hole golf course at the cost of nearly $100,000.

Fifty miles north of Glacier Park Lodge, the picturesque Many Glacier Hotel rose on the shore of Lake McDermott at a cost of $500,000. Completed in 1915, the new hotel boasted 162 rooms, including eight luxury corner suites, all featuring steam heat and telephones. By the end of its first season, nearly half of Glacier’s 13,465 visitors used its accommodations. Even Louis Hill and his family spent most Augusts there hiking, riding horses, fishing, and painting. Its popularity proved so great that in 1917 an 80-room annex was added, making Many Glacier by far the largest hotel in Montana. With the 1927 completion of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, the Glacier Park Hotel Company could provide lodging for 2,061 overnight guests along the Park’s eastern half.

In order to have a greater presence within the Park on the west side, Hill contemplated buying the Lewis Hotel on beautiful Lake McDonald. John Lewis, a Columbia Falls attorney purchased the property in 1914, and it was a favorite tourist destination and watering hole for noted westerners including artist Charlie Russell, humorist Irvin S. Cobb, and writer Frank Bird Linderman. In 1930, the railroad negotiated the purchase of the hotel at a price close to $300,000; five times its original cost, later changing its name to Lake McDonald Hotel.

Between 1910 and 1929, the Great Northern Railway spent $2.3 million developing the Park. With this large investment, Louis Hill naturally took an active role in Park promotion. Painters, photographers and authors were provided free transportation and lodging in the Park while they searched out material for proposed advertising. Some of America’s top artists produced paintings to adorn postcards, stamps, playing cards, brochures, luggage stickers, books, coins, maps and guidebooks; virtually anything to promote Glacier. The slogan, “See America First,” along with the symbol of the Park, a Rocky Mountain goat, became popularized throughout the nation. Paintings and photographs were hung in every Great Northern Railway facility. With over $300,000 spent annually on tourist promotion, advertisements continually appeared in magazines, and when an important event like the 1915 San Francisco Exhibition took place, the Great Northern was careful to ensure passengers were routed through Glacier National Park. Although some may dispute the numbers, one Park historian calculated that in the early years the Great Northern “spent almost $10 there for everyone spent by the government” and Louis Hill “did more than any other to put Glacier National Park on the map.”

Despite a dedication to the Park, Louis Hill and the Great Northern never realized any profit from their operations. The Glacier Park Hotel Company showed losses every year from 1914 to 1929. Further complicating its position was the fact that while visitation increased five-fold from 1914 to 1929, tourists increasingly traveled by automobile rather than by train, with traffic increasing from 881 vehicles to 49,750 by 1929.

After World War II, Louis Hill‘s Glacier dream started unraveling. The unprofitable chalets were sold, forced to close, or simply torn down. Even though Louis Hill never anticipated losses from the Glacier Park operations, they were somewhat tolerable for the Great Northern because of the prestige from its association with the National Park. In addition, the enormous body of art commissioned by Hill and purchased by the Great Northern was a tangible asset. When considering his legacy, this great collection of art is often overlooked.

Dr. Larry L. Peterson grew up in Plentywood, Montana, and is a frequent contributor to “Russell’s West” magazine. He is past Chairman of the National Advisory Board to the Russell Museum and has made important art donations to the Museum. His books Charles M. Russell, Legacy (1999) and Philip R. Goodwin: America’s Sporting and Wildlife Artist (2001) won the prestigious Western Heritage Award for best art books from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.


James J. Hill and Louis W. Hill Bearded James J. Hill (left) and Louis W. Hill (center) in front of John Fery landscapes and, in the center, three 1910 Charles M. Russell paintings: (upper center clockwise) A Mix Up, Trouble Hunters, and A Doubtful Handshake, 1911. Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson.

Read a scan of the original essay with accompanying images by clicking here.


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