Going-to-the-Sun Road Still Legendary

Tue October 21, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

(The first in a series of occasional articles on the most interesting roads, highways and bridges in the United States. We invite readers to send us their suggestions for future stories.)

Many consider Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, MT, to be the most spectacular mountain road in the United States.

The only road through the park, it brings you up, up, up from Lake McDonald near the west entrance, past snow-capped mountains with clouds hovering over their summits, up again over Logan Pass and the Continental Divide, past glaciers, and down, down to St. Mary Lake, surrounded by storied summits, on the east.

The steep rock mountains, looming above you, standing against the sky with knife-edge ridges, and reflected in water, seem intimately close, gathering you into their unspoiled wonder.

In 1980, when I asked an old man in Spokane, WA, about the park, which was the only one in the Northwest not socked-in by weather, he exclaimed, “Going-to-the-Sun Highway,” with a huge smile. I asked him to repeat the name. It sounded like the Wizard of Oz. So I took an evening plane to Kalispell, MT, stayed overnight in Hungry Horse, and, in the morning, drove down Route 2 to nearby Apgar and West Glacier, the west entrance to the park.

It was Oct. 20, an unusually warm day in autumn, the best time to visit the park. I gasped as I first looked over miles of hills full of blazing gold from larch and quaken aspen trees. Large silver fish were swimming in the Flathead River near the closed park headquarters. No one was around. Driving approximately 15 mi. along Lake McDonald, with its fall foliage, I followed the signs for Going-to-the-Sun, passed giant, dense stands of hemlock and lodgepole pine, and, beginning at Logan Creek, slowly drove up a fairly narrow (22 ft. wide) two-lane asphalt road, which was cut across rock ledges, deep canyons and cliffs at a fairly gradual (6 percent) slope.

The vistas were breathtaking. I was grateful for the 2-ft.-high stonemasonry guard walls along the road, and for turnouts, also protected by the small walls, where I could look up at snow-capped Reynolds Mountain and gaze at the “Garden Wall,” a shale rock face, almost a vertical cliff, which the road cut across and climbed. The geologic wall, which runs along the Continental Divide, is part of a moraine deposited here by glaciers eons ago.

The sides of the road were often supported by stone retaining walls built out from the slopes below to hold landfill.

The road came to the summit of 6,646- ft. Logan Pass, crossing the Continental Divide, which the Blackfeet Indians here called the Backbone of the World. In this sub-alpine environment, near Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and a small white glacier, I followed a trail through foot-deep snow around the base of a mountain peak, and looked down in awe upon an azure alpine lake, Hidden Lake, amid the mountains, a mile or so below me.

Driving down the more-open eastern side of the divide in the afternoon, I looked down on St. Mary Lake and St. Mary Valley. Sheer rock mountains, 8,000 to 10,000 ft. high, with crevices blanketed in snow, rose from the other side of the water. As evening approached, grey-rock-and-white-snow prow-like mountain crests turned to russet. Then, skirting the rocky shore of the lake, the road passed open meadows and groves of aspens and came to the small community of St. Mary. I had seen perhaps 10 people on the 52-mi.-long Road to the Sun.

Getting There

It took a long time for Glacier to get over a “You Can’t Get There From Here” problem.

Ancient people, perhaps the ancestors of today’s Blackfeet, Salish and Kootenaie Indians in the area, hunted from trails that still wind amid Glacier’s mountains. French, English and Spanish explorers and trappers followed such trails in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Lewis and Clark expedition came within 50 mi. of the park in 1806 on its epic journey to the Pacific. (One of Glacier’s ranges is called the Lewis Range.) Homesteaders and miners arrived after the Civil War, and built small towns.

George Bird Grinnell, an east-coast writer, publisher and naturalist who had accompanied General George Custer’s expedition in 1874, visited Glacier in 1885.

“Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner, ’the Crown of the Continent,’ ” Grinnell wrote of the Glacier area.

Grinnell was a prime mover in successful efforts leading to President Taft establishing it as the country’s 10th national park in 1910.

The Great Northern Railway completed tracks over Marias Pass in 1891, built beautiful wooden chalets near the lakes, but brought people by boat, and then stagecoach on bumpy wagon roads, for the final legs.

But there was no east-west road over the Divide allowing people to view the awesome mountains closeup. You could only go to the high country by pack horse. Improved roads had been extended to Belton — West Glacier — by 1911 and Midvale — East Glacier — in 1914. The only road inside the park, a washed-out wagon trail connecting Belton to Apgar, was described as “a combination of quagmire, corduroy and misery; the worst three miles in the state of Montana.”

After considering numerous proposals, Stephen Mather, who became the first director of the new National Park Service in 1916, favored a road leading from Belton, along Lake McDonald, over Logan Pass, and dropping into the St. Mary Valley. The plan was initially called the “Transmountain Highway.”

Congress picked up the ball. A road from Apgar to the head of Lake McDonald was completed in 1922 under a $100,000 appropriation. Road construction also began on the east side of the park. However, the main task, building a 12.5-mi. road up over the Continental Divide, still lay ahead, a monumental, unprecedented endeavor that has been called the most challenging road ever constructed in U.S. history. The job would take seven years. Not least of the problems was snow. A few feet often covered the entire park between late October and June.

Daunting Challenge

How do you build a road up sheer mountainsides, including a glacial moraine?

A 1918 National Park survey had staked out a road with 11 hairpin turns and an 8-percent grade. It missed many of the stunning views and could have intimidated acrophobic drivers — like myself.

In 1924, the Park Service asked the Bureau of Public Roads, which later became the Federal Highway Administration, for design help. Frank Kittredge, a highway engineer for the bureau, got the job.

“How fortunate I was to be here in this, one of the choicest, wildest, and most beautiful areas, and incidentally to be paid for being part of it,” he later wrote.

Kittredge and his men surveyed the route over the Garden Wall to Logan Pass for seven weeks in September and October. He described his “feeling of awe and humility” as he confronted the question: “How to carry into the roadbuilding these great intangible values for the inspiration of people without sacrificing the very values we came for?” His answer was to survey a route that provided great views without marring the beauty.

The survey party included 32 men working from two camps. At the beginning of the survey, each person had to walk several miles and climb approximately 2,700 ft. to get to work. Kittredge later wrote that “the task was a little bit terrifying, clinging to the steep mountainside was not easy for anyone and extremely difficult and dangerous for some.” Few workers stayed long on the job, “There were really three crews, one coming, one working, and one going,” he recalled.

Clinging and climbing, the party completed the survey that provided the planning and specification data for the road in basically its present alignment. It mapped out 21 miles over the Continental Divide, replaced the original zigzag route with a single switchback turn about one-third of the way up, which would be called “The Loop,” and made two long traverses of the spectacular, cliff-like Garden Wall. Grade was always 6 percent or less and width was generally 22 ft., sometimes less up near the pass. The road climbed approximately 3,000 ft. from Lake McDonald, whose altitude is 3,153 ft.

“The cost obviously would be heavy but there appeared to be no other route which would adequately show to the public the tremendous spectacle of mountains and canyons, forests and streams, and no other route which would be capable of improvement of alignment and width of roadway if and when traffic should require improvement,” Kittridge wrote.

“My understanding is that the roadway was built at six percent because at seven percent you would have had to downshift,” said Jack Gordon, landscape architect for the park in West Glacier.

Building the Road

In 1924, before Kittredge’s survey, the House Committee on Public Lands had appropriated $1 million for a three-year further construction program on the transmountain route. The Park Service combined its own specs with Kittredge’s. Bridges, tunnels, retaining and guard walls, and culverts should not be monumental or stylistic but be constructed with native materials. Contractors should use small blasts of explosives to minimize damage to landscape.

Bids were accepted for constructing a 12-mi. section of road from Logan Creek up some 3,000 ft. to Logan Pass. The Williams and Douglas Construction Co. of Tacoma, WA, won the contract with a low bid of $869,144.

The work began in June, 1925. Work crews used two steam shovels and one gas shovel, pneumatic drills, and almost 500,000 lbs. of explosives.

An engineering team first marked the way. Laborers then cut down trees and grubbed out stumps. The explosives team next broke up the rock, which the steam shovels loaded on a “ ’dinky’ train, a small gasoline-powered locomotive with 12 dump cars,” which moved the excavated material to fill areas. Thus the road was “benched” into the sheer vertical rock of the Garden Wall.

“Work crews also used a ’gin pole and derrick’ block-and-tackle arrangement for lifting rock,” Gordon said.

Subcontracting “station gangs,” including Russian and Irish immigrants with their own tents and cooks, hand-built walls, culverts and bridges from local rock.

Workers hung food in trees, along with saws that would move and clang in the wind, because dangerous bears would snort through the camps. One meathouse was built on stilts, with a drawbridge.

Hundreds of men worked on the road. Three died, one after falling from a rope while checking an overhanging rock, another from a falling rock, and a third in a rockslide.

Williams and Douglas completed the 12-mi. section in the fall of 1928. That same year, the name “Going-to-the-Sun Highway” was suggested, and it caught on. (Highway has since been changed to road.) Going to the Sun is the translation of an Indian name for a mountain at Logan Pass.

In 1929, the road from Logan Creek to Logan Pass was opened to public travel. The remaining 10 mi. on the east side of the pass was then completed by the Colonial Building Co., of Spokane, WA, and A.R. Guthrie, of Portland, OR. Because of the terrain, Colonial couldn’t get power shovels to help excavate the 405-ft. East Side Tunnel. Workers carried out excavated rock by hand. Guthrie floated a power shovel up St. Mary Lake to reach its construction site.

Going-to-the-Sun includes, besides the roadway, six bridges, five culverts, an underpass, and two tunnels, including the one on the east side and a 192-ft. tunnel on the west side.

The first vehicle chugged over the entire 51-mi. road on Oct. 8, 1932, after approximately two decades of plans, surveys and construction. The Park Service formally dedicated the road on July 15, 1933. More than 4,000 people, including 200 Native Americans in full tribal regalia, attended the ceremonies. The project had taken more than two decades, including planning, surveys, and actual construction, and cost more than $2.5 million.

Park Superintendent J.R. Eakin said the new name of Going-to-the-Sun Highway “gives the impression that in driving this road autoists will ascent to extreme heights and view sublime panoramas.”

The two-lane roadway was at first crushed stone. The roadway, battered by storms and snow, has needed a lot of reconstruction and maintenance. The crushed aggregate was later sprayed with a bituminous asphalt solution. Complete new asphalt surfacing began in 1938. The last asphalt section was laid in 1953.

Some motorists apparently tended to move over towards the rock-cut faces, away from the precipitous views.

“They tried to squeeze between the centerline and the rock side of the road and not all of their vehicles made it,” Gordon said. “When I got here in the late 1980s, there were hubcaps, mirrors, and pieces of metal along the roadway. Rather than widening the road and significantly altering its character, we’ve restricted the size of vehicles through the alpine section to eight feet wide and 21 feet long.”

This year, approximately 2 million visitors drove over Logan Pass, mostly in the park’s peak season between June and October. Going-to-the-Sun Road was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. It was documented by a Historic American Engineering Record team in 1990 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

“Going-to-the-Sun is one of 10 national historic landmark roads which are currently in use,” Gordon said. “It’s especially significant because so much of the original structure is still intact, including seven miles of stonemasonry guardwalls, 18 inches to 24 inches high, and over 130 stonemasonry retaining walls, which hold fill and keep the road up.

“I’ve always thought the symmetry of the road is really interesting. Each side has a tunnel, and each side has some of the same natural features like a large lake. The west side changes direction at The Loop and the east side changes at Siyeh Bend.

“Going-to-the-Sun is undoubtedly one of the most scenic roads in the U.S. You go up from stream-valley to dense forest to rock ledge to sub-alpine zones, then down through forests, aspen groves and grassland. I think the most beautiful time is the fall because of the colors, the gold of the quaking aspen and the reds of the dogwood.”

Said a woman in the park’s headquarters staff, “The fall is the best time to travel here. Glacier is very much a seasonal park. We have it to ourselves this time of year.”