For decades, visitors to Glacier National Park stepped off Great Northern Railway in East Glacier and were greeted with a jaw-dropping vista of the Rocky Mountains and by members of the Blackfeet Tribe, outfitted in the ceremonial garb of earlier days, who welcomed them with song and dance. The hospitality continued on the traveler’s first night in Glacier Park, when they likely had reservations at the stately Glacier Park Lodge, before heading out on horseback for an extended tour of the park.
Built in 1912-13, just a few short years after the establishment of the national park, the lodge’s history is forever linked to the railway, the park and the Blackfeet. But future generations will likely find a Bigfork company’s name added to the history books: Wild Mile Woodworks.
Visit the Glacier Park Lodge and you’ll know why it is often referred to as the “big tree lodge.” Its lobby and exterior feature a series of 40-foot tall Douglas fir timbers brought by rail from Oregon to Montana and built over one year with a crew of 100 men. Those timbers in the lobby are still standing strong, covered in their original bark and away from the harsh Montana winters.
But the exterior timbers, stripped of their bark and buried in snow half of each of their 100+ years are slowly failing. Replacing these logs is a herculean task, not easily handled by every construction crew. But Jake Steck, owner of Wild Mile Woodworks, is uniquely qualified for the job. He and his (almost) all-Bigfork crew have worked on historic structures throughout the park for over a decade.
Beginning in 1998, Steck and his team have handcrafted timber frame homes throughout the valley, but in 2008 as the housing market crashed nationwide, rehabilitation work on Glacier Park’s historic lodges helped keep his business afloat. Now, his historic preservation resume includes a list of unique buildings throughout parkincluding: Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Two Medicine Camp Store and the Glacier Park Lodge.
This fall, he’s back to work replacing four timbers on the exterior of GlacierPark Lodge, 10 years after his first contract there when he replaced four other exterior logs. He was originally referred for the job by one of his lumber suppliers and this type of work has since become a significant portion of his annual work.
When meeting with Jake to see the final timber be tipped into place, it’s clear that he’s honored to do this work and be a part of the continued legacy in Glacier. “The railroad connected the continent and this lodge is a reflection of that time in history”, Jake said. “The incredible bounty of the nation met here in the last, flat place.”
It really is a remarkable story. Logs for the original building came from the west and hardwoods like the maple flooring came from the east, while metal work from Chicago traveled via train to the edge of the Montana plains to be constructed into this grand lodge.
Replacing just four of these original logs has been a year-long project for the Wild Mile team. They spent last winter and spring sourcing the logs needed on private land throughout the west, down to the precise diameter required match the existing logs. Each tree was felled, cut and trucked to Jake’s 4,000 square foot Bigfork shop to be peeled, joined and prepped for its trip to East Glacier.
Before the lodge opened this summer, the crew dug out footings around the foundation, poured concrete pads, then left them to cure until they returned to work just after Labor Day. Once the team arrived on site, they removed the multi-story decks and railings and erected a custom built steel structure that served as both scaffolding and structural support, as well as a jack to lift the roof of the building up three inches. Once that was in place, each log was removed and a nearly identical replacement was lifted into place with a forklift.
Upon removal, three of the four original logs proved to be completely rotted and compromised. However, none of the material will go to waste. Every inch of the century-old logs will be repurposed, and there’s even talk of a contest on the hotel’s social media pages to guess the ages of the original trees, as dated by Jake.
Next summer’s visitors are unlikely to notice that anything has changed when entering the building, a testament to the craftsmanship of the Wild Mile Woodwork team. Their names may not be engraved on their handiwork, but they have certainly left their mark. Something that they, and the entire community of Bigfork, can be proud of.