Constructing the Going-To-The-Sun Road was a major undertaking – it was originally called the “Transmountain Highway”. It took nearly 3 decades to plan, design, and construct. Visitors today marvel at the route of the road and the ability to build it in such difficult terrain nearly a century ago.
Building access roads into this magnificent mountainous region began before it was designated Glacier National Park in 1910. Around the 1890s, Dimon Apgar and others homesteaded at the foot of Lake McDonald and Apgar built a two mile wagon trail from the Great Northern Railway station in Belton – now West Glacier – to the foot of the Lake McDonald.
George Snyder built a rustic lodge about 10 miles up on the east shore of Lake McDonald. The only access to his rustic lodge was by boat from the foot of Lake McDonald. John Lewis acquired the rustic lodge in 1909 and replaced it with a much grander hotel still in use today – Lake McDonald Lodge.
In 1910 when William Logan was named the park superintendent, he substantially upgraded the wagon trail from Belton to the foot of Lake McDonald in 1911. Plans were made to build a road along the shores of Lake McDonald up to Lewis’s Lodge but Park Service funding was very limited so funding it would be left to entrepreneurs. Plus since one could access the lodge by boat from the foot of Lake McDonald, the government was in no hurry to build the road. So John Lewis took on the road construction project to his Lodge and it was completed in 1922.
On the East Side of Glacier Park, Louis Hill, son of the founder of the Great Northern Railway, and the Great Northern Railway took on a building program during the park’s first decade. Glacier Park Lodge was built across from the railroad station in Midvale – now East Glacier. They also built a 50 mile road along the East Side of Glacier Park starting at Midvale. Along this road, spur roads were built going a few mile into the Park and at the end of each spur road a rustic lodge was built. They built chalets at Two Medicine, Cut Bank Creek, and St Mary Lake. At the farthest north spur road, they built Many Glacier Hotel which is still in use today. For many years, Many Glacier Hotel was the largest hotel in Montana.
In 1918, George Goodwin, acting superintendent of Glacier Park, convinced National Park Service director, Stephen Mather, that Logan Pass was the best place to build the “Transmountain Highway” over the Continental Divide. His proposal traveled along McDonald Creek to the confluence with Logan Creek then climbed steeply along the Logan Creek Valley with 15 switchbacks, an 8% grade, and 50 foot radius turns up the West Side to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.
Congress appropriated $100,000 per year in the early 1920’s for the construction of the “Transmountain Highway”. Consequently, contracts were signed to begin construction from both sides. They increased that appropriation to $1,000,000 each year for 3 years in 1924.
In 1924, Frank Kittredge, highway engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads, was brought in to survey the Goodwin route. The survey was started in September so Kittredge and his crew were pushing to complete the survey before winter. It was difficult work, sometimes climbing 3,000 feet each morning to start the day or hanging over cliffs or walking on narrow ledges. The work was so difficult, the turnover rate for his crew was 300 percent in the 3 months they worked on it.
Thomas Vint, the National Park Service landscape architect, accompanied Mather and then Glacier Park Superintendent Charles Kraebel in 1924 when they went to inspect the construction progress. Vint opposed Goodwin’s route. He thought this route would leave a big scar on the scenic Logan Creek Valley. He protested and proposed a different route. It was a longer, straighter route with a 6% grade and had only one switchback with a 75 foot radius turn. Both routes followed McDonald Creek up to the confluence with Logan Creek. Vint’s route continued along McDonald Creek Valley ascending gradually until it switch-backed, the point now referred to as The Loop, and followed along the vertical cliffs of the Garden Wall to Logan Pass.
To resolve this conflict, Mather brought in Frank Kittredge, who became the National Park Service highway engineer in 1927, to survey the routes. Kittredge liked the aesthetics of Vint’s route and recommended it which Mather concurred with. Aesthetics was an important consideration when designing and constructing the road. The road was built according to Vint’s proposal except for a few modifications.
By the time they selected someone to build the West Side section of the “Transmountain Road” in 1925, 10 miles of the road had already been built along the north side of St Mary Lake and about 12 miles were built along the east side of Lake McDonald to the head of the lake. The firm selected to build the West Side section of the road was Williams & Douglas Construction Company of Tacoma, WA with a bid of $869,145.
Most of the structures on the west side were built by Williams & Douglas Construction Company. These structures included the West Side Tunnel, the Logan Creek Bridge, the Triple Arches, the Haystack Creek Culvert, and all the retaining walls. They used power shovels and a small gasoline powered engine with twelve cars, called a “dinky” train, to move materials to where they were needed.
After nearly 3 decades of planning and construction and over $2,000,000, the first automobile crossed over the “Transmountain Highway” in late fall of 1932. The “Transmountain Highway” was formerly opened in a special dedication ceremony on July 15, 1933. The ceremony was presided over by then Glacier Park
Amid extremely steep, difficult terrain and hazards from dynamite to grizzly bears, amazingly only 3 men lost their lives during the construction of the “Transmountain Highway.” One died from a fall and the other 2 were killed by falling rock.
In 1938, paving the “Transmountain Highway” began. It wasn’t completed until 1952 as a series of paving contracts were interrupted by World War II.
The “Transmountain Highway” was officially named Going-To-The-Sun Road during the dedication ceremony in 1933. This name came from nearby Going-To-The-Sun Mountain. Legend has Going-To-The-Sun Mountain was named for a Blackfeet phrase about a spirit “who went back to the sun after his work was done.” Glacier Park superintendent, J.R. Eakin said this name “gives the impression that in driving this road autoists will ascend to extreme heights and view sublime panoramas.”
The Going To The Sun Road is roughly a forty minute drive from Smoky Bear Ranch.
Information extracted from Going-To-The-Sun Road by Bill Yenne and Mountain Mouse Land’s article Glacier National Park Going To The Sun Road Construction.