Change is a constant theme in the dialogue surrounding Glacier National Park in Montana. Glaciers are retreating rapidly, reducing streamflow and threatening flora and fauna. Sometimes, however, change comes with renewal. One striking case is the recent restoration of a set of murals from the historic Glacier Lodge.
Railroad tycoon Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway in the early 20th century, deeply appreciated the beauty of the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains in northwestern Montana and sensed the financial opportunities the area offered. He pushed for it to become a national park and hoped to bring visitors by train to the new attraction. In 1910, President William Howard Taft signed a bill creating Glacier National Park, and Hill finished construction on the lodge in 1912. To add grandeur to the main lobby, a multi-story space lined by 40-foot fir pillars, he commissioned 51 murals depicting the new park’s landscapes and glaciers.
When the lodge was remodeled in the 1950s, a few of the murals were left up, but most were thrown away. Local grocery store owners Robert and Leona Brown of East Glacier saved 15 of the murals, storing them in their garage, where they were discovered by their granddaughter Leanne Goldhahn in 2000, after the Browns had passed away. Leanne and her husband Alan donated the murals to the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, Montana. Donations to the museum supported the murals’ restoration, which the Missoulian reported cost between $3,000 and $5,000 per painting. Ethan McCauley, a Boy Scout from Polson, Montana, took the project on and raised $10,000 in under a year to help pay the restoration costs. The museum is still collecting funds to restore the remaining murals.
The murals offer visitors not only simple beauty, but an opportunity to connect with the Glacier landscape, across both space and time. This is especially true for the painted vistas that visitors can see today by driving or taking a short hike, according to Tracy Johnson, executive director of the Hockaday. “People will come to the museum after a weekend in the park and say, ‘I was at that lake, I saw that waterfall,’” she said in an interview with GlacierHub.
But just as apparent is how the landscape is different than when the vistas were painted. “By looking at the murals you can also see what’s changed—glaciers that have receded, a new lodge that was built. The murals are a documentation of that space. We can compare and see that the lake level dropped a bit, or rose,” Johnson said.
Connection to the natural and cultural history of these landscapes may be important to the park’s future, says Lisa McKeon, who works to document glaciers in Glacier National Park with The Repeat Photography Project. “Helping visitors make the connections across the landscape is where the stepping stone of understanding glacier loss leads to a greater understanding of the whole system. Having a deeper sense of the place, visitors become engaged on a level that has more meaning, and perhaps creates a lasting impression that translates in to some kind of action,” she told GlacierHub.
Three of the fully restored murals are on display at the Hockaday, two are on loan to the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish, and another is being displayed at the courthouse in Polson. This generosity is appreciated by the communities playing host to the murals, and Johnson reported that visitors from these towns often thank the museum for sharing the murals with them.
These murals— in effect, historical documents of a visual nature— have profoundly affected out-of-state visitors and Montana residents. “Our murals are probably one of our most popular spots on tour in the exhibits,” Johnson told GlacierHub. “I’ve never seen so much support for a conservation project. Ethan was just amazing. He knew how important these were to our community and wanted to preserve them.”
The preservation of wild lands through the National Park System creates an inherent nostalgia for the parks. In her article, “Longing for Wonderland: Nostalgia for Nature in Post-Frontier America,” Jennifer Ladino argued, “Often figured as the quintessential home— and frequently posited as the Eden from which humanity has tragically fallen— nature demands attention as a slippery object of nostalgic longing throughout American history.”
Viewed today, the murals’ depiction of famous landscapes are inevitably tinged with nostalgia. “There’s a timeless connection between the 1920/30s and today, almost a hundred years ago. It takes people back,” Johnson said. The painting of Grinnell Glacier, the most visited glacier in the park, can act as a time machine, simultaneously inspiring viewers to imagine what the area looked like in the past and impressing upon them how much the glacier has retreated. “Art can capture so much. In the murals, people find connection. They can imagine the artist at the Grinnell Lake area thinking, ‘I wonder what’s on the other side of that mountain.’ Art takes you back to that spirit of adventure,” she said.
The murals have created another adventure, as people speculate on who painted the unsigned works of art. No records exist with the lodge or railway, and Joe Abbrescia, who restored the murals, hasn’t reached a conclusion through his research on their origin. “If you go to the lodge at East Glacier, I would swear that whatever artist painted those painted ours,” said Johnson. Some speculate it was the artist John Fery, or one of the female artists who painted in the 20s and 30s in Glacier Park under a male name. “We’ve done as much as we can. It’s kind of a neat mystery,” she said.
No matter their origin, Montana is lucky to have the murals. As Glacier’s iconic features melt rapidly, these works of art and the story of their restoration will serve as reminders of what the park once looked like and our evolving relationship with glacial landscapes.