Julie Andrews made some Austrian mountains come alive with the sound of music, but for seventeen years visitors to the backcountry in Glacier National Park played a different kind of tune. That ringing sound heard in some pretty remote sections of the park wasn't exactly melodious, since it was limited to a single note from a large bell, but it was apparently pretty dramatic.
Visitors who crossed several mountain passes in Glacier between the fall of 1926 and the autumn of 1943 could "celebrate" their accomplishment by stopping to ring a large locomotive bell permanently installed at those locations. While the idea seems pretty bizarre—or even inappropriate—to us today, it apparently was a big hit with an earlier generation.
Travel to the interior of the park was by foot or horseback, and it was many a mile to the nearest railroad track, so how did large locomotive bells wind up in such unlikely locations? The answer provides some insight into the development of Glacier and to attitudes about parks and tourism in the 1920's and 30's.
In those early years of the national park system, travel for strictly recreational purposes was an idea that was starting to catch on, and there was a conscious effort to encourage visitation to parts of the West which had previously been unknown to most Americans. Companies like the Great Northern Railway and the Glacier Park Hotel Company played a major role in developing and promoting Glacier as a destination.
Information from the National Register of Historic Places notes:
Four years after the passage of the Glacier National Park enabling legislation (1910), the Glacier Park Hotel Company (a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway) had constructed an elaborate European-style hotel-trail-chalet network. Park facilities and attractions were designed to appeal to traveling America’s new-found interest in the West and long standing interest in Europe…. Tourists traveled by horseback, with cowboy guides.
Although the United States Department of the Interior was responsible for development of the park’s tourist-trail system, first park superintendent Logan noted that such a “big enterprise…can not be carried out on a large scale unless one has ample means at his command, which I do not.” The Great Northern Railway thus assumed responsibility for much of the trail program, and was reimbursed for costs as federal funds became available.
So how do bells in the mountains fit into this scenario? Information from Donald H. Robinson's administrative history of Glacier helps unravel the mystery:
In August 1925 W. R. Mills, then advertising agent of the Great Northern Railway, and H. A. Noble, manager of the Glacier Park Hotel Company, made a request of the park superintendent for permission to place locomotive bells on the summits of the following passes in the park: Swiftcurrent, Logan, Siyeh, Gunsight, Cut Bank, Stoney Indian and at Grinnell Glacier. This request was based upon an old Swiss custom of having bells on the mountain tops and passes, and the desire to give the visitors hiking or riding through the park the unusual experience of ringing these loud, clear bells high in the mountains.
The request was passed on to the office of the Director of the National Park Service, who did not approve of the idea but was somewhat loath to say so at the time, so the decision was postponed. Mr. Noble continued to press for the bells, and finally in September of 1926 the request was granted for at least two bells to be established in these passes.
Within the next two months the company had placed three of them on Swiftcurrent, Piegan and Siyeh passes. These bells were bought by the Hotel Company at a cost of $194.27 each plus packing, shipping and the expense of placing them. They were very beautifully toned and created a considerable amount of interest among the people who crossed these passes and heard them ring.
A fourth bell was placed on Mt. Henry, where the Glacier Park-Two Medicine Trail crosses Scenic Point, high above Lower Two Medicine Lake, in the summer of 1929. These four bells remained in place until the fall of 1943, when they were removed by the Hotel Company and turned in during a World War II scrap metal drive.
Anyone who actually heard these bells ring in the backcountry of Glacier would now be in their seventies or older, so this story is part of an almost forgotten chapter from the park's history. Perhaps we can thank the national zeal to collect scrap metal during World War II for avoiding what would certainly be a controversy if the bells had remained into more recent times.