If Glacier National Park is the Crown of the Continent, its three grand hotels are its most precious jewels. Visitors from around the world book reservations far in advance to stay in these famous park lodges: Many Glacier, Glacier Park, and Lake McDonald. However, a smaller, lesser-known lodge, the Belton Chalet, was the first to welcome guests when the park opened in 1910. We think it’s a hidden gem.
The Great Northern Railway and its president, James Hill, were responsible for much of the early development within Glacier National Park. The railroad tapped into the market of wealthy Americans taking lengthy trips to Europe, coaxing them to visit Glacier instead with the slogan “See America First.” Of course, to get to the park, they would ride the railroad. And when they arrived, they’d need a place to stay. Great Northern built a network of hotels and chalets throughout the park, each approximately a one-day’s horse ride apart, to give visitors a luxury experience in the backcounty.
Built adjacent to the Belton Train Depot in West Glacier, the gateway to the new national park, the chalet was modest. It had a main lodge, two cottages, and a dormitory. But for the weary tourists who arrived by train from the east with their trunks and their servants, it was considered the height of modern convenience.
Eventually, interstates and automobiles brought an end to the golden age of railroad travel. When Highway 2 was constructed along the south side of the park, it separated the train depot and the chalet, leaving each on opposite sides of the highway. After World War II, Great Northern sold the Belton Chalet to private owners, and for the next 50 years, this Swiss-style chalet changed owners frequently. With lengthy closures and the inevitable decline to which aging structures are prone, its future was in peril.
Redemption came in 1997, when a local couple bought it and undertook a major restoration. They had to reconstruct the roof, rewire and replumb throughout, and fix the foundation. Carpenters rebuilt the ruined verandas using molds to mimic the original key-hole balusters. And one-hundred-year-old Arts and Crafts-style furnishings found on site, now once again occupy a place in the main lobby. Two years and $2 million later, the chalet relives its former glory. Even better in fact; each of the rooms now have private bathrooms, an upgrade from the original floorplan.
We had a chance to stay at the Belton Chalet recently, booking a reservation only a few weeks ahead of our trip. It was charming, cozy, and half the price of Lake McDonald Lodge, ten miles inside the park. Walking into the main lobby was like stepping back in time to Glacier’s earliest days, complete with the sound of the train rumbling by outside. On one side of the front room are original windows showcasing views of the park, and on the other is a comfortable sitting area with places to relax in front of the original fireplace.
On the 14-acre property are two large cottages (named Lewis and Clark) and another building that houses the restaurant and taproom. Serving an array of local beers, spirits, and craft cocktails, the Belton Tap Room is a favorite of locals and chalet guests, who take advantage of the outdoor deck during beautiful summer days. Using locally sourced ingredients, the restaurant’s menu includes a variety of dishes from bison meatloaf to duck confit. And to recreate the ambiance of a bygone era, the staff lines the balconies each night to welcome the evening train, just as they did in 1910.
The lodge has 26 rooms, and like a lot of historic hotels, no TVs or internet. Our room on the second floor at the top of the stairs was basic but comfortable. Lying in bed, we could hear creaks from the refinished maple floors that run throughout the chalet, as you would expect in a century-old building. It never occurred to us that the noises might be a warning that the chalet is haunted, until the next morning when we read the newspaper article hanging in the hallway.
Titled “Friendly Ghost Roams the Halls at Belton Chalet,” it tells the story of ghostly encounters with an apparition who wears a thin black necktie and a derby hat. Employees have witnessed lights turning on and off, chandeliers swinging, and they’ve heard creaking footsteps, clanging pots and pans in the kitchen, and the soft voice of a man. They think perhaps the ghost is James Hill, keeping watch on his very first chalet. If that’s true, then he must be one very happy ghost to see his place beautifully restored to its original, charming condition, ready to host guests for another hundred years.