Summer is one of the busiest seasons across the Amtrak system as additional leisure travelers ride the trains to visit friends and family or access prime tourist destinations such as our national parks. About half of the more than 400 national park system units
, including the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta (Route: Crescent
) and Big Bend National Park near Alpine, Texas, (Route: Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle
) are easily accessible via Amtrak.
Many trains also host Trails & Rails
talks, which are provided through an innovative partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak. On a seasonal basis, trained volunteer guides describe places of natural and cultural interest along a route and also answer questions from passengers.
The West Glacier depot houses a Glacier National Park Conservancy retail shop. Image courtesy of the GNPC.
Railroads were instrumental in the creation of some of our best-loved national parks, including Glacier National Park
in northwestern Montana. Established in 1910, Glacier became a focal point of the Great Northern Railway’s promotional efforts. The company went on to build a series of rustic lodges in the area to attract tourists and grow passenger traffic.
Today, visitors can reach Glacier’s forests, meadows, lakes and mountains via five Amtrak stations: Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier (open mid-spring to mid-fall) and Browning (open mid-fall to mid-spring). The historic West Glacier
and East Glacier
depots act as park gateways for rail travelers. The former is an interesting example of how a depot can be adapted for commercial use that complements its transportation functions.
Constructed in 1910 and enlarged in 1935, the West Glacier depot stands opposite the historic Belton Chalet hotel (and therefore the depot is often referred to as “Belton”). Rough-hewn siding extends over the entire building and gives it a rustic appearance that blends well with the surrounding park. The depot is owned by the Glacier National Park Conservancy
, the park’s official non-profit partner that provides support for preservation, education and research at Glacier through philanthropy and outreach.
Product displays fill the former waiting room, which retains its original interior finishes. Image courtesy of the GNPC.
One of the conservancy’s predecessor organizations received the building as a donation from BNSF Railway in 1991 and subsequently converted it to its present commercial use. In total, the conservancy operates four park stores whose revenue provides funding for vital projects and programs. “These efforts include funding for 8,000 school children to participate in field trips to the park each year, internships for future park rangers and critical mountain goat research,” says Mark Preiss, the conservancy’s chief executive officer.
Renovation projects, including the enclosure of a covered picnic area to create office space and a conference room, have always been completed in a manner that complements and preserves the depot’s historic fabric. In the retail space, original wood paneling and the ticket counter form a suitable backdrop for displays of clothing, books and souvenirs. The conservancy actively seeks grants to assist with building rehabilitation and maintenance to ensure that proceeds from store operations directly support the park.
During the summer high season the Belton depot receives approximately 200 visitors per day. Passengers on the Empire Builder
(Chicago-Seattle/Portland) use the adjacent platform. Preiss notes, “Train service has historically connected visitors to Glacier National Park, back to the early days of the Great Northern Railway. Amtrak’s an important link that allows people from across the country to access the wilderness resource right in our own backyard.”
At East Glacier, visitors enjoy displays of local and railroad history.
On the other side of the park, the East Glacier station is used seasonally from mid-spring to mid-fall (Browning is the alternate stop during the winter). The 1912 building incorporates large timbers in its design, and it sits across from the historic Glacier Park Lodge. A variety of displays are found in the waiting room. Drawn from the collections of local historian John Chase, they describe the history of the station and the GN trains that once served the region. Vintage china and GN and Amtrak uniforms provide a tangible link to the railroad and its importance in promoting the park.
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