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Neither rain nor snow nor marmots hamstring Sperry rebuild

October 7, 2018

Vexing hoary marmots, salt-seeking mountain goats, wildfire fighting that drew away choppers and their pilots, wind and fog and snow.

These challenges and more bedeviled the men laboring this summer to complete the first phase of the endeavor to rebuild the dormitory of the historic Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park.

They got the work done anyway.

The Sprague Fire in late August 2017 gutted the two-story dormitory. A detached kitchen and dining room structure escaped major damage after firefighters extinguished a spot fire in the eaves.

In June, the National Park Service announced plans to award a $4.08 million contract to Dick Anderson Construction for phase one of the dormitory building’s rebuild.

Construction began July 9.

Travis Neil has been the contractor’s project manager. He described the undertaking at Sperry as especially unique - both for its logistical challenges and for the historical significance of a structure with a storied past.

“This is a legacy project,” Neil said. “If you’re from Montana, it’s close to your heart. Even our grandchildren will know someday that we worked on this.”

The chalet, completed in 1913, was built for the Great Northern Railway as part of the system of “grand hotels and picturesque chalets” in Glacier National Park after the park was established in 1910, according to the National Park Service.

At an elevation of about 6,500 feet, accessible only by trail, the Sperry Chalet’s rustic accommodations have occupied the edge of a glacier-carved cirque. A nearby talus slope provided stone quarried for the 23-room dormitory building and forests below supplied the original timber. The Great Northern Railway brought in Italian masons to complete the initial stonework.

It’s not clear whether those masons had to cope with habituated marmots or agile mountain goats equipped with sharp horns.

“Every type of critter is so salt-deprived,” Neil said, noting that doffing a sweaty shirt became a predictable wildlife draw.

Neil wryly observed that, as rodents go, marmots are large and stocky and tenacious foragers.

After the wildfire season began the project lost access to helicopters that had been airlifting materials to the chalet site. As the season progressed, it was challenging to secure choppers and pilots, Neil said, because they were engaged in firefighting.

Mule strings packed in some of the tools and other gear needed by workers, he said.

After the 2017 wildfire gutted the dormitory, opinions varied about how to best respond. A few people favored simply letting the site return to a natural state. But most people supported reconstruction that would use the stone masonry walls still standing and retain the original building’s defining historic features and character, while also adding a few new materials to enhance structural stability and fire resistance.

And that became the plan.

Neil said there were typically 16 to 20 workers on site during the summer.

Crews lived in wall tents and worked seven days a week, typically in 12-hour shifts. But scheduling avoided overtime, he said.

The company has completed the tasks outlined in the contract for phase one. The goals included new foundation work to stabilize and level the interior structure, with the ultimate goal of supporting the completed roof. Additional work focused on seismic stabilization through construction of interior walls, floors and roof framing.

Lauren Alley, a spokeswoman for Glacier National Park, said the National Park Service will solicit bids this winter for phase 2.

“Phase 2 cost estimates are underway with Anderson Hallas Architects, the design team who has been contracted for both phase 1 and phase 2 design efforts,” Alley said.

She said funding sources for the reconstruction include federal dollars, property insurance reimbursement and private donations solicited by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Doug Mitchell, the conservancy’s executive director, said Friday that he has been deeply impressed by all that’s been achieved during this first season of work.

“It really is remarkable how much has been accomplished in such a short amount of time,” Mitchell said.

He said he was also impressed in July by the commitment to the task ahead demonstrated by construction workers.

“You could see, looking in their eyes, that they knew they were going to be involved in something historic and that they were going to give it their all, and that has proven to be true,” Mitchell said.

Officials anticipate the rebuild will be completed in 2020.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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