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The Alp Connection

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The Alp connection - a very unique relationship between Montana and Switzerland - persists today. Relationships provide meaning and a way to interpret the world around us. Similarities and differences can introduce people to something new. For example, a hot dog and a hamburger have similarities, but also differences, each being unique. Such concepts provide opportunities, which is what transpired in the Alp connection.

Our story begins in the American west. In the late 1800s, the Great Northern Railway began to reach its lines toward the west. Such new tentacles of transportation were engineering marvels requiring a huge upfront investment to create. While the railway lines would eventually revolutionize life in the north-western frontier and accelerate the pace of development by years and years, the rail business was extremely financially risky early on. So, significant effort was focused on strategies to increase the railroad’s use and, by extension, its revenue.

One of the aspects that made building railroads more costly in the west was the magnificent Rocky Mountains. However, Louis Hill, President of the Great Northern Railway birthed an idea to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. This creative entrepreneur gazed across the ocean to a similar, magnificent set of mountains called the “Alps.” While a number of countries claimed different sections of this mountain range, Switzerland had embraced the Alps as a part of their national image. For centuries, the Swiss had made a way of life among the rugged and dramatic granite behemoths, grazing their cattle in the high mountain meadows during the summer and in the lower valleys the rest of the year. Alongside the unique lifestyle of mountain grazing, the Swiss also developed a distinctive and charming architectural style decorated with ornate wood carvings contrasted with sturdy broad beams to withstand the crushing weight of the relentless winter snow and their signature knocked-off corner roofs. 

For many years, Switzerland was known as the “Playground of Europe”- expensive, exclusive, and more spectacular than anywhere else. So, what better subject to emulate in the Rockies? Spearheaded by Mr. Louis Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railway, a bill was introduced in Congress to create a new national park in the mountains called Glacier National Park. As soon as the park was created, Louis Hill formed the Glacier Park Company, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway. This new company functioned as a concessionaire with the Park Service and built many of the iconic lodges and hotels in the park. Louis Hill was fascinated by Switzerland and its allure. Thus, he set about to promote the new park as the “American Switzerland.” 

In the first three years of the park’s existence, the Glacier Park Company built a whole slew of chalets including Belton, St. Mary, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Sperry, Granite Park, Cut Bank, and Gunsight Lake. With these new chalets nestled in the mountains, Hill ushered in numerous artists to capture the beautiful scenes. These works of art were then leveraged to market the park. Tourists flocked to see the rugged beauty of the mountains. And what was the best way to get there? The Great Northern Railway. The hotels and chalets the Glacier Park Company built were never profitable, but the enhancement of seeing “America’s Switzerland” created a decades-long boom of tourists who rode the Great Northern Railway to this destination.

The economic impact of these tourists also rippled out and played a significant role in the further development of the park. Because of the popularity spurred by this clever image-based marketing, Glacier National Park is a favorite destination. In many ways, we can thank the early image campaign for developing Glacier into the park we know and love today. The Alp Connection links the two locations forever.

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