Workers Rush to Rebuild Glacier Chalet During Short Construction Season

By Duncan Adams | August 27, 2019

WEST GLACIER, Mont. — Workers for the general contractor toil eight days straight, in 10-hour shifts, before hiking the 6-plus miles out for six days off.

They’re replaced during that time by another crew from Dick Anderson Construction.

That rotation means the ongoing work in Glacier National Park to rebuild the historic Sperry Chalet dormitory, perched high on a stone bluff on the edge of a glacier-carved cirque, proceeds seven days a week. The chalet was nearly destroyed in the 2017 Sprague Fire.

A crew from subcontractor Anderson Masonry of Kalispell works six 10-hour days each week at the site. The two companies are not affiliated.

The short construction season available at this subalpine elevation, where snow flies long after winter’s end and returns long before its start, mandates a full-steam-ahead schedule.

Supplies arrive by mule train or helicopter. Six wall tents house the workers.

Mountain goats and marmots seem to welcome the intrusion into their habitat.

During phase one construction last year, the workers referred to the pesky marmots as “terrorists.” This year, inexplicably, the rodents have been less bothersome, said Rob Terrio, one of two job superintendents on the project. But salt-seeking mountain goats raise a ruckus at night by tramping on the construction scaffolding’s metal flooring.

Phase two of the reconstruction began July 7. The goal is to complete the rebuild by Oct. 1, the Daily Inter Lake reports.

“It’s anticipated that the chalet will be ready for public overnight stays in 2020,” the park service has said, with bookings to be handled by a concessionaire.

On Aug. 8, as the clamor of hammers, an air compressor, a masonry cutoff saw and generators echoed across the cirque, Terrio said the work so far has been a bit ahead of schedule.

On that day, seven workers were on site from Dick Anderson Construction and nine were on site from Anderson Masonry.

Terrio said the project typically receives materials once a week by mule train and once a week by helicopter.

Soon, the payloads will include windows, doors and tongue-and-groove flooring and wall covering as the effort begins to focus on interior details. Masonry repairs continue. And McGurran Precision Painting of Great Falls recently joined the on-site workforce.

The National Park Service has awarded two contracts to Dick Anderson Construction. The phase one award for work in 2018 was for $4.08 million and the phase two award was for $4.73 million.

The Glacier National Park Conservancy has played a key role in saving and rebuilding the two-story dormitory through fundraising and other efforts. Doug Mitchell serves as the nonprofit organization’s executive director.

“I’ve been up to Sperry twice so far this year, and it’s truly remarkable to see what has been accomplished in so short a time,” Mitchell said. “It’s thrilling to see history being made right in front of your eyes, and in my view, this project will be an example of how a vibrant public-private partnership can make the seemingly impossible, possible.”

He said the conservancy has funded three grants totaling $632,548 to support the Sperry Chalet project.

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 housed visitors for more than a century. Early visitors tended to arrive by horseback, traveling over Gunsight and Lincoln passes, according to a park service history.

A nearby talus slope provided stone 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.

The chalet was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

The phase two work includes adding a double-roof system for the dormitory, including a fire-resistant rolled roof and fire-resistant cedar shingles. Terrio acknowledged some people have wondered about the wisdom of using cedar shingles given the building’s near destruction in 2017.

“The fire didn’t start on the roof,” he said. “It started up beneath the eaves.”

In addition, the rebuild has been guided by efforts to retain historical accuracy, he said.

“A lot of stuff bounces off the park historians,” he said.

Zack Anderson, president of Anderson Masonry, said the company has been involved in two previous masonry projects at Sperry Chalet during the past 40 years and feels honored to be involved in this ambitious rebuild.

Before phase two construction began, the park service said masons tackling repairs after the fire could use the same stone from the nearby rubble field.

What has the masonry work entailed?

“Complete stone masonry rebuild of the top 2 feet of the chalet walls with native stone, which we quarried near the site of the original stone quarry adjacent to the chalet; rebuilding of the stone chimneys; descaling and replacement of compromised stone on the interior walls, along with extensive cleaning and repointing of interior and exterior stone walls on the entire chalet,” Anderson said.

He said his masons have been impressed by the size of the stones used by the Italian stonemasons.

“Many of the cornerstones are the size of your average living room coffee table,” Anderson said. “It is incredible how they found a way to install them throughout the building, considering many are several feet above ground level.”

He added it is also remarkable how strong and durable the original mortar turned out to be.

“Much of the mortar is still in very decent condition throughout the structure,” Anderson said.

Lightning sparked the Sprague Fire on Aug. 10, 2017.

The wildfire grew to about 10 acres the next day and to about 204 acres by Aug. 15.

The fire totaled about 2,095 acres when extra firefighters gathered Aug. 30 at Sperry Chalet, hoping to protect it from the Sprague Fire.

In spite of numerous efforts, they could not save the dormitory. On Aug. 31, embers driven by high winds “were funneled upward toward the eaves of the dining hall and dormitory,” according to a report released after the fire.

Firefighters saved the detached dining hall. But fire gutted the dormitory, leaving the stone shell.

Immediately after the fire, the Glacier National Park Conservancy raised money for the emergency stabilization and preservation of the chalet’s masonry walls before winter set in.

During the period of phase one construction in 2018, the Howe Ridge wildfire closed portions of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. And that meant the workers high above Lake McDonald had the cirque to themselves, Terrio said.

This year, hikers routinely travel up for the scenery or to get a glimpse of the rebuild. Some eat at the dining hall, which also feeds the workers.

Terrio said crews have had to temper their usual colorful construction banter.

“We have to make sure we have the right etiquette,” he said.

Travis Neil has been project manager for the Sperry Chalet rebuild for Dick Anderson Construction.

“This project is one that’s close to the company’s heart and pride,” Neil said. “We are committed to exhausting every effort to ensure we meet our schedule while providing high quality restoration of an important historic landmark to our great state of Montana and our beloved Glacier National Park.”

Anderson, of Anderson Masonry, expressed similar thoughts.

“We are not only proud to be involved but also very much aware of how significant this project is for everyone involved and also to the many private donors who have contributed to the successful preservation of this amazing chalet,” he said.

Terrio said he has worked for Dick Anderson Construction for 28 years.

“This is the best project I’ve ever worked, hands down,” he said. “It’s just the location, the passion everybody has about the place. Everybody who passes by says, `Thank you.’ We don’t hear that too often on a commercial job.”

About the photo: In this Aug. 8 photo, Nick DeLude, with Dick Anderson Construction, installs cedar shake shingles on the roof of the Sperry Chalet dormitory in Glacier National Park, Mont., after it was nearly destroyed by a 2017 fire. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake via AP)

About Duncan Adams

Duncan Adams wrote this for the Daily Inter Lake.

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