Kalispell was a Montana jewel 0n the Great Northern Railway. Despite that fact, in 1984 the preservation of the railroad’s historic passenger station was not certain. This landmark, at the head of the T-plan town, still stood but was viewed as an impediment even an eyesore by some. The depot (1892, 1899, 1914, 1929) was built when Kalispell was an important division point on the railroad’s main line then altered over the next three decades to the stuccoed exterior you find today. It marked literally the beginnings of the town’s history. Yet, when I held a public meeting at another landmark, the town’s historic Carnegie Library (1903) that had recently been through an adaptive reuse into the
Hockaday Art Museum, strong sentiments for more preservation were rarely heard. The depot was not listed in the National Register nor were many of the downtown buildings. There were a few of the town’s rich stock of Victorian era houses listed. The success of the Hockaday and the Conrad Mansion (1892-1895) historic site seemed to be enough for many residents, or they thought preservation only meant pretty homes and buildings.
Then came the work east of Kalispell in and around Glacier National Park to inventory and list eligible buildings to the National Register in the mid to late 1980s. That, along with the loss of key downtown landmarks and new voices from preservationists and property owners, began to grow the interest in historic preservation.
The result was a massive multiple property study of Kalispell for the National Register of Historic Places, resulting in the listing of dozens of additional historical properties in 1994. The historic railroad depot was listed and serves as home for the Chamber of Commerce and a visitor center, a front porch for the downtown. A new era in historic preservation had been launched, and the result today is impressive, as the next posts will explore.
Appreciating the town’s achievement in historic preservation over the last 20 years comes at an opportune time. The economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s are ready to be repeated again. A federal grant, matched by local sources, will mean that the historic railroad corridor through the center of town will be moved–opening up acres for new construction. Everyone knows this will be as fundamental of a change as when the Great Northern moved their division point to Whitefish in 1904. But now Kalispell has a strong historic core, identity, and purpose–the past has become fundamental to its future. Now let’s review that preservation achievement.