If you're a railroad buff, you'll love this historic depot, the busiest Amtrak stop between Seattle and Minneapolis. The depot doubles as Whitefish Museum.
Folks say there wasn’t much here when the first train rolled into present-day Whitefish, Montana on October 4, 1904. But that day brought more than just the train. Within a year, the city of Whitefish was incorporated, huddled beneath a bold rise of mountains that captured a small, forested lake.
By 1906, the Cadillac Hotel was built block away from the train depot to accommodate those who had begun to arrive. Making room for a growing population, the thick timber around town was felled, resulting in the nickname “Stumptown.”
In 1927, The Great Northern Railway hired architect Thomas D'Arcy McMahon to devise a depot for Whitefish. With a timber-framed, Tudor revival exterior, the building matches the Swiss appearance that had proved popular at Glacier National Park’s chalets.
Meanwhile, far from Whitefish, railroad tycoon James J. Hill had his own plan in the works. With the help of J.P. Morgan, Hill restructured failing sections of Great Northern and extended the railway cross country, into the Pacific Northwest. Hill placed his own nickname on the new line and the “Empire Builder” was inaugurated on June 11, 1929, completing rail service from coast to coast.
The new line brought droves of folks out West, touring through the splendor found in the Crown of the Continent to explore features such as Glacier National Park. From the opposite direction, an overnight ride brought visitors in from Seattle and Portland. Still, Whitefish remained a rural stop and it was difficult to get to outlying areas from here.
The railroad initially used a gas-electric one-coach trail to move passengers, freight and mail on local spurs, but as years passed, a better service was required to meet growing demands. In 1951, a combination bus/truck, or “Bruck,” painted in the Great Northern’s colors of orange and green, took up the route. When personal cars began populating America’s highways, the service declined and fell out of use by 1972. The Bruck was lost for many years, but then found again, sitting in a Great Falls’ salvage yard. Now restored to its former appearance, today the vehicle sits beside the Whitefish depot, as if waiting for the next train.
Unlike the Bruck, the glory of this rural resort town did not decline. The residents of Whitefish made certain of the vision they dreamt for their community. Pooling resources and money, the Big Mountain Ski Resort and the Whitefish Community Golf Course were built around features that were valued the most – the scenic outdoors.
That dream is now fully realized and when passengers step off the train, a rail museum (adjacent to the Amtrak waiting room) documents Whitefish’s story for travelers. Created in 1982 by individuals interested in preserving the unique history of this small town, the Stumptown Historical Society provides railroad and community artifacts, pictures and displays – all with plenty of local information.
Composed of more than 200 members from all parts of the United States and Canada, the Society acquired the Whitefish Railway Depot in 1990 from Burlington Northern Railroad. Restoration took three years, hundreds of volunteer hours and many generous donations to return the station to its original chalet-like appearance. In 2002, the depot was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
In fact, the place looks so good the depot has caught the attention of Disney, and in July vintage cars are planned to stop here for the promotion of the up-coming feature film “A Christmas Carol.”
Just down the quaintly covered Main Street, the Cadillac Hotel now lodges the Great Northern Brewery, a favorite watering hole for natives and non-natives alike. Catty-corner, the new community center offers diverse cultural experiences. A variety of shops and restaurants roam the streets of Whitefish, many borrowing their names from the railroad legacy that started it all.
93 north from Kalispell to Whitefish. Stay on Spokane Ave to T intersection. Turn left, go one block, depot on right.