1935, 07 June:: John E. Lewis Early Day Pioneer And Fur Trader
John E. Lewis, pioneer fur-trader, rancher and business man helped make the history of the northwestern part of Montana almost more than any other single individual. Glacier National Park became an international institution partly because he built a hotel at the head of Lake McDonald and put into it personality and friendship
In the old Lewis Hotel, the great and the lowly from all over the world come to collect weird stories of the northwest, to snatch bits of the Lewis personality to have as their own in a glorified remembrance of the hardy men who developed the northwest.
Lewis was born in Greeley, Iowa, in 1865 on a farm. He went to a country school, a city high school and graduated from the University of Iowa as a lawyer with an LLB degree.
He played football and baseball three years in college and came to Helena, Mont., as a professional ball player. He stayed in Montana long enough to get acquainted with Charlie Russell and he liked the stories the artist told him about Montana. He never went back to the east to live. From then on he became a westerner.
The stories of the opening of a new country, the Flathead, were interesting to Lewis. At that time the western portion of Montana was Missoula county and the Great Northern Railway had not yet reached the northwestern part of the state. Lewis went to Ravalli by train, took a stage coach across the flats south of Flathead lake to Polson and crossed the lake in an old wood-burning steamboat to Demersville, the forerunner of Kalispell.
Settlers in the Flathead were few, only here and there one was to be seen settling down upon the land to make a living from the soil. Most of the population made their living out of trapping and trading. They prospected the country in the summer for not many years had passed since rich strikes had been reported to exist on Libby creek. It was a roving population and the towns contained numerous saloons, dance halls and now and then a primitive store which also sold whisky.
Lewis accepted a job at the Ramsdell store at Egan. Here he bought and sold furs and traded with the Indians. Trappers as far north as old Fort Steele bartered their pelts away at the Ramsdell store. They came there to get molasses, brown sugar, salt pork and trinkets. During these years Lewis contacted almost every tribe of Indians in Montana, becoming their life-long friend. He learned their speech and sign language. He bought their furs, collected knowledge and relics of their primitive life.
In the extravagance of natural resources of the day, only beaver and bear hides were considered valuable, Marten, mink, and muskrat were without value. Marten sold for 75 cents to $1.00 a skin; mink for 50 cents and muskrat for about a nickel.
Columbia Falls in 1892 was looked upon by the prophets of business to be the coming town of the northwest. Andrew J. Davis and James A. Talbott, both bankers from Butte were there to take advantage of this new development. Mr. Lewis left Egan and went to Columbia Falls to practice law. He built the old Columbian Hotel which burned more than 25 years ago. He continued to buy and sell furs until he became the largest broker of raw furs in the northwest. Later, with C. C. Miller he remodeled the old Gaylord Hotel which was considered by the traveling public to be one of the best hotels along the highline of the Great Northern.
The townsite company was organized. This was believed to be the logical point for the division of the railroad, but James J. Hill thought that he was being robbed in the price these bankers asked for the land; he changed the survey and left Columbia Falls more than a mile away from the rails. At first he even refused to build a depot for the citizenry of Columbia Falls because he was so bitter against the town. Kalispell became the division point, but there he had difficulty in getting land at his own price. In his rage he ordered all the locomotives of the division fired and on one historic night all of th whistles of the engines of the division began blowing in unison and the division was moved to Whitefish. Columbia Falls lost the division to two towns. Kalispell is still served by a branch line. Hill later wrote a scorching letter to the land men of Kalispell in which he said that he would live to see the day when the grass grew over the windows of the Conrad bank. This prophecy of the Empire Builder never materialized.
It has been said that Hill had such a hatred against this incident that he would pull the curtains down in his special car as he was traveling through Columbia Falls, always refusing even to look out.
Rich coal deposits were reported on the North Fork of the Flathead river. C. C. Miller, Lewis' partner, who came to the Flathead in 1888, was developing these fields. A company was organized. An old steamboat was raised from the bottom of the Mississippi and shipped to Columbia Falls to be equipped for shipping the coal out of the North Fork. After it was put in order it left the town with great flourish and celebration. It overtook disaster on its maiden voyage, and sank at the intersection of the North and Middle forks of the Flathead. The old boiler can be seen rusting in the bottom of the river today.
Thus was the plight of Columbia Falls and one of the reasons why it remained a pioneer town. Because it never grew John Lewis was in the center of the fur industry.
In 1903 Lewis became receiver of public monies at Kalispell, but the lure of a frontier business, Indians and trappers was to bring him back into private life and private business in 1908. About this time talk of a national park was rumored and Lewis secured lands around the head of Lake McDonald. When congress created Glacier National Park in 1910 Lewis built his Glacier Hotel [now the Lake McDonald Lodge] which later became one of the most famous resorts of its kind in the country.
It was the acme of beauty and design. It was the last word in personality. Here he enjoyed the friendship of the nation's great who came there to vacation. Here Charlie Russell, Irvin S. Cobb and Mary Roberts Rinehart and other of the nation's celebrities came every year to sense the frontier personality of John E. Lewis.
Charlie Russell painted gift pictures for Mr. Lewis, smoked Bull Durham, sat atop the corral fence and talked to the kids. The cowboy artist would occasionally "dress up" to satisfy convention, but he always felt uneasy. He never forgot his old friends who appreciated informality as well as he did. Here he often said that he "was getting' a hell of a price for them pitchers." He gave them away to his good friends like Lewis.
The Lewis collection of Indian relics was famous. His knowledge and stories of their habits were more famous. He was always a collector. He gathered wonderful collections of taxidermy. His group of Rocky Mountain goats which is still exhibited at the hotel is the largest and best in the United States. Rare collection of birds and big game mounts decorated his lobby. E. S. Bryant, a taxidermist at Columbia Falls is the genius who put these groups together. Bryant still lives at Columbia Falls and is an authority on western bird life. In the early days before Glacier Park was created, Bryant cut hunting trails all over the territory in order to stock museums with scientific collections of western natural history.
And so Lewis's Glacier Hotel grew. Hundreds of faithful men and women helped make it the center of activity in the park. In 1929 Lewis' Gaylord Hotel in Columbia Falls burned. In 1930 he sold his Glacier Park property to the Great Northern Hotel Company at a price around $350,000.
He moved to Kalispell and his real career as a pioneer ended even though he lived several years after. In Kalispell he organized the Northern Fur company, but his real work was done.
His social and civic life is important. The Masonic lodge took a great deal of his time. He had held all the important seats in that lodge. He was a Knight Templar, and Odd Fellow, and Elk, a Woodman and an old-line republican.
He died in a Portland hospital, December 8, 1934. His favorite lodge, the Masons, buried him in the Conrad Memorial cemetery at Kalispell amid splendor and ceremony.
The end of a great career, the end of the Old West.
- - - Whitefish Pilot by Ralph Owings
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