What Were We Thinking? 10 Things Historic National Park Lodges Tell Us about Priorities and Values, Then and Now

What Were We Thinking? 10 Things Historic National Park Lodges Tell Us about Priorities and Values, Then and Now

For Immediate Release
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DENVER, June 19, 2015 – Historic lodges in national park destinations like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks are frequently the first to sell out in those parks, and that is a phenomenon that has not changed in generations. Within the walls of historic lodges are the promise of an experience like nothing else in the world.

“The interest from travelers around the world is understandable,” said Betsy O’Rourke, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Travel Collection, the country’s largest national park concessioner and operator of some of the most recognized national park lodges. “Historic lodges reflect the importance our society places on natural places, authenticity and preservation. And as the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its centennial next year, this is a particularly good time to reflect on the impact that historic lodges have had on the travel experience over the years.”

O’Rourke also noted that in preparation for the National Park Service centennial the agency has launched its “Find Your Park” campaign to help travelers connect with parks and experiences.

Xanterra’s historic national park lodges include El Tovar (opened in 1905), Phantom Ranch (1922) and Bright Angel Lodge (1935) at the South Rim of northern Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park; Old Faithful Inn (1904), Lake Yellowstone Hotel (1891), Roosevelt Lodge (1920), Lake Lodge (1929), Old Faithful Lodge (1928) and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in the world’s first national park (1911); Zion Lodge in southern Utah’s Zion National Park (1925); Inn at Death Valley in California’s Death Valley National Park (1927); Crater Lake Lodge in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park (1915); and Many Glacier Hotel (1915) and Lake McDonald Lodge (1914) in Montana’s Glacier National Park.

Crater Lake Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel are both turning 100 in 2015. And next year when the National Park Service turns 100, Lake Yellowstone Hotel will turn 125.

Here are 10 things historic national park lodges can tell us about our values and priorities:

Sustainability and preservation is important, and that’s nothing new. Old Faithful Inn, Many Glacier Hotel, Crater Lake Lodge and many other historic lodges were built using local materials. Ongoing maintenance to the Old Faithful Inn is conducted by a historic preservation crew, which often looks to the past for guidance on cosmetic and structural maintenance. Although Xanterra has long been focused on improving its sustainability by taking advantage of new and modern tools – for example, the company just installed an electric vehicle charging station at Zion Lodge – sustainability has always been a value of Xanterra and its predecessors.

We are hardy. The American “can-do” attitude, even under adverse conditions, has withstood the test of time. For example, Yellowstone’s strong winter conditions were no match for the hardy workers who completed the preservation and renovation of Lake Yellowstone Hotel during the winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14, nor did they stop the 50 craftsmen who built the Old Faithful Inn during the winter of 1903-04. Old Faithful Inn workers met the scheduled June 1904 opening even though they were faced with below-zero temperatures. And Lake Yellowstone Hotel workers lived in temporary housing units so they could complete that hotel’s recent renovation over the course of two years. And crews building Crater Lake Lodge faced enormous weather and infrastructure challenges but stuck with the construction of the stunning lodge, a process that ultimately took six years.

We are pragmatic. The $70 million redevelopment of Yellowstone’s Canyon Lodge, with three new lodges opening this summer and two more next year, was undertaken in the most sustainable way possible. Some 400 cabins were removed and are being replaced by modular lodges constructed outside the park and trucked in for assembly. Modular construction overcomes the challenges presented by the location’s short construction season due to high amounts of snowfall. The multi-story structures will feature stone and wood that blend into the surrounding area. Even removal of the cabins was pragmatic. Some were burned to provide training for park firefighters.

We shine in the face of adversity. When the devastating California flood of 2004 knocked out power and destroyed roads, forcing the closure of Death Valley National Park, stranded staff at the Inn at Death Valley and sister property Ranch at Death Valley worked closely with the National Park Service to safely caravan employees and visitors out of the park via a back road. When the Yellowstone fires of 1988 threatened to burn the Old Faithful Inn, National Park Service firefighters and concession staff fought furiously to protect the Inn and other structures.

We are resourceful. With remote locations in sometimes harsh climates, the successful operation of historic lodges often depends on human ingenuity. Many Glacier Hotel once had its own hydroelectric plant. With a reputation for high-quality meals, El Tovar Dining Room overcame a lack of available fresh ingredients by having its own herd of Jersey cows, a milking barn, poultry barn, butcher shop, bakery and cold storage. Until a pipe was laid from the South Rim to Indian Gardens in the 1930s, water was brought by train. And Xanterra Travel Collection took advantage of the perpetual sunshine of Death Valley by installing a massive solar PV plant to power much of the inn’s electricity.

We desire time and spaces for quiet contemplation. National parks inspire, and many national park lodges were built with spaces for visitors to observe the park’s natural surroundings in comfort. At The Oasis at Death Valley’s Inn, visitors gather nightly on the expansive rock patio to watch the sunset and await the starry night skies. At Lake Yellowstone Hotel, summer-season visitors gather nightly in the Sun Room to listen to piano or string quartet music. And at many historic lodges visitors will find benches and rocking chairs placed on porches, patios and in quiet outdoor nooks, inspiring guests to sit, relax and reflect upon their natural surroundings.

We can be whimsical. The Old Faithful Inn’s Bear Pit Lounge features etched glass panels of bears drinking, dancing, playing cards and generally causing mischief. The panels are a reproduction of scenes created by Chicago artist Walter Oerhrle in 1936 to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. The original scenes were etched on wood panels and were located in what is now the Inn’s deli and ice cream shop. When Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was creating the fireplace in the Bright Angel History Room of the Bright Angel Lodge, she had crews gather rocks from each of the Grand Canyon’s layers. She then insisted on supervising the placement of each rock with the ultimate goal of realistically depicting each geological layer of the Canyon in the fireplace.

We are open to new ideas. Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, and many countries around the world think that’s such a good idea and have created their own national parks. Park lodges are often quite progressive. The very first manager of the Inn at Furnace Creek, and the architect of many of the Grand Canyon’s historic structures like Bright Angel Lodge and Phantom Ranch were women. The legendary Harvey Girls played an incredibly important role in promoting tourism in the Southwest by bringing refinement to the Grand Canyon’s restaurants while finding independence and adventure that would not have been so readily available had they stayed in their homes in the East.

But we’ve still come a long way, baby. The Grand Canyon’s El Tovar originally had separate sitting rooms for men and women. The adventurous women who rode mules in the Grand Canyon were still expected to be refined, and the Fred Harvey Company helpfully provided modest divided skirts for women who were not prepared for the difficult excursions. Until the early ‘70s, visitors to Yellowstone National Park would gather at Park Service-sanctioned “feeding grounds” near major hotels to watch well-habituated black and grizzly bears feed on garbage. Today, Yellowstone employs a comprehensive bear-management program that involves employee and visitor education and safety programs, and enacted practices like using bear-proof boxes for food storage at campgrounds, and bear-proof trash receptacles in all visitor areas.

We like to shop. National park visitors have been purchasing souvenirs since parks were created. The Fred Harvey Company, Xanterra’s predecessor, worked with American Indian artists to help produce brighter and more colorful rugs and pots as well as lighter weight jewelry to appeal to visitors from the East. And in Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, Xanterra created a cutting edge gift shop called For Future Generations: Yellowstone Gifts which sells an array of sustainably produced gifts along with more conventional options and interpretive displays related to the impacts of climate change on Yellowstone.

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