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This "Cairn That Really Isn't" Has A Long History At Glacier National Park


(Top) The bell at Piegan Pass in 1942 and the remaining stone base in 2013. NPS photos.

It's not unusual to find piles of stones marking the route for travelers across open terrain in mountains, deserts and similar areas otherwise devoid of easily recognizable landmarks, but these "cairns" can evoke a surprising amount of controversy both in and out of national parks. Sometimes, however, what appears to be a cairn is instead an item of historic interest.

Last December, the Traveler published a review of a book, Cairns: Messengers In Stone, and both the book and the review describe both the utility of properly placed cairns and the difficulties that can arise when their numbers or locations get out of hand. One example of how their numbers can proliferate is found in this photo on the Traveler's Facebook page.

I recently came upon a photo that inspired a little further research on the subject; my on-line digging quickly revealed there's quite a love-hate relationship in the outdoor community about that practice of piling one rock atop another. In a few cases, however, what appears to be a cairn is really an object, albeit still man-made, that has an interesting history totally unrelated to cross-country navigation.

One example is found in the backcountry of Glacier National Park, where hikers who venture to Piegan Pass will encounter one of these "cairns that isn't."

In the autumn of 1926, the Glacier Park Hotel Company received permission—reluctantly granted after some debate by NPS officials—to place locomotive bells on three passes in Glacier National Park: Swiftcurrent, Piegan and Siyeh. In 1929, a fourth bell was placed on Mt. Henry, where the Glacier Park-Two Medicine Trail crosses Scenic Point.

According to Donald H. Robinson's administrative history of Glacier National Park, the idea behind the bells "was based upon an old Swiss custom of having bells on the mountain tops and passes, and the desire to give the visitors hiking or riding through the park the unusual experience of ringing these loud, clear bells high in the mountains."

These four bells remained in place until the fall of 1943, when they were removed by the Hotel Company and turned in during a World War II scrap metal drive. You can read more about this rather unusual chapter in the park's history in this story which ran on the Traveler back in 2008.

Even after the bells were removed, at least some of the stone bases remained, including the one at Peigan Pass. The combination of gravity, the elements and people all tend to work against any traces of human activity, especially in the harsh environment of the high mountains at Glacier, so I've wondered a time or two how that historic pile of stones was faring in 2013.

The answer, at least as of a few weeks ago, is "pretty well." The top of the two photos accompanying this story was taken in late September, and shows the stone base in use with the bell in 1942, a year before it was removed; the bottom photo shows the stone base as it looked about two weeks ago.

It's just one example of how things aren't always what they seem, especially when we encounter them in unexpected places.

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