If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

The Old Lady of Mount Baker

Mount Baker Lodge during construction. Fresh snow on Mt. Shuksan; winter is coming. Bert Huntoon photo, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA

By Ian Haupt

The Mount Baker Lodge opened to guests in 1927.

Near the front entrance of the lodge was a fountain with spring water piped from the bottom of Table Mountain. Furnished with dozens of chairs, lounges and writing tables with stationary bearing the local scenery, the lobby was 130 feet long and 50 feet wide with a large stone fireplace, big enough to accommodate a 10-foot log. Windows on one side looked north across the Nooksack River upon the Cascades. On another side, windows unveiled a panoramic view of Mt. Shuksan across Sunrise Lake.

The lodge’s color scheme was accented with signs of the American Indian, and fur pillars supported its ceiling. Offices, checking rooms and enclosures with candy, drinks, cards and photographs for purchase were adjoined to the lobby.

“God, I wish I could’ve walked into that,” Mike Impero said, looking at a photo of the lodge’s lobby. He continued clicking through photos on his home computer as his eyes slowly watered. Many of the photos he used in his book, “The Grand Lady of Mount Baker: A History of the Mount Baker Lodge from 1927-1931.”

As he sifts through, he offers a story, detail, factoid. There are hundreds, and duplicates.

“The building was not built cheap!” he said, as he points out that the electrical wiring in the lodge was drilled into the wood rather than surface mounted. Then he jumped to the Native American artifacts that decorated the room, and then to the fireplace. He said he gets sidetracked.

The beautiful Mount Baker Lodge lobby with oak floor and handcrafted western American Indian decor. G. Byeman photo

Impero was raised in Kendall in the 1950s and grew up hunting, fishing, climbing and hiking in the mountains surrounding Mt. Baker. He spent years as a kid traveling up to Heather Meadows with his family. His dad used to say if they were lucky they would see a bunch of black bears.

“I love the alpine country,” Impero said.

He’s climbed Mt. Shuksan three times. At 81, he continues to return to the area today.

He said as a kid he was meant to go into the lumber business, as it was what most did who lived in the area. But when his brother was killed in an accident, he said his father forbid it. So he became a general contractor and moved to Bellingham where he’s lived since.

He started researching and interviewing people about the history of the Baker area in the early 2000s. While caring for his late wife, Impero had extra time at home and began writing what has become six published books.

His background as a general contractor made him interested in the history of the lodge and early development of the area. He said in the 1980s he was contracted to build the Alaska Marine Highway System’s terminal in Bellingham, now known as the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, and saw similarities in both projects.

“It had an unbelievable schedule to get done,” Impero said. “That ferry was coming and there was no way to change it. It was coming on a certain date, and the problem was the time element to build the building was unbelievably short. Well these people building the lodge went through the same thing.”

In 1922, Frank Sefrit, managing editor of Bellingham’s The American Reveille newspaper, had recently returned from visiting Heather Meadows when he met with longtime friend and Pacific American Fisheries president Everett Deming at his office in Fairhaven. He proposed the idea of building a lodge in the meadows, what he called the most beautiful spot on Earth that he had ever been.

The meeting would start a five-year effort to open an overnight lodge in the undeveloped area. The land was leased for $150 annually from the U.S. Forest Service and discussions about constructing a road to the site began. The Mount Baker Lodge Development Company intended to provide suitable accommodations for the traveling public once the road was finished.

Guests arrive at Mount Baker Lodge as Sunrise Lake melts behind. Galen Biery Collection, Bert Huntoon photo, #849, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies

Project manager Bert Huntoon and site supervisor Charlie Hunley commenced work on the project in summer of 1923.

The abandoned gold rush town of Shuksan, 8 miles down from Heather Meadows on the North Fork of the Nooksack River, was used to store materials and supplies and as a sawmill. The first supply trips up to the area were made on foot before a pack trail was established. In the first summer, water pipelines, restrooms and miles of trails were built.

Hunley, with one or two other men, stayed at the site during winter. His wife and three children would occasionally journey up to visit. In the meantime, he made friends with a local packrat, Bimbo, and a large male black bear, Bozo. Hunley’s job during the winter was to measure the water level of the weir in Bagley Creek and the snowpack. With tents and cabins built, construction on the lodge began in July 1925.

By September 1925, the road was finished and the first wagonload of lumber made it to the site. But progress stalled as the bad fall weather set in.

While neither the development company nor the Washington State Highway Department publicized the road’s completion, people began coming up to Heather Meadows with skis, sleds and ice skates until the road was blocked for winter.

A woman feeds one of the many black bears in the area. Bert Huntoon photo, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA

The original investors, the Mount Baker Development Company, saw the lodge as a summertime retreat. Tourists could stay at the lodge, cabins or tents on the complex and enjoy the area. The lodge was supposed to be for wealthy, upper-class people while the cabins were for middle-class families.

The company planned for the grand opening of the lodge on June 15, 1927. Crews worked all winter to have the lodge built in time. With the lodge not yet finished and an average of 11 feet of snow at Heather Meadows in late May, they knew it would have to be delayed. Snow on the road prevented vehicles from reaching the lodge. The road wasn’t fully cleared until July 9.

After five years of planning, building and securing funding, the lodge opened June 30. While not the grand opening, the hotel had over 120 guests staying overnight in a couple of days. The board of directors and stockholders were relieved to see the lodge become a reality and begin generating revenue. A letter sent to shareholders said $500,000 was invested to build the lodge, its surrounding complex and camp at Shuksan. By the grand opening July 14, Heather Meadows was still blanketed with snow 3 to 5 feet deep.

“This man-made Lodge is in the place as nature planned it ages ago when she turned the mountains up with lakes between Baker and Shuksan and spread Heather Meadows out like a great Persian rug to place the Lodge on,” one visitor commented during the first year of opening.

One of the main complaints the first year was the lack of a view of Mt. Baker. The only way to see it was by hiking a mile or two out on the ridge or to Artist Point. The development company began pushing the forest service and highway department for a road up to Austin Pass and Artist Point.

For the next couple of years, the lodge opened in July and closed in September. Hundreds of people from Whatcom County and across the nation flocked to the area for a summer stay in the North Cascades. Movie productions began using the area for its natural beauty.

A typical bedroom in the Mount Baker Lodge. Bert Huntoon photo, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA

The Annex was built in 1928 next to the lodge and connected by a covered walkway. By 1930, the Washington State Commission was calling for bids to complete construction of the Mount Baker Highway to Artist Point.

Then on August 5, 1931, the lodge burned down. Huntoon was out in the meadows to catch the sunrise and take photos of the lodge when he saw smoke coming from the building. The reported cause was defective wiring or electrical supply. The Annex, Heather Inn and all of the cabins were unscathed, but the lodge was a total loss. Rumors spread that a disgruntled stockholder started the fire after not receiving dividends on his investment. Newspapers reported the lodge’s direct current power system was responsible for the fire.

The Mount Baker Development Company continued to welcome visitors in the summer, housing them in the Annex and cabins and using the Heather Inn as a lobby.

The extension of Mount Baker Highway to Artist Point was completed in October 1931.

A skiing escalator that went up to the Panorama Dome was installed in Heather Meadows in early winter 1935. It was the first convenience of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, and cost 15 cents to ride. The Northwest Ski Association held its first slalom race at the Panorama Dome in May 1936. One hundred thirty skiers competed in the two-day event and over 2,000 spectated. The U.S. Forest Service deemed it a total success and began developing the area into a wintertime playground.

The area continued to host competitions over the years and in 1939 the Mount Baker Ski Patrol was organized. As winter activities grew in popularity, the Mount Baker Development Company looked for ways to continue operation and profit off the new visitors.

Cars parked at the Annex as the area grew more popular for its winter activities, years after the lodge burnt down. Bert Huntoon photo, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA

With profits dwindling, the company sold the Heather Inn, which had been closed for two seasons, to the forest service in July 1941 for $1,100.

During the winter of 1942/1943, the Washington State Highway Department cut back operations to keep the highway open due to the wartime shortage of gasoline. The Mount Baker Development Company disbanded shortly after.

There were many reasons for the failure. Impero said and wrote some were acts of nature and others were poor business judgment. They didn’t anticipate the tremendous snowfall that would add stress on facilities and make for a short season. Without snow removal operations, the area was only accessible from July to mid-September most years.

Based on financial statements he acquired during research, the lodge showed profitability the first two years it was open, then visitation slowed and the Great Depression hit. He said the project was doomed from the beginning.

“They didn’t realize the magnitude of what they were building.” x