Glacier Centennial: Grace Flandrau

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GNRR Booklet

“It is due to the discovery made by John F. Stevens in 1889 that four years later the evil spirit of the Blackfeet fled forever from Marias Pass before the onrush of a transcontinental express. A continuous highway of steel at last connected, by the straightest and lowest route, the headwaters of the Mississippi with Puget Sound.” — Grace Fandrau, “The Story of Marias Pass,” 1925

Author Grace Flandrau (1886-1971) was a journalist between the 1920s and 1940s who received high acclaim for her short stories and novels. Her novel “Being Respectable” is, perhaps, her best known.

At the time when the Great Northern Railway was seeking popular writers such as Mary Roberts Rinehart to help promote the wild country of Glacier National Park, they selected Flandrau to write a 24-page booklet about Montana’s Marias Pass.

1940s GN Ad

Rail travelers on today’s AMTRAK Empire Builder, named for the famed Great Northern train of an earlier era, see Marias Pass as the train traverses the Continental Divide south of Glacier National Park. U.S. Highway 2 also uses the pass.

Flandrau’s booklet promotes the discovery of the pass by Great Northern civil engineer John F. Stevens in 1889. “Travelers, unless they happen to be civil engineers, which, of course, most of them are not, are in the habit of taking the passing of railroads through mountain ranges, entirely for granted,” she writes on the booklet’s first page.

The booklet promotes a high point of Montana railroading history: it’s epic stuff, perfect for the eyes of prospective passengers who might be enticed to head west and experience the grandeur of the Backbone of the World first hand.

You can learn more about the career of Grace Flandrau in Georgia Ray’s 2007 biography of the author, “Voice Interrupted.”

In his review of the biography, Paul Froiland writes that “Ray has elevated St. Paul, Minnesota, novelist and journalist Grace Flandrau from obscurity to her rightful place alongside her contemporaries — Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather and Ring Lardner. This book is the first step in rehabilitating the reputation of one of the great — and most undeservedly forgotten — descriptive writers of the twentieth century.”

Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “The Sun Singer,” a novel set in Glacier National Park. My article about the park’s Swiftcurrent Valley appears in “Nature’s Gifts,” an anthology of fiction, nonfiction and poetry celebrating nature to be released by Vanilla Heart Publishing in March.

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2 responses

  1. Nice account, Malcolm. Her statement about folks taking the passing of railroads through the mountains for granted is interesting and true but it has always puzzled me. I guess most don’t even think about the first time someone went there. The same goes for trails too.

    • To some extent, I think people quickly get used to whatever it’s possible to do in their own day and time. What’s missing is a sense of history and how hard or how easy it was to do a thing in 1910 or 1810.

      I look at marvels like the road over Marias Pass or Sun Road in Glacier Park and wonder how they were built–or how many people looked at the terrain and said there will never be a road, railroad or trail in this wild place.

      Malcolm