The Mount Baker Lodge opened to guests in 1927.
Near the front entrance of the lodge was a fountain with spring water piped 600 feet from Bagley Creek. 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 toward the Nooksack River to the north 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-wrapped 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 lobby. He continued clicking through photos on his home computer as his eyes 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.
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.
He started researching and interviewing people about the history of the Baker area in the early 2000s. While caring for his late wife, he had extra time and started research for what has become six published books on the area.
His background as a general contractor made him interested in the history of the lodge and an undertaking of such magnitude. He said 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.
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.
By September 1925, the road was finished and the first wagonload of lumber made it to the site. But progress was stalled on the lodge as bad fall weather set in.
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 blanketed with snow three to five 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.
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.
Then on August 5, 1931, the lodge burnt 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 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 and housed them in the cabins and other buildings on the complex.
The extension of Mount Baker Highway to Artist Point was completed in October 1931.
The area began hosting ski competitions in the mid-1930s 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 increased visitors.
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. This signaled the end of the Mount Baker Development Company.
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.
The project was doomed from the beginning, according to Impero. Based on financial statements he acquired during research, the first two years the lodge was open showed profitability, but visitation slowed and the Great Depression hit shortly after the lodge burnt down.
“They didn’t realize the magnitude of what they were building.”
The Grand Lady of Mount Baker and Mike Impero’s other books can be purchased at Village Books or online at bit.ly/3dgdSpb.
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