In 1891, the Great Northern Railway line pushed westward across the Continental Divide in Montana, en route to becoming the northernmost transcontinental railroad in the United States. At the time, the northern Montana city of Kalispell served as the railway’s division point. However, once new tracks extended beyond that city, the railroad determined that the small town of Whitefish, about ten miles to the north, was a more efficient center of operations. Though the route through Whitefish was seventeen miles longer, it was superior in terms of maximum grade and curvature over the Kalispell alignment.
Designated the new division point in 1904, Whitefish housed the Great Northern’s repair shops and administrative offices. After some twenty years as the center of the railway’s northern operations, the buildings were crowded and outmoded. The Great Northern decided to replace them with a new depot building. As planning commenced in 1923, the company turned to in-house architect Thomas D’Arcy McMahon for the depot design.
McMahon was a Canadian national who arrived in the United States from Cornwall, Ontario, in 1888, at the age of ten. In 1905, McMahon began working as a draftsman for the Great Northern Railway’s Engineering Department in St. Paul; he was promoted to Chief Draftsman a year later. Drawing from rustic influences, including the Forestry and Idaho buildings at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, McMahon designed three lodges in Glacier National Park, all of which combined rustic sensibilities with Bavarian Swiss building traditions. This would become the signature style Great Northern railway magnate James J. Hill adopted for his concessions in the park. In 1914, McMahon became a company architect for the Great Northern Railway, a position he held until the late 1940s. As a company architect, McMahon designed many buildings in a variety of styles. His 1925 depot at Astoria, for example, shows Prairie School influences, while the towering 1926 Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada’s neighboring Waterton International Peace Park combines Swiss and Tudor styling with high-pitched roofs, balconies, enormous windows, and a soaring pinnacle tower, all set against the backdrop of a wind-swept wilderness lake in the Canadian Rockies.
As described in the Whitefish Pilot on August 12, 1927, McMahon designed the Whitefish Depot “in the English style with high pointed roof and timbered gables.” According to a Whitefish newspaper article from September, the new depot’s design was different from any other in the Great Northern system. As completed in 1928, the depot displays many characteristics of the Tudor Revival style, which was enjoying a surge in popularity in the United States at the time. The long rectangular building is enlivened with a stucco and decorative half-timbered upper story that rises to a roofline defined by jerkinhead gables and small multi-light shed dormers. The lower story is clad with brick and a broad clapboard band visually separates the two. Fenestration includes multiple groups of tall, narrow windows with multi-pane glazing and doorways with matching multi-paned windows.
Serving as a Great Northern hub for passenger and freight transportation until 1955, the Whitefish Depot’s first floor housed the yard office, freight and baggage rooms, warm room, ticket office, general waiting room, telegraph office, men’s smoking room, and ladies’ rest room; the railway’s division offices were located on the second floor. In 1939, when the Great Northern Railway constructed a dormitory for railway workers along Glacier Park’s southern boundary, McMahon’s design for the Whitefish Depot was an important precedent. Later converted to a hotel and renamed the Isaac Walton Inn, this, too, is a Tudor Revival building of rectangular massing that displays the same distinctive jerkinhead gables and half timbering set within creamy stucco walls.
In the 1980s, Whitefish preservationists worked to preserve the magnificent Whitefish Depot, which today is a passenger depot on the Amtrak Empire Builder line, still proudly serving its original function. With about 200 passengers arriving or departing daily, it is the busiest station stop between the West Coast and St. Paul, Minnesota.
McKay, Kathryn, “Great Northern Railway Depot and Division Office,” Flathead County, Montana. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2001. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
“Old Site to Be Used for Depot Building.” Whitefish Pilot, August 12, 1927.