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Heart of Whitefish: Recent painting project restores historic beauty of a town treasure

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | August 17, 2022 1:05 AM

At the north end of downtown, the Whitefish Depot has classic Tudor-style architecture with a similar appearance to historic buildings in Glacier National Park, offering a glimpse into the past that formed the City of Whitefish.

First constructed in 1927, the Whitefish Depot was truly the beginning of a more vibrant town and to this day is an iconic symbol for the railroad-turned ski town. In 1990 the Depot was set to be torn down before a group of Whitefish residents took it upon themselves to save the building and restore it to its former glory — yet again sparking a revitalization of Whitefish.

Jill Evans, Executive Director of the Stumptown Historical Society which maintains the Depot, says she and the Historical Society board members view the building as the heart of Whitefish. The area flourished as a railroad town in the late 1920s and still is a railroad destination today; the Depot remains a true asset to the community for its historic as well as present-day value.

“Long distance rail travel is still an important part of Western culture that maintains the need is there…” Evans said. “We’re still a railroad town.”

Over the past couple of months, the Whitefish Depot’s exterior was meticulously repainted with special attention to historical detail to continue to preserve and maintain the building. The project cost around $75,000 which is a huge undertaking for the Stumptown Historical Society. The yearly maintenance of the Depot costs about $50,000 and the painting project is added on top of that.

“It’s an intricate building and it’s just a magnificent building,” Evans expressed. “The paint has to be done every 15 years or so and it’s extremely expensive. It’s part of our responsibility that we took on when we bought it, for a dollar.”

The Historical Society bought the Whitefish Depot in 1990 for one dollar from Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), who planned on tearing it down. It was basically a write-off for the railroad and a massive undertaking for the Historical Society, Evans explained. But it's a building that the Historical Society is proud to have saved and maintaining it remains the organization’s top priority.

“I think [this building] anchors the concept of a quality of life that honors our past,” Evans said. “To not have this building, we would have a completely different downtown — it would not be the same.”

The Stumptown Historical Society is a nonprofit organization formed in 1982 by folks committed to preserving the history of Whitefish and the Flathead Valley for the present and future. After an extensive renovation that cost upwards of $850,000 in 1990-91, it has been maintained by the society ever since.

Evans says some of the maintenance projects in recent years include installing new furnaces, replacing flooring, installing an improved smoke alarm system, various maintenance of the bathrooms and Amtrak lobby, fixing doors and replacing decking. The dated building is not easy to maintain and the Historical Society needs help from the residents of Whitefish to keep up with it.

“We love the building and we’re taking care of it,” Evans said. “And that’s hard to do alone, we need the people who love Whitefish and appreciate the Depot, which I consider to be the heart of Whitefish.”

The Stumptown Historical Society took on the responsibility of the building all those years ago because of its rich history in the formation of Whitefish.

In 1904, the Great Northern Railway re-located its division point to Whitefish from Kalispell. The small depot served the railroad until 1927 when the new Whitefish Depot was built by Louis Hill, the son of James Hill who formed the Great Northern Railway. The decision to construct the large Swiss-style building that matched the Glacier Park Chalets the Hill family had also built, headlined the Whitefish Pilot that year.

The creation of the iconic building brought even more railway passengers to Whitefish and it went from being not much more than a clearing of stumps to a bustling town.

The Historical Society hopes that more people will learn about the importance of the Whitefish Depot and what it means to be able to preserve a little part of this town’s history.

“I’m really proud of what the Historical Society has done for this town — saving this building, maintaining it, and loving it as we do,” Evans said. We’re moving toward the 100-year mark with this building.”

The Stumptown Historical Society is relaunching its membership program which helps the nonprofit receive consistent funding to keep up with the maintenance of the Depot. The society is also looking for volunteers to help in the Whitefish Museum.

For more information or to donate, visit stumptownhistoricalsociety.org

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A fresh coat of paint brings out the beauty of the historic Whitefish Depot. (Whitney England/Whitefish Pilot)

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A painter gives the historic Whitefish Depot a fresh coat of paint last month. (Whitney England/Whitefish Pilot)

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The historic Whitefish Depot in 1927 shortly after the building was completed. Painting the building along with other maintenance overseen by the Stumptown Historical Society keeps the building restored to its past glory. (Photo courtesy of Stumptown Historical Society)