In the 1920s and ’30s, men who worked on the Great Northern Railway near Essex had a tough life in the winter. Their jobs were to keep the railroad line over Marias Pass free and clear of snow — no small task considering the numerous storms that walloped the region and the frequent avalanches that shot over the tracks.
When they were finished with work, few had permanent homes. They lived in wall tents and abandoned railroad cars and other forms of temporary shelter in a place that can drop to 20 below zero in a matter of minutes and sees more than 120 inches of snow a year.
Employees eventually had enough.
In 1937, I.E. Manion, a Great Northern superintendent at Whitefish pleaded his case for employee housing at Essex, a few miles from the Continental Divide.
“With as many as eight or nine crews working out of Walton in snow service, with three helper engine crews and various officers, including roadmasters, trainmasters, a traveling engineer, a master mechanic, also master carpenters frequently tying up at that point; the hotel should be of sufficient size to accommodate six crews of five men each tying up at one time, and three or four division officers and accommodations for the necessary hotel help,” Manion wrote to R.A. McCandless, the general manager of the Great Northern in Seattle, according to the narrative attached to the Inn’s National Historic Registry in 1984.
Management relented and the Izaak Walton Inn was built in a cooperative agreement between the railroad and the Addison Miller Co., opening on Nov. 15, 1939, as a winter home for employees.
The inn would house employees in the winter, but was a home for guests in the summer months, arriving both by train and by car on the newly built U.S. 2.
Construction cost was $40,000.
“I recently built a deck that was almost twice that,” current owner Brian Kelly remarked.
Kelly, who has a background as an ironworker, said maintaining the inn has been the easy part for him, it’s the other aspects that go with owning a resort that are challenging, such as managing 108 employees every year.
The inn originally had 29 guest rooms, 10 bathrooms (they were shared) a spacious lobby, dining room, kitchen, general store, a recreation room and a bar in the basement.
The name Izaak Walton Inn was a bit of marketing on the railroad’s part. Izaak Walton was the author of “The Compleat Angler and Outdoor Man,” a famous book on fly fishing. The region had, and still has, a plethora of wild trout in its streams, and angling is a major draw to the region.
But Walton never stayed at the inn, not even close. He died in 1683.
After World War II the railroad didn’t need the inn and it was sold to businessman Ed Wellman. Operated exclusively as a guest house, it has changed hands several times since. Kelly bought it in 2006 from Larry and Linda Vielleux.
There have been some upgrades over the years — including adding private baths to the guest rooms. That was done in 1995 by the Vielleuxs.
The inn is a charming place, with rustic wood interior, and miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails just across the tracks.
The ski trails are groomed in the winter. A season pass is $225 for a family or $125 for an individual, though those rates are 50% off from now until Dec. 6.
Over the years Kelly has expanded the housing accommodations, as guests can now stay in remodeled luxury cabooses and rail cars, nearby vacation homes and in the former Essex Schoolhouse, which has been converted to guest facilities as well.
When he bought the Izaak Walton Inn and its supporting facilities, he had 37 guest units. Today he has 71, including the Halfway Hotel, which is down the road from the inn.
Kelly is a high-energy owner. He said his plan is to keep the property independently owned.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I’m very fortunate.”