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Historical Walking Tour Guides are available at businesses throughout downtown Kalispell or click Walking Tour Map to view a PDF.


Kalispell, Montana, began as a railroad town and this fact shaped its history for many years. The townsite was platted in the spring of 1891 in order to serve as the division point for the Great Northern Railway that was being constructed from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. Soon after “the iron horse snorted in the garden of Eden,” the earlier town of Demersville (located just four miles to the southeast of the new town of Kalispell) became a ghost town. Many of its buildings were moved on log rollers across the open prairie to Kalispell.

Although Kalispell was founded as a railroad town, the period of rail glory did not last long. In 1904 the Great Northern Railway relocated the main line to the north with Whitefish as the new division point. Many railroad employees moved to Whitefish that fall. Even so, Kalispell did not fade away. 

By that time, Kalispell had established itself as the trade and financial center of the Flathead Valley and beyond. The young town was chosen to be the county seat in 1893, and a great variety of services were concentrated in the town including a hospital, numerous churches, office of city, county and federal government agencies, schools, banks, hotels, an opera house, lodge halls, a library and a great variety of stores and manufacturers including a brewery and several flour mills.

Various regional events also helped the town prosper, such as the opening of the Flathead Indian Reservation to the south to white settlement in 1910. Kalispell, as one of the towns that registered homesteaders, experienced a short boom in this period. The opening of the highway at Marias Pass over the Continental Divide in 1930 again provided Kalispell with more business and activity. In addition, Kalispell remained the center of the lumber industry in northwest Montana for many years, and in the 1930’s people came to Kalispell because it was considered to have relatively fertile farmlands. 

Kalispell’s prosperity also is due to the efforts of local boosters who called Kalispell the national “Gateway to Glacier Park” after the park was created in 1910. The slogan “All Roads Lead to Kalispell” was popular for some time. Many of Kalispell’s early settlers had come to the area on the recommendation of family or friends who were already living in the Flathead Valley, and they created a close-knit community despite varying places of origin and diverse cultures and even languages. Many of Kalispell’s settlers came from the Midwest, or from Scandinavia, Germany or Britain. In its early years the town had a substantial Chinese community, mostly single men who ran laundries, restaurants, and Oriental goods stores. The railroad employed Japanese crews who lived in separate boarding houses in Kalispell.

In the 1890s, residences were typically one-story wood frame buildings, and business blocks were one- or two story wood frame buildings with false fronts. As the town grew, many of the original wood business building were replaced with more substantial brick buildings. Many of Kalispell’s largest residences were constructed during the prosperous years of the early 1900s and 1910s, quite a number of them designed by local architects. The following walking tour allows you to observe the physical evidence of Kalispell’s history.
—Kathryn McKay



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