From Demersville to current day downtown Kalispell.

By Joe Carbonari. Photo courtesy of The Museum at Central School.

Just days after the town of Kalispell was laid out, before true roads were constructed, buildings began rolling into town, literally. They came on logs, rolled continuously, from the town of Demersville, just a few miles to the south.

Demersville was at the head of navigation on the Flathead River. The settlement that started there existed only to handle the traffic coming off the boats, the freight and passengers that came across Flathead Lake from Missoula, 120-odd miles away. The Great Northern Railroad, coming in just a few miles away, would change all that. Demersville saw the writing on the wall and moved to Kalispell, locks, stock, and barrels. Demersville was no more. Only the cemetery remains.

The railroads made the west, and thus the Great Northern made Kalispell. The railroad needed a switching yard, a break, and supply point. Did you know Kalispell means “the flat land above the lake” in Salish, the local native tongue? It is an apt description and the town site’s location proved to serve both the Great Northern and the growing Flathead Valley’s needs well. When the railroad found a flatter route through the mountains, the main rail line was moved north. But Kalispell survived, and prospered. It became the county seat and the business, cultural, and administrative center of the area – the hub from which the spokes extend, the heart of the Flathead Valley, and the gateway to what was to become Glacier National Park.

The Great Northern Railroad depot, built in 1899, still stands and houses the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce. It’s a good place to stop. Maps, brochures, and some friendly advice may help you on your way. If time allows, perhaps you’ll catch a good story or two. Be sure to get a copy of the downtown walking tour guide before you leave. The Kalispell Downtown has both history and charm, and you will be amazed by the architecture.

As you head up Main Street in Kalispell, you must check out Norm’s News. Norm’s has an old-timey soda fountain and enough penny candy and ice cream choices to put a smile on most anyone’s face.

If you find yourself feeling out of place in the “old west” or just want to get “duded-up” a bit, step into the Western Outdoor Store. They’ve got the biggest collection of cowboy, western, and work boots in the state…and the best. Just ask them. Cowboy hats too, both straw and felt, a size and style for everyone.

Further down the street, you’ll see Brix Bottleshop. It has the best selection of imported wines and beers around. You can put together a mixed selection of familiar or obscure beers from around the world. A blind taste test a little later, together with a healthy sampling of their gourmet meats, cheeses, and perhaps a little dark chocolate, could provide a full evening of fun – our kind of western chic.

If you are looking for a quaint historic hotel, head over to the Kalispell Grand Hotel – and grand it is. Built in 1911, the Kalispell Grand provided a place of rest and entertainment for travelers and locals alike. Charles Russell, the famed western artist, frequented the Grand. “If the walls could talk,” it’s said, “we’d have to tear them down.” The rooms may be quieter now, but they still bring memories of days gone by. There’s no charge to sit a bit and imagine.

Up and down Main you will find an eclectic set of small, charming shops brimming with gifts, crafts, furniture, and fine art, both local and from around the world. There’s something for everyone. Or if somehow not, across the street the glitter of gold and precious stones may catch your eye, or perhaps the fly shop is more to your taste. Yes, fishing licenses are available, and advice as well.

Many of our buildings’ facades are worthy of note themselves. Did you notice the mountain climber going up the front of the best mountaineering store in Montana, or the cowboy on the façade of the local art gallery? How about the family of bears…or the bank robber? Sometimes it pays to look up.

If it’s style you’re thinking of, you’ll find clothing shops from vintage through formal, to some of the most technically advanced or stylishly laid back outdoor clothing offered anywhere.

You’ll love what Downtown has to offer; from coffee shops and bakeries to florists, from spas to chiropractors, banks to attorney and insurance firms…even a veterinarian for your pets. We make it easy to work, live, and play in downtown Kalispell.

Lest you begin to think, however, that we live a bit too much in the past, try tarrying a bit at the Kalispell Brewing Company. Stop at the tasting bar for the craft beer of your choice then head upstairs to their rooftop deck. Colorful covered tables and chairs await. The view is interesting and provides a bit of perspective. The ice cream shop across the street was one of the first gas stations in town. Now families clamber up their stairs and sit on their roof, licking chocolate and strawberry or the latest new flavor and waving at their friends on the street below – having fun. We need more of that.

Sometimes it’s good to help change along. As much as we love and enjoy our history – and what we’ve made of it – we feel there’s more to do. We’d like to make our town even more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Widen the sidewalks just a bit. Slow and perhaps re-direct some traffic. Attract even more bistros and eateries. Our downtown has always been the focus of our community. We’d like to protect it, to extend it, and to keep it that way. From the old County Courthouse at the south end of our Historic District to Moose’s Saloon to the north, we’d like to see even more of the fine restaurants, boutiques, and galleries that grace us now.

We are blessed. For instance, take a side trip off Main Street and visit Wheaton’s Cyclery with its bike hostel above. It’s the center of our biking activity here in the valley. You can rent a bike for a day of exploration and adventure just around town, or on the network of trails that run for several easy miles. Whether its west to Kila or south to Flathead Lake, east to the Swan Mountains, or north to the Whitefish range, the Flathead Valley has become a bikers’ paradise. On the flat or a mountain trail, there’s riding for every level. It’s healthy, and it’s fun.

If two-wheeling isn’t your thing you might enjoy a quick workout at one of our several health and fitness centers or gyms. Once you work up an appetite, you have a bunch of choices. There’s American fare, Italian cuisine, BBQ brisket, and incredible sushi – a true art form. For the food tripper with a hankering for the Irish, there’s a pub just for you, and if you’re lucky you might just get to sing along to a pub tune, old or new. Yes, they serve Guinness on draft and pour Tullamore Dew. For breakfast, lunch, or dinner, downtown is the place to go. Pastries to die for, omelets superb, burgers from the simple to gourmet, beer and pizza supreme, and so much more; and don’t worry, you can walk it off.

Now, food for the mind. The Hockaday Museum of Art serves as a visual treat. Located in the Carnegie Library building, their collection of American Indian art stands among the best. From the traditional western painters and sculptors through an eclectic mix of locally talented, few genres are left untouched.

The Museum at Central School, only a block away, was built in 1894 and served as Kalispell’s high school and grade school. This building was designed by William White, a Great Falls architect, and offers a special glimpse into the life of Kalispell, its early settlers, its children, and the Native Americans that first found this land we love.   

Although just a few blocks out of our traditional downtown, we must mention the Conrad Mansion, home to the founders of the Kalispell Townsite Company, the Charles Conrad family. The renovated, gracious home is filled with turn-of-the-century furniture and clothing and offers guided tours May through October.

You now have a feel for the diversity and the excellence of some of the best of Kalispell. There is more to tell of and more to see, and there will be even more as time goes on. Come visit. Check us out. You will be glad that you did.

About the Author: Joe Carbonari is the Chairman of the Board for the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and a Managing Partner of Carbonari Associates.

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