A Historic, Happening Downtown
Reinvention. It’s what made Kalispell the place it is today. In 1890, an entrepreneur by the name of Charles Conrad stopped at Flathead Lake while on a journey west to Spokane, Washington. Conrad himself was on a path of reinvention: He had built a fortune moving goods up the Missouri River through the trade outpost of Fort Benton, a business that was undermined by the arrival of the railroad. He was looking for something new.
That same rail line also passed through a wide, largely unpopulated swath of the northern Flathead Valley. Conrad recognized opportunity in both the unique beauty of the area and the untapped trade potential brought by the railroad. Conrad platted a new city to serve as a stopping point on the railroad. He called it Kalispell, a term used by the local Salish Indians to describe the “flat land above the lake.”
With its abundant timber resources, fertile agricultural surroundings and scenic beauty, plus the rail stop, Kalispell grew quickly into a regional hub. Many of those early commercial and residential buildings remain fixtures of the historic downtown.
Change came fast and often. In 1904, the rail line was moved north to Whitefish. Kalispell nonetheless flourished as a regional center of the cattle and timber trade — and, increasingly, as a tourist destination for visitors to Glacier National Park, which was established in 1910.
Today, Kalispell is a place where historic character converges with contemporary culture. Up and down Main Street and radiating for blocks to the east and west, today’s vibrant downtown core offers a lot more than just window shopping and architecture gazing. The city’s rich history always lies just below the surface, offering a captivating sense of what it was like in the days when Kalispell was a new outpost on the Western frontier.
Old Buildings, New Vibe
Kalispell’s continuing transformation can be seen on the signs and shelves of its downtown businesses. What was once a center of mercantiles, saloons, saddleries and an opera house is now a diverse mix of locally owned artisan shops, eateries, professional service offices and other businesses. Today those downtown also features three craft breweries and a craft distillery. Learn more on our local libations page.
Downtown’s oldest brick commercial building, located at 139 Main Street, opened in 1891 as a bank; it is now home to Wheeler Jewelry. Ceres Bakery and Nail Toepia also occupy structures built in 1891. Western Outdoors, one of the city’s unique and popular retail destinations, sits at street level beneath the 1896 opera house, which a local group is now working to restore to its old glory.
Think Local is an elegant shop that sells unique, locally made items that range from soaps to jewelry and furniture; it’s almost hard to imagine that the building was once home to the town’s most notoriously rowdy saloon. The original Hendrickson Motors building now houses the Kalispell Brewing Company, the city’s first operating brewery in more than 50 years.
You can find details about these and other destinations at our Shopping page.
Downtown Walking Tour
In Kalispell’s core you’ll find exceptional examples of commercial architectural styles including Georgian Revival, Tudor, Art Nouveau, Renaissance, postwar Modernism and more. You’ll also find plenty of fascinating stories of pioneering entrepreneurs who cast their lots in the Flathead Valley.
The best way to experience it all is with a walking tour. Start out at Kalispell’s old train depot — now the Kalispell Visitor Information Center, located at 15 Depot Park — where you can pick up a 30-page booklet that gives detailed histories of some 61 downtown historic buildings.
East Side Neighborhood
Kalispell is home to one of Montana’s most beautiful and well-preserved historic residential neighborhoods. In an “odd but true,” several homes even predate the city’s founding: When the railroad arrived here, numerous residents of nearby Demersville saw the writing on the wall and rolled their homes on logs to the new city, leaving Demersville a ghost town just a few short years later. The Flathead Beacon has compiled a series of excellent histories of east side residences and other landmarks at this link.
Kalispell Grand Hotel
Kalispell’s oldest surviving downtown business is a fitting place to lay your head after a day exploring the historic downtown. Originally opened in 1912, the Kalispell Grand Hotel is an immaculately preserved reminder of the city’s early days.
Kalispell is home to several of the region’s finest museums. You can experience life as it was lived more than a century ago at the Conrad Mansion; learn about the area’s history prior to the arrival of white pioneers at the Museum at Central School; and explore the region’s rich history of art at the Hockaday Museum of Art. For information on those and other cultural treasures, please visit our Arts and Culture page.