On a bitterly cold winter day in 1937 a major fire broke out in Bigfork and changed the town forever – for the better. At about 5p.m. on January seventh the bar in the Bigfork Hotel was filled with patrons, mostly unemployed loggers and traveling salesmen, sipping beer and passing time. Hotel employees kept the wood-fired furnace as hot as possibly trying to keep the drafty, wood-framed building warm in the frigid 20 below zero weather.
The fire was too hot. Some said an earthquake the summer before had jarred the chimney out of alignment. A chimney fire started. Soon the wooden building was on fire. The patrons hauled out the beer barrels, but those promptly froze. “We lost everything but the clothes on our backs.” Said Kenneth O’Brien, whose parents owned the hotel. “There was no fire department back then. Neighbors brought garden hoses, but the water just froze.” Ernie and Catherine O’Brien, owners of the 10-room hotel and the adjoining dance hall, had only memories and some frozen barrels of beer as the fire burned out.
Times were tough in Montana in the midst of the Great Depression. The State Bank of Bigfork had closed and the bankers in Kalispell had an unwritten rule against loaning more the $1000 at a time to any Bigfork venture. It would take a strong character like Ernie O’Brien (also known as the “Mayor of Bigfork” or the “Kingfish”) to secure the loan to rebuild the hotel. Yet, even he almost gave up.
This six foot, four inch, 240-pound man is said to have ruled the hotel, the town, and the school system by force of personality. For instance, he refused to let any dirty loggers come into his dance hall without a bath. He greeted them with a bar of soap and a towel, and pointed them to the hotel’s only bathroom before allowing them to dance. Ernie O’Brian was also a fanatical supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to his sons, and knew how to get jobs through contacts with the WPA (Works Progress Administration). That’s how many of the rock walls around Bigfork were built, including those in front of the school.
First National Bank of Kalispell (now Norwest Bank) finally gave Ernie O’Brien the loan he needed to rebuild the old hotel. The “mayor of Bigfork” had a vision of what Bigfork would become (a resort town), and wanted a Swiss chalet-style building, resembling the lodges in Glacier National Park. Harry Elton, then caretaker of the C. J. Kelly Estate on Swan Lake, contracted to build the new hotel, containing 18 rooms, several bathrooms, and an apartment for the Obrien family. Elton was paid $3.00 a day, the rest of the workers were paid $1.00 a day.
Primarily the Fenby brothers of Swan Lake, who also hand split the cedar shakes that are still on the building, did the log work. The logs were cut when it was 20 below zero or more in the Swan, forever trapping frozen sap in the bark. Less than seven months after the fire the miracle construction job was completed, enough for people to move in, even though they had to walk on planks to get to their rooms.
The hotel has always been the center of the town’s activities. All the highway traffic passed in front of the hotel before the state highway was routed just west of downtown Bigfork. It was a popular stop for salesman and tourists. Many of the town’s schoolteachers and even the Superintendent of Schools H. A. Veeder, were long-time residents of the hotel. As chairman of the school board, Ernie O. Brien subsidized school salaries by giving free or discounted room and board to school personnel.
The hotel attracted the famous, too. Comedian Red Skeleton was a frequent summer guest. Artist Charlie Russell stayed in the hotel, too. As did Virginia Hill, the famous girlfriend of gangster Bugsey Siegel. (Hill’s room was believed to be used more as a drop-off point for money than living quarters.) More recently such famous personalities as John Lithgow, J. K Simmons, Dirk Benedict and Phil Jackson.
The hotel had its name changed to The Bigfork Inn in 1972. It went through several owners and evolutions changing slowly from a hotel to a restaurant. Bob and Suzie Keenan bought the building in 1982. The Keenan’s, like the O’Brien’s, lived in the building for many years while raising their five children and running the restaurant. Over the years they have added the Library, the “Red Room “and built the front deck dramatically increasing the seating. More recently, the furnace has been replaced, the south wall insulated, and the bathrooms remodeled. This year the new Keenan’s Pub and Game Room has been added to rave reviews. Originally Suzie’s father, Fred Trapp, was instrumental in making the Bigfork Inn look like “the grand old building” that it is, with the flower boxes, and wildflowers. It is interesting to note that Bob Keenan resembled Ernie O’ Brian in his involvement in community and state affairs. He has served on many boards as well as the school board. He has also served as a State Representative and Senator while owning the Inn. The Bigfork Inn continues to carry on the tradition of quality food, excellent service, and value. The Bigfork Inn is still the “centerpiece of the town” and the best place to eat in the Flathead Valley.