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‘Glass House’ on Timpanogos

By Randy Wright - The Daily Herald - | Jul 20, 2003

Although made of steel, Utah Valley’s old-timers call it the Glass House. The summit hut on Mt. Timpanogos has overlooked the valley since 1927, after a plan developed by a group of Pleasant Grove residents to build a mountaintop monument of stone evolved into something more elaborate, a four-sided steel structure complete with glass windows, geographic rangefinder and telescope for anyone hardy enough to trudge all the way to the 11,750-foot peak.

The windows are gone now, along with the other equipment — victim to vandals over three-quarters of a century. But even now, when the sun strikes just right, a beacon of sunlight reflected off the hut’s silvery surface can be seen from points around the valley.

Today, the Glass House is the objective of tens of thousands of hikers each year who make the summit climb. Trails beginning at Aspen Grove on the Provo Canyon side of the Alpine Loop road, or Timpooneke Campground on the American Fork side, are the most popular routes up the mountain.

The origins of the Glass House will be included in a history of Pleasant Grove currently being written by historian Beth Olsen and expected to publish by year’s end.

Pleasant Grove project

Olsen writes that the Forest Service completed the summit trail from Timpooneke in 1921. In August of 1922 Pleasant Grove’s Wasatch Club (later the Chamber of Commerce) began a campaign to place a monument on the summit.

Club members had in mind something similar to the monument that stood at the intersection of Pleasant Grove’s Main and Center streets — a tall obelisk with a flagpole on top, surrounded by steps. Here climbers would be able to rest while enjoying the spectacular panorama of the valley below.

That summer, the club began staging wrestling and boxing matches, and later basketball games, to raise money for the project. But a more elaborate idea — one that would cost more money — seems to have seized the fancy of the promoters. This new plan called for a “lookout house” at the summit. A 10-by-12-foot structure was to have plate-glass windows and be furnished inside with a central map showing surrounding places of interest, a revolving viewfinder and a strong telescope.

The plan got a boost from Gov. George Dern, who hiked to the summit in 1926. Dern praised the panoramic view and saw the potential for a quality installation. He immediately suggested that the Forest Service join the effort.

That was the key moment. Plans began to materialize in earnest when the Forest Service signed on, encouraged and directed by ranger Vivian N. West, who was also a member of Pleasant Grove’s Wasatch Club.

When Forest Service officials came in July 1927 to inspect Timpanogos Cave and the mountain trails and roads that had been built during the previous six years, West solicited their help. The idea of a viewfinder was apparently well received.

West awarded the contract for the lookout house to Builders Steel and Iron Co. of Salt Lake City. The company fabricated the galvanized steel structure, and West took on the job of getting the pieces to the top of Timpanogos, where they would be assembled. The window panes were packed in sturdy wooden boxes for the ascent on the backs of burros.

In mid-September, West, along with employees Thomas Walker, Arnold Green and George Richards, all of Pleasant Grove, headed up the mountain with their load from Timpooneke Ranger Station. Richards, who owned the burros and used them in government service, reportedly had a dream that the heavy load of large, flat panels overbalanced Chub, one of the pack animals, but turned into wings and carried the beast into space.

Fortunately, all went well. Nearing the summit, the men unpacked the animals and carried the panels and boxes themselves. It took more than a week for assembly. When completed, brass arrows on a viewfinder inside the building were set to identify mountain peaks, cities and other points of interest. All that remains today is the stone pedestal on which the viewfinder rested.

Signaling and surveys

Arlo Shelley, a ranger at Timpanogos Cave National Monument who lived in American Fork Canyon in the 1940s and ’50s recalls that the summit hut was used for weather observations and included mirror signaling devices that could communicate with similar stations on Mt. Nebo, Wheeler Peak in Nevada and other peaks in the West. The device, known as a heliograph, was used in the 1880s for government land survey work in the Great Basin and for military message signaling.

In later years, a large pyramid-shaped cap was added atop the Glass House. The cap serves as a survey marker that can be seen from the valley with telescopes.

While the Glass House may give hikers a sense of security with its four steel sides and a roof, Shelley advises that it’s not a safe place to be in a storm — especially an electrical storm.

“I’ve been up there when you could raise your hand and sparks would fly off your hand like bullets,” he said.

Better to get down the mountain in a storm than to seek shelter in the Glass House.

Historical information provided by Beth Olsen, Pleasant Grove. Photos courtesy of Charmaine Thompson, Heritage Specialist, Uinta National Forest.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B2.

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