The Grand Railway Hotels

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We are going to jump ahead a bit before I continue on with the story of the construction of the transcontinental railway. Today, I’m going to look at the grand railway hotels that would be built along the line of the Canada Pacific Railway.

There are several hotels considered to be grand railway hotels, but many were not built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, or were built well into the 20th century. As such, I wanted to focus on seven of the hotels, primarily built during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The decision to make the hotels came down directly from the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, William Van Horne, who would state, quote:

“If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”

Windsor Hotel

Considered to be the first of the grand railway hotels, the Windsor Hotel was not built by the Canadian Pacific Railway as it did not exist yet, but it still played a part in its history and that is why I am including it here.

Built between 1875 and 1878 at a cost of $500,000, it was situated in Montreal, which was the largest city in Canada at the time.

Opened on Jan. 28, 1878, the gala to celebrate its opening was the largest social gathering in the history of Montreal to that point and it was attended by the wife of the Governor General Lord Dufferin, as well as Sir John A. Macdonald.

The Montreal Gazette would report the following day, quote:

“The Windsor Hotel was opened yesterday without any form or ceremony except the most practical one of the entrance of a number of guests. A very substantial portion of the rooms was filled and this very grand and in all respects encouraging experiment is now fairly afloat.”

Despite that grand opening, the hotel was not a success to start until the Montreal Winter Carnivals began in the 1880s. It was around this same time that the hotel would begin to serve as the permanent residence of executives for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The hotel would host several extremely famous individuals including Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde.

In 1906, 100 guest rooms were destroyed by a fire which resulted in renovations and a new wing on the hotel, which doubled the number of rooms from 368 to 750.

It was in this hotel that the owners of the Montreal Canadiens, the Quebec Bulldogs, the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Wanderers met in one of the restaurants at the hotel to form the National Hockey League.

The hotel would begin to decline through the 1940s, and by 1957 a fire destroyed one third of the hotel and the hotel was finally demolished on Aug. 12, 1959.

The Montreal Gazette would report on that fateful day, quote:

“No sunlight lit up the green copper-roofed dome on the southeast corner of the old Windsor Hotel that has looked down in Victorian elegance for more than 80 years on the heart of Montreal and out over Dominion Square. Long since denuded of the Union Jack that fluttered on top of it, the tower dome and two stories of stonework were pulled down with a roar at 5:37 a.m.”

Mount Stephen House

As the railroad was finished in British Columbia, the first of the grand hotels would be built near Field, British Columbia in 1886. Named for Mount Stephen, which was nearby, the hotel actually started simply as a place to eat for travelers on the railroad. Due to the steep continental divide east of Field, heavy dining cars could not be hauled over that section of track. The hotel was then designed to be a meal stop for travelers who were going from Banff to Golden. As passengers stopped to eat at the hotel, they soon discovered the area to be beautiful and the demand for overnight stays at the hotel increased heavily.

The Vancouver Daily World would report on one such group who loved the scenery of the area on May 22, 1889, stating quote:

“While the train was at the station, Dr. Webb took photographs of the Mount Stephen House and the surrounding mountains. The members of the party much admired the scenery in this neighbourhood and are expected to spend two days at Field on the return journey in order to enjoy some trout fishing.”

On Aug. 16, 1897, a thunderbolt struck the building, destroying part of the roof and blowing the doors off of three bedrooms. One waiter narrowly escaped being killed in the incident.

To accommodate the growing popularity of the stop, from 1900 to 1902, the hotel went through a massive expansion to add an additional 50 rooms, as well as modern plumbing and a billiards room. The alpine architecture was also changed so that it would resemble an English Tudor design. A large dining room, ballroom and library were also added.

The need for extra space was shown in a piece written in the Vancouver Daily Province on Oct. 8, 1902, stating quote:

“The necessity of the construction of an addition to the Mount Stephen House is caused by the ever increasing number of tourists attracted to Field by reason of the healthful climate and the beautiful sights to be witnessed in the vicinity.”

In 1904, Lady Minto, wife of the Governor General of Canada, would take a trip to Mount Stephen House during a cross country journey, and would stay briefly at the hotel.

The best years for the hotel would be between 1886 and 1915 when the hotel was frequented by wealthy Europeans who were traveling on the railroad.

After 1918, the hotel was put under the management of the YMCA and it became an accommodation for CPR employees. This would remain the case until 1953 when the CPR resumed management of the building. One year later, the hotel was demolished except for the 1902 wing, which was used as a station. In 1963, the rest of the building was demolished.

Glacier House

On the western approach of Rogers Pass, Glacier House would start out as nothing more than a dining car set up for a passenger train meal stop. As with Stephens House, the travelers who stopped in the area admired the beauty of the area and that would push the CPR to build a proper building for travelers. In 1886, a chalet was opened at the site that featured a dining room, which allowed the dining car to go back into service on the line.

In January 1887, a new 15-bedroom accommodation was built and made ready for guests. The staff took up half the rooms, and a sleeping car was added to accommodate overflows. In 1889, a two-storey station was built to serve the stop and three years later a new 32-room annex was built onto the hotel along with a billiard room.

In 1889, an account of a visit to Glacier House was printed in the Vancouver Daily World, stating quote:

“The weather at Glacier House is pleasant and very seasonable. The smoky atmosphere has been dispersed, permitting a clear and unobstructed view of the lovely valleys surrounding this picturesque spot.”

In 1904, the hotel was expanded again with a 54-room wing that included a new reception area and an elevator. The station was also given the name Glacier.

The hotel would see an observation tower built in 1890, with a telescope added to the top in 1898 so that visitors could view mountaineers climbing the nearby peaks and glaciers. The tower would be demolished in 1910.

The hotel would continue to operate until 1929 when it was demolished.

Hotel Vancouver

In 1888, the first Hotel Vancouver would be built as a place for passengers who had travelled on the train throughout British Columbia to stop and rest. For that reason, it was located right next to the Granville Train Station.

For those in Vancouver, they did not like the design of the building. One newspaper wrote that it resembled a, quote:

“compound of a decayed grist-mill with bits of the bastile and the Tower of London added.”

It would add that it was a, quote:

“Monument of external ugliness.”

Even Van Horne, the president of the CPR, told the designer that, quote:

“You’re the damn fool who spoilt the building with all those little windows.”

At the time, the building was the largest hotel in the city.

Located in what would now be the centre of the City of Vancouver, the hotel, which was 60 rooms, was criticized for being out of the way and too far from the city centre of the time, which today would be Gastown. When it was constructed, the hotel was mostly surrounded by forests and brush.

As it turned out, the hotel was very popular among tourists and workers who were staying in the community. As a result of this popularity, the hotel was demolished in 1912 and replaced with a second incarnation of the hotel that was grander in both its design and capacity.

Banff Springs Hotel

Without a doubt, the most famous of the grand railway hotels is the Banff Springs Hotel. Located at an altitude at 1,414 metres, it overlooks a valley towards Mount Rundle.

Opened in 1888, the hotel was built in the shape of an H with an octagonal centre hall and additional wings that extended out. The original building cost $250,000 to build, or $7.2 million today but a mistake by the designer resulted in the intended orientation of the building being backwards, with its back turned on the mountain vista. The original building featured 100 bedrooms through five-storeys.

The Montreal Gazette would state of the hotel, quote:

“A perfectly constructed summer and winter hotel, costing a quarter of million dollars situated on the line of the Canadian Pacific Railway near the summit of the Rocky Mountains. The house is electric lighted and has every comfort and convenience found in city hotels of the highest grade…In grandeur of scenery and purity of atmosphere the region is immeasurably superior to any similar health resort on the continent.”

At the time that it opened, the hotel featured rates of upwards of $3.50 per night, or about $100 per night today.

In 1902, the hotel was expanded to 200 rooms. Four years later, the hotel was overhauled completely and much of the original structure was replaced. Walter Painter, the chief architect for the Canadian Pacific Railway, designed an 11-storey central tower that was finished in 1914. When it was completed, the hotel was briefly the tallest building in Canada, and it featured 300 rooms.

The hotel would be visited by King George VI and the future Queen Elizabeth during the 1939 royal tour of Canada. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would also visit the hotel with the Royal Couple during that trip. The visit of the Royal Couple was a major undertaken for the staff of the hotel. The main entrance was decorated in red, white, blue and gold, with a design of crowns, flags and the British coat of arms. The royal suite would be furnished on the sixth floor and would feature a private dining room and kitchen. The hotel also hired the Morace Lapp Dance Orchestra and the Toronto String Trio to provide music during the visit. The Royal Couple would arrive at the hotel at 7:30 p.m. on May 26, 1939 and stay at the hotel for three days.

Throughout the 20th century, the hotel would go through several renovations, including one for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Today, the hotel includes 757 rooms, event spaces, several dining rooms and a terrace garden. Also at the hotel there is a bowling alley, five tennis courts, a swimming pool and a golf course.

Due to its importance in Canada’s history, the building was made into a National Historic Site of Canada in 1988.

Chateau Frontenac

Ground would break on this grand hotel in May of 1892 and it would officially open on Dec. 18, 1893. It was designed by architect Bruce Price, while overseen by William Van Horne and this hotel would become a shining jewel for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The hotel would be named for Count of Frontenac, who was the Governor General of New France from 1672 to 1682 and from 1689 to 1698.

Two days after the hotel opened, the heads of the railways of the Eastern United States, New England and Canada met at the hotel to agree on the most favourable rates for passengers.

The hotel would be expanded in 1924 when the central tower was built, making it the tallest building in Quebec for the rest of the decade.

The hotel would play a key role in the Second World War when both the First and Second Quebec Conferences in 1943 and 1944 were held there. The conferences were attended by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was also the home of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis from 1936 to 1939 and from 1944 to 1959.

When the Royal Couple went across Canada, they would stay at the hotel as well in May of 1939.

In 1953, the hotel was used as a filming location for the final scene in the Alfred Hitchcock film I Confess.

The hotel would be expanded on over the next several decades and in 1981, was named as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Palliser Hotel

One of the later built hotels by the CPR, the Palliser Hotel was constructed in 1914 even though Calgary had the railroad go through it in 1883. At the time that the CPR arrived in the community, it was little more than an outpost for the North-West Mounted Police.

Typically, the tourists who were on the trains going through would stay at the Banff Springs Hotel, only a short distance away from Calgary so there was no need for a large hotel to be built in Calgary.

In order to take advantage of the traffic moving through the city offered the Canadian Pacific Railway an exemption on property taxes. The company agreed and ground was broken on the construction on May 12, 1911. When finished, it cost $1.5 million and would open with nearly no fanfare on June 1, 1914.

The Calgary Herald would state, quote:

“Without any formal pomp of ceremony, but with the simple turning of the key in the big front door, the Palliser Hotel, Calgary’s latest and most up-to-date hostelry, this morning opened for business.”

The first person to stay at the hotel was Charles Walsh Rowly, a banker from Winnipeg who had lived in Calgary before. By noon on the day it opened, the hotel was filled with guests and every room was booked. At the breakfast held at the hotel, 70 people attended.

E. Cotty, the manager of the hotel, would state, quote:

“Everything was going so fine. Business is fine. While, of course, in starting we have little difficulties to overcome which could not possibly have been foreseen, our system is standing the opening strain in fine style and there has not been a hitch.”

The hotel was also named for John Palliser, the explorer who came through on the Palliser Expedition in the 1850s.

When completed, the hotel was eight stories tall and in 1929 four additional floors were added as the city was growing quickly. With those four stories, the hotel was the tallest building in Calgary until 1958.

It continues to operate to this day and along with the Hotel Macdonald, received the first two liquor licences from the Alberta Liquor Control Board after prohibition was repealed in the province in 1924. It also had the last male-only bar room in Calgary, finally allowing women into the bar in 1970.

Information from Wikipedia, Vancouver Is Awesome, Canadian Train Vacations, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Daily World, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Daily Province, Calgary Herald,

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