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Riding the buses » Canada, Why travel » Celebrating Canada’s railway hotels

Celebrating Canada’s railway hotels

Last spike, Craigellachie, BC

Last spike, Craigellachie, BC

There is a famous moment in Canadian history when on November 7, 1885 an iron spike was pounded into a railway tie in Craigellachie, British Columbia signalling the joining of Canada’s east with its west by railroad.

It was no easy feat, particularly the stretch of track over the Kicking Horse Pass at the Alberta-B.C. border. But William Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) at the time, got it done, though at great cost. Next on his list? Building castles in the sky.

Now Canada is a modest country, not given to grand gestures. But Van Horne was not of that ilk. He was of the ‘build it and they will come’ variety—‘they’ being tourists with money from eastern Canada, the United States and Europe. He wanted to entice the wealthy to travel great distances on this newly built railway and he would do it with hotels built on a massive scale, some in the chateau style with towers, dormers and gables, all with materials of the highest quality and décor that was elaborate yet comfortably elegant. The settings would all be spectacular.

Succeed he did, along with others, and the hotels built by the railways became national symbols of quality accommodation in the growing Canadian hospitality industry.

Banff Springs Hotel, 1929

Banff Springs Hotel, 1929

Van Horne’s first ‘castle’ was built in  Banff National Park, Canada’s 1st national park established in the Rocky Mountains in 1885, the same year as the ‘last spike’. He chose the site for the hotel, situated at the foot of Sulphur Mountain, just above the Bow Falls and close to thermal springs. It was to be called the Banff Springs Hotel and from its windows guests could see the Bow River, Tunnel Mountain, Mount Rundle and the distant Fairholme range. The hotel opened in 1888 and over the years the original one was replaced by a restrained chateau structure,  becoming an international symbol of a certain type of tourism within a wilderness setting.

Evening, Chateau Lake Louise

Evening, Chateau Lake Louise

According to legend, an employee of the CPR by the name of Thomas Wilson was working near the Kicking Horse Pass when he heard the rumble of avalanches. The Stoney Indians who were with him said the noise was coming from “snow mountains above the lake of little fishes”. So off they went to this emerald lake in one of Canada’s most magnificent settings. That was back in 1882 and by 1890 a simple hotel for the “outdoor adventurer and alpinist” was built that evolved into the grand property that is known as Chateau Lake Louise. A small, log railway station was built by the hotel for the tourists. CPR hired Swiss mountaineers to teach locals and visitors to climb and soon the area was known for mountaineering, an impetus for the development of the national park system in the Rockies.

Château Frontenac around 1924

Château Frontenac around 1924

The wealthy might travel great distances to get to the Rockies and some would start their journey in Quebec. So in 1893 the CPR opened Château Frontenac in Quebec City, six years after the Banff Springs Hotel. This was no ordinary château but designed to rival any hotel in Europe. It also became one of the most photographed hotels in the world, sitting grandly on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River in the city’s historic district and seen by passing ships. Château Frontenac became the model for the chateau-style railway hotels that followed.

The Empress Hotel

The Empress Hotel

The first was the Empress Hotel, built in 1908 in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, opulent and ready to welcome wealthy tourists as they disembarked from world-class cruise ships.

CPR’s main competitor was the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and this railway also built luxury hotels in the chateau style. The first was the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, completed in 1912. The Chateau Laurier was given a special place, overlooking the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal, next to some of Canada’s most historic landmarks and close to the seat of the federal government. Its pale Indiana limestone walls, steep roof, turrets, and gothic details, “ideally suited the character and climate of Canada” and for many years the federal government insisted that all federal architecture in Ottawa conform in some way to this style.

Royal York Hotel and Union Station, 1928

Royal York Hotel and Union Station, 1928

In Toronto, the railway station is as symbolic as the railway hotel, the Royal York. Union Station takes up an entire block of prime downtown property and is a national historic site. Interestingly, this stone Beaux-Arts station was a joint effort of the CPR and the Grand Trunk Railway. It was built at a time when Toronto was becoming a modern metropolis and is indicative of that growth. Not to be outdone, when the Royal York opened in 1929, it was the tallest building in the British Commonwealth, a city within a city, with a switchboard that was 66 feet long manned by 35 telephone operators and its own golf course.

The railway station and hotel bring back memories of the time my mother, after receiving a small and unexpected inheritance, brought her 5 daughters to Toronto by train from their respective cities for a weekend at the Royal York (including room service for breakfast). Now how special is that!

The original (above) and the newly constructed Algonquin Hotel

The original (above) and the reconstructed Algonquin Hotel (1915) (below)

I have fond memories staying at the Algonquin Hotel, sharing a room with my sisters, gathering around the grand piano, sipping drinks. We were transported to another place, perhaps the tropics. But no, we were in the coastal town St. Andrew’s by-the-sea on the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. The first Algonquin was built in 1889 just as the Golden Age of Sailing was ending and the town wasn’t doing so well. Once again the CPR dreamed Big, purchased the property and opened this castle-by-the-sea in 1915 to attract visitors who usually stayed at resort hotels along the New England coast that at the time were becoming overcrowded. Soon many of Montreal’s elite built summer homes in St. Andrew’s. Today the Algonquin remains a New Brunswick tourism landmark.

Prince of Wales Hotel, 2004

Prince of Wales Hotel, 2004

Once you see the Prince of Wales Hotel you’ll never forget it. It’s grand yet rustic, a Swiss chalet built in a most dramatic setting on a cliff overlooking Waterton Lake. It was built by the Great Northern Railway, 1926-7, at a time when well-to-do visitors travelled by horseback between lodges in the mountains. It is in Waterton Lakes National Park where “the prairies and the mountains meet”, just next door to Glacier National Park in the state of Montana. Together the two parks straddle the Continental Divide at its narrowest point in the Rocky Mountain chain.

The Macdonald Hotel, built overlooking Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River valley and completed in 1915 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, was named after Sir John A. MacDonald, the first prime minister of Canada. Hotel Saskatchewan, built in 1926-27, has long been one of the prominent hotels in Saskatchewan and where royalty, including Queen Elizabeth II, have stayed when visiting the province.

Jasper Park Lodge's main building, 1923

Jasper Park Lodge’s main building, 1923

Jasper Park Lodge was my introduction to the railway hotels and I never looked back. I worked there as a waitress when it was owned by the Canadian National Railways. (At the time there was a friendly competition between staff working at Jasper Park Lodge and those at the Banff Springs. My kids and nephews went on to work at Banff Springs so I don’t think I was very influential.) I got the job because my best friend’s father was appointed mayor of Jasper so together we took the long train ride west from Ottawa. It was one great summer, my  introduction to how the wealthy live. Even my work (“station”) mate came from one of the wealthiest families in Canada.

Jasper Park Lodge started as a “Tent City” on the shores of Lac Beauvert until the Canadian National Railways took it over in 1921 and started building log cabins including the “largest single-storey log structure in the world”.

Chateau Montebello, 1930

Chateau Montebello, 1930

When CP’s Chateau Montebello in Quebec was opened in 1930, it was the world’s largest log building, inspired by a châteaux in the Swiss Alps and given the nickname “Lucerne-in-Québec.” The 10,000 red-cedar logs used to build the resort’s three main buildings were all cut and set by hand.

The Pines in Nova Scotia was built in 1905 on a hill outside Digby overlooking the Annapolis Basin and Digby Gut. In 1929 the Dominion Atlantic Railway, owned by CPR, completely rebuilt it and it became another one of Canada’s grand seaside resorts. Ever loyal, twice a day “hotel bell boys would dip the flag to salute the CPR steamer SS Princess Helene as she steamed by the hotel en route to the Digby Wharf.”

The Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal was built over the city’s Central Station in 1958 and is considered to be the last true railway hotel constructed in Canada. It’s claim to fame? Why that’s where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their Bed-In for Peace (suite 1742)—a worldwide media event. Hard to beat that!

In 1988, Canadian Pacific acquired the CNR hotels and for the first time many of Canada’s railway hotels were under the same company.

Chateau Laurier Hotel and Union Station, Ottawa, 1929

Chateau Laurier Hotel and Union Station, Ottawa, 1929

Consider visiting at least one of these properties during Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. They are historic, the stuff of memories, occupying some of the choicest real estate in the country. A special occasion might warrant an overnight stay (and prices are sometimes reduced). The spa at Banff Springs is right up there with the best. There is no choicer gift for a golfer than a round at Jasper Park Lodge’s mountain golf course. Afternoon tea at the Empress, the Royal York or the Chateau Laurier is served in fine china along with scones, tiny sandwiches and pastries; you’ll feel like royalty. Skate on one of the best outdoor skating rinks in the world at Chateau Lake Louise or take a dogsled ride at Château Montebello. The possibilities are just about endless.

Historic hotels built during the “railway era”
Banff Spring Hotel, Banff, Alberta – 1888
Chateau Lake Louise, Lake Louise, Alberta – 1890/1911
Château Frontenac, Quebec City – 1893
The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia – 1908
Chateau Laurier, Ottawa, Ontario – 1912
Palliser Hotel, Calgary – 1914
Macdonald, Edmonton, Alberta – 1915
The Algonquin, St. Andrews, New Brunswick – 1889/1915
Hotel Vancouver, Vancouver, British Columbia – 1916
The Pines, Digby, Nova Scotia – 1905/1929
Jasper Park Lodge, Jasper, Alberta – 1922
Prince of Wales, Waterton National Park, Alberta – 1927
Hotel Saskatchewan, Regina Saskatchewan – 1927
Lord Nelson Hotel, Halifax, Nova Scotia – 1927
Royal York Hotel, Toronto – 1929
Château Montebello, Montebello, Quebec – 1930
Hotel Vancouver, Vancouver, British Columbia – 1939
Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, Quebec – 1958
Note: This list may not be complete

Key source for this article: The Canadian Register of Historic Places

About the photos: The photos are from Wikimedia Commons and all are in the public domain. The copyright for all but one expired because the photograph was created prior to January 1, 1949

By Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses™ 2016

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