Fields of wheat, snow-capped mountain ranges, and cattle ranches — a few of the classically Canadian snapshots of the Prairies one might experience while travelling cross-country. But a little-known fact is that it was during Sir John A. Macdonald’s hotel stay at Banff Springs that he got the idea for our National Park system. Angela Moore, Public Relations regional director for Fairmont Canada’s Western Mountain Region, explains: “The Prime Minister was so impressed by the beauty of the landscape when he spent a summer here, at a cottage run by the Banff Springs hotel, that he decided to develop a way for everyone to enjoy the landscape and got the idea for [the] National Park [system].” The U.S. would take inspiration from Canada soon after and found its own park system.

Canada’s Prairie provinces play host to a handful of iconic hotels that evolved along the cross-country route carved by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) — all of which are now recognized heritage sites, but this wasn’t always the case. Here’s a snapshot of five historic Prairie hotels that have made a definitive mark on Canadian travel, tourism and community.

The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is an inimitable Canadian icon due to its one-of-a-kind Rocky Mountain location. Built in the Scottish Baronial style in 1887 for the CPR for $250,000, the hotel went through several architectural iterations before its present one made of concrete and stone.

The CPR’s general manager, William Van Horne, had the future of Canadian tourism in mind when he commissioned the project. He once famously said, “Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.” And so began the blossoming of various hotel resorts along the way to Canada’s West Coast.

The hotel’s spectacular surroundings have attracted celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, as well as royalty, including George VI and Queen Elizabeth — who visited the property, along with William Lyon Mackenzie King, in 1939.

The property was forced to shut down for a brief period during WWII due to war-imposed travel restrictions and the withdrawal of a major European investor. But, by 1945, its doors were open for business once again, despite the fact that it wasn’t until the 1980s that Banff Springs truly recovered from its recession period. “Many features of the original hotel are still intact,” says Moore. “Our Stephen Hall Room for special functions features original stained glass and glazed stone floors.”

Regina’s great railway hotel secured its place in the local economy early on and still maintains a presence in its community today. It was actually the 14th hotel property sponsored by the CPR in response to the needs of cross-country travellers. Many of the earlier CPR-sponsored hotels displayed the classic “chateau” style, but by the 1920s, architectural taste had evolved to a more constrained, less ornate structural design. Melynda Loder, director of Sales and Marketing at Hotel Saskatchewan, says the business has been at the heart of Regina’s culture and community since its inception: “If it happens in Regina, it happens at the Hotel Saskatchewan.” Just ask Justin Bieber, who was a recent guest.

Originally built in 1927 for a pending royal visit, the hotel currently operates as part of Marriott International’s Autograph Collection. “This hotel is truly part of the community, not just because of the [number] of people it employs,” says Loder. “It’s a local gathering place. On a symbolic level, it has lasted through good and bad times and in that sense, I like to think of it as having that Prairie perseverance.” Loder says the hotel has stayed true to its roots as a CPR hotel, despite the massive renovations that took place in 2015.

The Hotel Saskatchewan team worked with community members to maintain the authenticity of the hotel’s original design details, including the chandeliers, sconces and crown mouldings (see Design & Decor story on p. 67). The design team managed to integrate the old with the new lounge that flows open-concept into the lobby and overlooks the park.

More than a century old, the Fort Garry Hotel, Spa and Conference Centre mixes luxury service with local history. It was once a grand hotel for its time — built in the “neo-chateau style” in 1913 for a whopping $1.5 million dollars — welcoming celebrities and dignitaries from around the world, including Harry Belafonte, Laurence Olivier, Liberace, Lester Pearson and Queen Elizabeth II.

To this day, it maintains a prominent place in Winnipeg’s history. These chateau-inspired hotels became associated with a distinct Canadian style, reflected in the design of New York’s famous Plaza Hotel.Originally, Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railways, commissioned the project as a strategic luxury stop for travellers journeying across Canada. Sadly, Hays perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and never lived to witness the completion of either his railway or his hotel.

Then again, maybe he visits from time to time. The Fort Garry is allegedly one of the most haunted locales in Winnipeg history. Employees have witnessed an array of creepy occurrences, including blood trickling down the walls in room 202 and a real-seeming female ghost crying in the corner of the lounge who disappears when approached. But despite the supernatural activity, the Fort Garry has remained a cornerstone of Winnipeg culture. In 2012, co-owners Rick Bell and Ida Albo won a Winnipeg Heritage Award for Distinguished Service. “It was a way of acknowledging our commitment to conserving the heritage and beauty of the property,” says Albo. “We had a huge celebration for the Fort Garry’s first 100 years. Now, we want to see it last another 100.” To this end, the pair has expanded the hotel’s services and has also incorporated a wellness centre with luxury spa and high-end fitness components.

Indigenous people always seemed to know about Lake Louise. The Stoney Indians (as they were once called) had identified the water as Ho-run-num-nay or “Lake of the Little Fishes”. But it wasn’t until a Canadian Pacific Railway employee — Tom Wilson — was led to the site by a Stoney guide in 1882, that the idea for a resort arose.

Van Horne, CPR’s general manager at the time, envisioned the property — which originally consisted of little more than a bungalow-style log cabin with room for approximately 50 guests — as a hotel “for the outdoor adventurer and alpinist.”

Fast-forward to today and Fairmont’s Chateau Lake Louise has become an iconic property in Canada’s tourism landscape. “Lake Louise is originally named after Queen Victoria’s daughter,” recalls Fairmont’s Moore. “People from all across the country and, eventually, around the world wanted to come and see it and to spend more time there. It’s been a part of [Banff National Park] for years.”

Chateau Lake Louise earned a reputation for being the original site of Canadian mountain climbing. Sadly, it wasn’t until the tragic, but much publicized death, of climber Phillip Abbot, in 1896, that the CPR decided to hire two professional Swiss climbers to help guests safely navigate the potentially treacherous Rockies.

It also was the backdrop to a variety of Hollywood movies, including “Eternal Love,” starring John Barrymore and “Springtime in the Rockies”, featuring Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda.

“People have to remember that Canada wasn’t known,” says Moore. “It took the CPR and developments like this to entice the world to come visit. The hotel industry is really responsible for that.”

The Edmonton-based Fairmont Hotel Macdonald was yet another example of Fairmont swooping in at the right time to secure a historical property of national importance. Joslyn Black, Sales and Marketing coordinator for the hotel explains, “We were the first hotel in Edmonton to have a historical dedication to save us from a wrecking ball.”

Completed in 1915 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the hotel overlooks the North Saskatchewan River Valley. Few know that the site of the hotel was a huge squatters’ network where many Ukranian-speaking immigrants lived in small caves along the river wall. Perhaps this origin story has inspired the hotel’s wide array of charity work — from its help with the local women’s shelter to its sponsorship of Meals On Wheels programs. “The Hotel Macdonald has really been a central, social spot throughout the decades of this city. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of just how special it is,” explains Black. But, while Hotel Macdonald is a generous community supporter, it’s also a hotspot for high-end dinners and royal visits.

“We maintain a lot of close ties with the military and we always do the French Grey Ball — a ball for Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Foundation,” explains Black. “We have also had royal visits from the Queen, as well as a number of elaborate social gatherings for dignitaries and other corporate affairs.”

Of course, a hotel with this much history is not without its ghost stories. One guest in particular heard horse hooves running through the eighth-floor hall. Could it be the work horse, which, in 1914, dropped dead from exhaustion just as the foundation for the hotel floor was being poured? And what of the ghost smoking a pipe in the corner of an executive suite? Hotel workers have dubbed him “the boatman,” thought to be a fur trader who died on the North Saskatchewan River.

The birth of the Prairie hotel industry speaks to the earliest moments of Canadian tourism and the first iteration of our collective Canadian identity. It’s also one of the first times Canadians began to imagine how our country might be perceived by the world. A line of historic, heritage hotels meant that travellers could finally travel East to West — making the country one.

Volume 29, Number 2
Written by Jennifer Febbraro


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