How the Grand Railway Hotels Changed Tourism in Canada

Iconic Canadian hotels like the historic Banff Springs, Château Laurier and Royal York continue to draw visitors.
 

Banff Springs, photo by Jared Sych

In 1885, the final spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in at Craigellachie, B.C., connecting the country from coast to coast. Once complete, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) faced a new challenge: make the railway profitable. It was already helping to settle remote parts of the country and transport goods, and tourism was identified as a new source of revenue. But to capitalize upon it, Canadians and international visitors needed to be enticed to travel the country by rail.

“Prior to completion of the Canadian Pacific, a railway trip would not have been very long, and certainly not across the country, so the need for railway hotels was not there,” says Jean-Paul Viaud, curator at Exporail, Canada’s national railway museum in Saint-Constant, Que. 

“The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was really the point of departure for the hotel business in Canada as we know it today.” 

Three modest chalets soon popped up near the B.C.-Alberta border by Rogers Pass and Kicking Horse Pass: Mount Stephen House, Fraser Canyon House and Glacier House, essentially launching Canadian tourism in the Rockies. Sleeping and dining cars were too heavy to cross the pass, so the chalets were built out of necessity. “These three hotels were made of wood in the Swiss chalet style and provided a meal and sleeping service for travellers. It was very utilitarian; the idea was not to offer a resort,” says Viaud.

Banff Springs Hotel as seen from across the Bow Valley, 1928/photo courtesy of Exporail, Canadian Pacific Railway Company Fonds


Meanwhile in 1883,
the Banff hot springs were discovered east of Rogers Pass, leading to the founding of Banff National Park and Canada’s national park system. CPR general manager (and later president) William Cornelius Van Horne realized he could leverage the area’s beauty, famously saying, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”

But Van Horne first had to lure tourists to Canada’s wilderness. “An obstacle for the railways was the presumption that Canada was not a nice place to go, because of the harsh winters and the absence of cities in the [west],” says Viaud.

At the time, leisure travel was largely for the wealthy. “Fashionable bourgeoisie from Eastern Canada or Europe were used to a high standard of living, so it was necessary to build the kind of facilities they were expecting,” says Viaud.

As a result, the grand chateau style became the primary architectural influence for Canada’s first railway hotels. The style was heavily influenced by French Gothic architecture; its defining characteristics included large, dramatic details such as steeply pitched roofs, elaborate towers and spires. Later, neo-classical and art deco influences would also shape these hotels’ appearances.

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Mackenzie King at a Château Laurier reception, 1939/photo courtesy of Exporail, Canadian Pacific Railway Company Fonds


Van Horne’s idea
was to build a network of resort hotels where tourists could spend their days sightseeing in cities and outdoor adventuring in rural areas. His vision became reality in 1888 when the grand Banff Springs Hotel opened, followed by Chateau Lake Louise in 1890. The hotels became must-visit destinations in themselves. “The resort hotel came to be the hallmark of Canadian tourism,” says Viaud.

Canada subsequently became a fashionable holiday destination for wealthy Europeans. Throughout the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, CPR opened a slew of railway hotels across the country alongside its main competitor, Grand Trunk Railway. In 1923 Grand Trunk merged with Canadian National Railway and continued to build railway hotels in the 1930s, mostly in Eastern Canada.

“The way people thought of Canada changed because of the railways’ [investment]. The railways built a new image of Canada in the collective imagination,” says Viaud.

Opened in 1958 in Montreal, the Queen Elizabeth Hotel is considered the last true railway hotel ever built. Eventually, CPR renamed its hotel division Fairmont Hotels and Resorts after purchasing the U.S.-based Fairmont chain in 1999. Though it no longer owns these properties, Fairmont continues to manage many of them.

Today air travel is the transport of choice, but the legacy of the railway hotels lives on. Many have maintained their original features and are now landmarks in their respective cities and mountain towns.

Banff Springs

Often referred to as the “Castle in the Rockies,” the Banff Springs has remained one of Canada’s most recognizable hotels since it opened in 1888. A National Historic Site, it is now operated by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.

The original five-storey, 250-room hotel burnt down in 1926, but the stone extension added in 1913 survived. The entire hotel was rebuilt in stone in the castle-like Scottish-baronial style, featuring dramatic towers and turrets.

Many original design details have been thoughtfully preserved, including the large windows in the hotel’s Riverview Lounge and the original hardwood floors of the Cascade Ballroom, in which guests have danced and dined at weddings and formal dinners for a century.

“It’s important to maintain [the hotel’s history]. It gives people an idea of what travel and tourism was like when things were a little more opulent,” says Tony Harvey, an ambassador for the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.

Off the lobby, Heritage Hall serves as a mini-museum for the hotel with archival photos and artifacts, and historical tours are offered to guests daily from May to late September.

Getting there: WestJet flies to Calgary 115 times a day from 26 Canadian, 12 U.S. and four international cities.

Château Laurier, Ottawa

In 1905, Grand Trunk Railway then-vice-president Charles Melville Hays sparked the so-called “hotel wars” by expanding the company’s railway lines and building grand hotels.

Like Van Horne, Hays was an ambitious visionary and his first project was the Château Laurier in Ottawa. The French Renaissance-style grand chateau is built of granite, white Italian marble, Indiana limestone and topped with a copper roof. The hotel’s interior is just as luxurious, with travertine marble staircases and Czechoslovakian crystal. The castle-like building dominates nearly an entire block of downtown Ottawa, just across the Rideau Canal from Parliament Hill.

Unfortunately, Hays never saw his vision realized, as he perished aboard the Titanic just weeks prior to the hotel’s opening. Despite this sombre note, the Château Laurier was officially opened on June 1, 1912, by its namesake Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had served as prime minister until 1911. Since its opening, famous guests have included Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and the Dalai Lama. 

Managed by Fairmont, much of its original architecture has been preserved, including its art deco swimming pool. Guests can borrow an iPad from the front desk to take a self-guided, narrated tour of the hotel. The building also features two heritage galleries that explore the hotel’s history.

Getting there: WestJet flies to Ottawa 20 times a day from seven Canadian cities.

Royal York, Toronto

By the late 1920s, railway hotel architecture had evolved. As major cities grew and technological improvements, such as better elevators, came about, skyscrapers began to dominate North American city skylines. In 1929, CPR opened Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York, as it’s now known, the country’s first modern-day skyscraper hotel. It was built in a Gothic revival style (evident from its dramatic arches and spires) but with a contemporary skyscraper sensibility.

The Royal York still dominates the Toronto skyline and was once the largest hotel in the British Commonwealth, one of the largest hotels in North America and one of Canada’s grandest buildings. Its 28 floors held 1,048 rooms, each with then-modern amenities such as radios and private showers. It also featured a private golf course, library, rooftop ballroom and a concert hall with a massive pipe organ.

Many original features remain, including the hand-painted mosaic ceiling, travertine pillars and crystal chandeliers in the ballroom. For more information on its rich history, visitors can download the Royal York’s self-guided tour app.

The Royal York, like its sister railway hotels, continues to lure visitors from far and wide. These grand buildings remain intrinsically tied to the country’s history and its stature as a travel destination gifted with an abundance of natural beauty and, yes, luxurious accommodations.

Getting there: WestJet flies to Toronto 128 times a day from 22 Canadian, 10 U.S. and 23 international cities.

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