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    Banff Springs: The Story of a Hotel: Introduction to the history of the hotel

    By : Bart Robinson

    4th edition

    ISBN: 9780978237516

    186 pages
    6 x 9 inches
    May 2007


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    Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel History

    By the 1860s, some of the eastern provinces were tiring of British rule, and a movement was abuzz to push for Canadian independence. The British government, wary of losing Canada as it had lost the United States, passed legislation establishing the Dominion of Canada. At that time, the North-West Territories, as Rupert’s Land had become known, was a foreign land to those in eastern Canada; life out west was primitive with no laws, and no outpost held more than a couple of dozen residents. But in an effort to solidify the Dominion, the government bought the North-West Territories back from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1867. In 1871, British Columbia agreed to join the Dominion as well, but only on the condition that the federal government build a railway to link the fledgling province with the rest of the country.

    The original Banff Springs Hotel
    The original Banff Springs Hotel. Credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (na66-543)

    The idea of a rail line across the continent, replacing canoe and cart routes, was met with scorn by those in the east, who saw it as unnecessary and uneconomical. But the line pushed westward, reaching Winnipeg in 1879 and what was then Fort Calgary in 1883. Many routes across the Continental Divide were considered by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), but Kicking Horse Pass, surveyed by Major A. B. Rogers in 1881, got the final nod. The line and its construction camps pushed into the mountains, reaching Siding 29 (known today as Banff) early in the fall of 1883, Laggan (Lake Louise) a couple of months later, then crossing the divide and reaching the Field construction camp in the summer of 1884. The following year, on November 7, 1885, the final spike was laid, opening up the lanes of commerce between British Columbia and the rest of the Canada.

    Two years previously, in 1883, three CPR workers stumbled on hot springs at the base of Sulphur Mountain, near where the town of Banff now lies. This was the height of the Victorian era, when the great spa resorts of Europe were attracting hordes of wealthy clients. With the thought of developing a similar-style resort, the government designated a 2,600-hectare (6,425-acre) reserve around the hot springs, surveyed a townsite, and encouraged the CPR to build a world-class hotel there. In 1887, Rocky Mountains Park was officially created, setting aside 67,300 hectares (166,300 acres) as a “public park and pleasure ground for the benefit, advantage, and enjoyment of the people of Canada.” The park was later renamed Banff. It was Canada’s first national park and only the third national park in the world.

    In the era the parks were created, the Canadian Rockies region was a vast wilderness accessible only by rail. The parks and the landscape they encompassed were seen as economic resources to be exploited rather than as national treasures to be preserved. Logging, hunting, and mining were permitted inside park boundaries; all but Kootenay National Park had mines operating within them for many years (the last mine, in Yoho National Park, closed in 1952). To help finance the rail line, the CPR began encouraging visitors to the mountains by building grand mountain resorts, including the Banff Springs Hotel.

    Credit is given to , William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the CPR, as the man who “capitalized the scenery” of the Canadian west. Tourism, he maintained, was one way of getting people to ride his railway, and he was very aware of the dollar potential in the Canadian Rockies. Always a man to plunge to the heart of things, he summed up his philosophy succinctly: “Since we can’t export the scenery,” he said, “we’ll have to import the tourists.” Accordingly, with verve and dispatch, he launched a campaign to entice the crème de la crème of the international set (and anyone else with a bit of money) to the wilds of western Canada.

    One of the cornerstones of the plan, the establishment of a system of luxurious hotels commanding the most scenic views of the Canadian Rockies, was the realization of one of Van Horne’s most cherished dreams. His goal was a series of lodgings to offer royal calibre guests all the comforts of home and still afford all the excitement of close wilderness contact. Who could resist? The promotion for the campaign painted a tantalizing, if perhaps somewhat exaggerated, picture.

    It has been suggested that Van Horne originally planned to erect a hotel at the foot of Tunnel Mountain, but that Tom Wilson, a local guide, told Van Horne that he knew of a better spot and took him to a site above the confluence of the Bow and Spray Rivers. Regardless of the decision-making process, Van Horne chose the latter, around three kilometres (two miles) from the village of Banff, then a sleepy little collection of rough-hewn buildings.

    The combination of a stunning mountain backdrop and mineral hot springs noted for their medicinal value led Van Horne to endorse enthusiastically the proposal that the ten-square mile hot springs reserve (created in 1885 to prevent despoliation of the area) be made a national park in 1887.

    Nor was Banff to remain a dusty little mountain village for long. While cows strolled leisurely down the town’s main street in the summer of 1886, and the tourist’s dollar was little more than a passing stroke of luck, things had happened in the east to mature a financial swan from an ugly duckling. A man named Bruce Price was commissioned by the CPR to design the hotel at Banff. Although there is little information concerning the cost or actual construction of the first Banff Springs, it would appear that work on the foundations commenced as early as the fall of 1886, the same year the plans were commissioned. The labour for the job was undoubtedly supplied by a crew of railway workers. Many of them were Chinese, brought to Banff specifically to work on the hotel, as the local labour force at that time would not have exceeded 60 to 70 men.

    Despite the shortage of actual construction detail, there does exist, mainly in old newspapers, a certain amount of more general information about the proposed hotel. As any event involving a high degree of imagination and boldness, or great amounts of capital, will engage the public’s curiosity, so the idea of the Banff Springs Hotel caught the fancy of a certain portion of the Canadian public.
    No one seems to remember the name of, or even admit knowledge of, the CPR official who was in charge of the construction, but it is well known and recorded that when Van Horne cheerily eased his ample girth into Banff in the summer of 1887, he found the rapidly rising hotel turned 180 degrees from what the plans called for. This had the somewhat disastrous effect of affording the kitchen staff the “million-dollar view” of the confluence of the Bow and the Spray, and left the guests in their rotunda viewing the pine trees on the flanks of Sulphur Mountain. Van Horne was not amused. As one of his colleagues stated, “Van Horne was one of the most considerate and even-tempered of men, but when an explosion came it was magnificent.” However, even in its most explosive moments, Van Horne’s mind continued to function smoothly and deliberately, and by the time the reverberations of his voice had echoed into the further reaches of the Bow Valley, he had sketched a rotunda pavilion and ordered that it be built behind the kitchen, thus resurrecting the coveted view.

    In spite of misread blueprints and any of the lesser catastrophes that seem to be an inherent risk in any large construction job, work on the hotel proceeded rapidly, and by the early spring of 1888 the building was nearing completion. The structure, as early accounts and photographs portray it, was a four-story (three main stories and a dormered roof) frame building, resembling in shape the letter “H,” the two wings forming the vertical members of the letter. Van Horne’s pavilion jutted out toward the river from the front wing. The exterior was veneered to suggest cream-coloured Winnipeg brick, and trimmed with oil-finished cedar shingles from British Columbia. The romantic medieval air of the building was accentuated by steep-hipped roofs with pointed dormers, corner turrets, and large bay windows.

    Debates about the stylistic sources of the building raged. One traveller referred to its being “in the Schloss style of the Rhenish provinces,” while another believed it to be “something like a wooden combination of the Tudor hall and Swiss chalet.”

    The Fairmont Banff Springs as it looks today.
    The Fairmont Banff Springs as it looks today.

    And if the exterior of the building were exciting, the interior was at least visually piquant. Finished in native pine and fir, the interior was dominated by a huge glass-covered octagonal rotunda that served as the main lobby of the building. The upper floors of the structure opened onto the central hall in balconies in successive galleries, making it possible for the guests to leave their bedrooms “and gape down at the company assembled there.” A large reading room, various parlours, dining rooms, smoking rooms, offices and a few guest rooms occupied any ground floor not taken by the central rotunda, while most of the area in the upper two stories was devoted to guest accommodation, many of the rooms being en suite.

    The basement held, other than the machinery for the electric lights, promise for the gentlemen guests who tired of the mountain scenery and perhaps their wives—a fine bar and billiard room offered a dignified retreat. A separate building housed boilers for steam heat and a large bathhouse, the latter supplied with the mineral waters of the sulphur hot springs which were piped down the mountainside and into the ten separate bathing rooms and the common plunge pool.

    Such, then, was the state of the Banff Springs Hotel when it first opened its doors in the spring of 1888.

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