By Mike Smith
To say that that Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) dominated the travel business in Canada in the first half of the 20th century would definitely be an understatement. For decades its steamship fleet brought the world to both coasts and then its transcontinental railway system moved tourists and immigrants from one end of the country to the other. Along the railway route the CPR constructed a series of magnificent hotels, many of which are still in service today. In this Wayback Times article then, I’m going to introduce readers to some very collectible postcards of these iconic structures.
The Figure 1 postcard is a Stedman Bros. (Brantford) product showing Victoria, British Columbia’s famous Empress Hotel. This CPR showpiece took four years to build and opened for service in 1908. In the decades that followed, the Empress (as it was called in its early years) played hostess to kings, queens, movie stars and many other celebrities. In 1919 for example, Edward, Prince of Wales waltzed throughout the night in the Crystal Ballroom. Twenty years later, on the eve of the Second World War, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth attended a luncheon at the Empress as part of their 1939 royal tour. Over the years, the Empress earned a reputation for its splendid Victorian-style afternoon tea service, which tourists and locals enjoy to this day.
The Figure 2 postcard is an artist-signed beauty of the Banff Springs Hotel, which was originally designed by American architect Bruce Price (1845–1903), and constructed in 1888 with 100 guest rooms. In 1902 an additional 200 rooms were added, and in 1906 plans were drawn up for a major reorientation and overhaul by another American architect, Walter S. Painter (1877–1957). By 1914 Painter had added an 11-storey central tower and two wings, making the Banff Springs Hotel the tallest building in Canada at the time. Note that the image on the postcard was painted by renowned artist F. M. (Frederick Marlett) Bell-Smith (1846–1923). Bell-Smith was born in England and immigrated with his family to Montreal in 1867. After a stint in London, Ontario and art studies in Paris, he settled in Toronto where he became a founding member of the Society of Canadian Artists, the Ontario Society of Artists and the Western Art League. The postcard is from a series of six published by Toronto’s W. G. MacFarlane, all showing western landscapes painted by Bell-Smith.
It wasn’t too long before the Banff Springs Hotel’s title as Canada’s tallest building was transferred to another CPR hotel, this one in Ontario. After two years of construction, the massive Royal York Hotel was completed in downtown Toronto in 1929 (see Figure 3). With ten elevators reaching all twenty-eight floors, and radios, private showers and bathtubs in each of its 1,048 rooms, the Royal York was an absolute marvel in its day. According to Wikipedia, its telephone switchboard alone was 66 feet long required 35 operators! It seems only fitting that after the hotel’s spectacular opening day ceremonies on June 11, 1929, the first guest to register was our Governor General, Lord Willingdon. Today, the Royal York is the residence of choice of Queen Elizabeth II and all other members of the royal family when they stay in Toronto.
Montreal’s Place Viger (see Figure 4) was constructed in 1898 as both a grand hotel and railway station, a concept common in Europe but new to Canada at the time. Named after Jacques Viger (1787–1858), Montreal’s first mayor, it was designed by the CPR’s go-to architect, Bruce Price, and built in the city’s central core. (Windsor Station, another Price masterpiece, was its rival in the western part of the city.) No longer connected to a railway line, today Place Viger is a mixed-use structure with business and residential units inside. W. G. MacFarlane published the Figure 4 postcard around 1906 as part of a 50-card patriotic series.
Of all the CPR hotels in Canada past and present, the most famous has to be Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac (see Figure 5). According to Wikipedia, this hotel is recognized as “the most photographed hotel in the world, largely for its prominence in the skyline of Quebec City.” Named after Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et du Pallua, the formidable governor of New France from 1672–1682 and 1689–1698, the Chateau Frontenac was built in seven stages from 1892–1893. Again, Bruce Price was the architect. Now there’s a man who should have been put on a CPR postcard!