Part 1: The railway builds in Brandon
The Prince Edward Hotel at 100
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/06/2012 (4024 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It is hard, now, to imagine the booming optimism of Brandon in the early 1900s.
The city was in the midst of a population explosion, as immigrants flooded through on their way to the west. Buildings were being erected at near-record pace every year.
Railway companies were laying tracks from coast-to-coast. Brandon wanted to ensure that the city wouldn’t be bypassed and would, indeed, be an important divisional point for as many railways as possible. The “Iron Road” was key to the city’s future prosperity, and as riches flowed along it, Brandon believed itself entitled to a proper share.
So when the Canadian Northern railway — its freight trains operating at capacity, its passenger service in heavy competition with the Canadian Pacific — announced in 1908 that it needed to build a new, bigger depot in Brandon, the company’s general manager assured the city that it would be “artistic and commodious.”
Over the next couple of years, city delegations convinced the CNR that while the depot was nice, a hotel would be necessary, too. And it couldn’t be just any hotel — in fact, they convinced the railway men that their first draft had been a full two storeys too short.
This “first class” hotel — planned to be the “finest in the west” — initially had a budget of just $150,000, but the cost had swelled to some half a million dollars by the time the Prince Edward finally opened its doors in June 1912.
The Grand Opening, a charity ball that raised $360.50 for the Brandon General Hospital, was just the first of many formal events to be held in its luxurious rooms, which would come to be the high-end social heart of the city.
But before the first guest slept under its roof, the Prince Edward Hotel would have to make it through strikes, delays, shortages — and a Brandon city council that kept asking the company for more, more, more.
It had all started so promisingly, with the CNR buying land from the Salvation Army at Ninth and Princess. They wanted to extend their tracks from the south end of the city (near McTavish Avenue), build a spur line downtown, and build new warehouses.
The need for a new Canadian Northern depot, too — a big one, and soon — was such an open secret in the city that it was included in the January list of 1908 building permits. Confirmation came the next month.
“The C.N.R. has secured probably the most desirable site in the city for the purpose,” the Sun gushed, “and intend erecting a building which will be a credit to the city of Brandon.”
But both the company and the city were distracted by wrangling over a Brandon woman’s injured leg. A Mrs. Annie Ardies, while walking past CNR offices on Ninth Street, had fallen through a broken plank in the wooden sidewalk.
Her $5,000 lawsuit — a headline-grabbing amount in 1908 — was eventually settled for $300, but work on the depot was set back by at least a year.
“By the time that C.N.R. depot is built it will be time to erect a landing in the upper part of it for airships,” the Sun snarked.
Then, in February 1909, city manufacturer John Hanbury upped the ante. In a private meeting with CNR officials in Winnipeg, he proposed that the railway add a hotel on to their planned-for depot.
Hanbury reported back to the Brandon Board of Trade that the company seemed favourable, and the Brandon-boosters at the Board of Trade sprang into action.
Within a few months, the city and the company were in heavy negotiations.
The city wanted a bigger hotel; the CNR agreed. The CNR wanted a 20-year tax exemption; the city said 10 — they eventually split the difference.
But the sticking point would prove to be the railway’s demands that Lorne Avenue be closed between Ninth Street and 10th Street, to allow their tracks to cross unobstructed.
At a city council meeting in October 1909, the city solicitor warned aldermen that closing the avenue would require a by-law, and that residents along Lorne Avenue might demand compensation.
It was felt that the hotel would be more than worth the traffic inconvenience, but for months, city representatives tied themselves up in knots trying to figure out a way to build a pedestrian bridge or a “subway” underneath the tracks — all at CNR expense.
When the by-law to close Lorne and fix the tax exemption finally came to a city-wide ratepayer vote, at the end of February 1910, long articles in the Sun touted the benefits from giving a little to get a lot.
“To me it almost seems impossible to state the value we shall receive by having this hotel in our city,” said acting mayor Francis J. Clark in a lengthy speech, much of which was published verbatim by the Brandon Sun.
His points resonated: heavy turnout at the polls voted nearly all in favour of the bylaw.
But it’s not clear whether Lorne Avenue was ever actually closed. Certainly no bridge or subway was ever built.
Meanwhile, plans for the hotel were being hammered out.
Although preliminary depot surveying had started in spring, 1909, the real work was being done that summer and fall in meeting rooms, as the city and the CNR carried out a very public courtship.
A draft proposal had come in October — but city aldermen wanted to make sure it was good enough to attract high-end travellers for their growing city.
“This class of people won’t stay in Brandon,” complained Ald. Clark at a city council meeting in 1909, “and why? Because they can’t get first-class accommodation.”
In fact, he said, they were choosing Carberry and Virden instead!
The railway was quick to respond, coming back in early December with plans that showed the “splendid new hotel … (will) be one of the finest structures of its kind in the West.”
Even these early plans, drawn up by Winnipeg architects Pratt & Ross, showed some familiar details — a hotel along Princess Avenue with the railway station stretching south along Ninth Street. Inside, the fixtures were to be “up to date in every respect.”
There was only one problem from the city’s point of view: the plans only called for five storeys (which included the basement) and just 60 to 70 bedrooms.
A committee of aldermen hastened to Winnipeg to meet with the company, emerging from a post-Christmas negotiation with an agreement to expand the hotel by two storeys, bringing it to an even 100 rooms.
Managing to squeeze in a meeting on Dec. 29, 1909, city council agreed, in principle, to close Lorne Avenue and to exempt the hotel from most of its taxes.
Over the next few months, all details were hammered out in full view of a curious public. The Brandon Daily Sun printed extensive details of the proposed settlements several times.
The bylaw sailed through a city-wide vote at the end of February 1910, and many believed the hotel would be built by the end of the year.
That wasn’t to be the case.
Work in earnest didn’t begin until June — when an architect’s drawing of the $150,000 hotel appeared in print for the first time.
Later that month, the CNR boasted that big changes were being made to the plans, and the real cost would be $350,000. In September, the estimate would increase to $425,000 — and in the end it would be counted as $500,000.
A Winnipeg firm — Thos. Kelly & Sons — won the tender that August to put up the new building, but in October it was announced that a Brandon company would get a piece of the action as well.
McDiarmid & Clark would provide interior fittings for the station, which was being “furnished in the most modern style and … rushed to completion.” The main floor was to be in oak; the upper floor in fir.
With good weather in the fall of 1910, the foundation was completed in October, and brick-laying began. In fact, by the following March, the station was awaiting just its roof, and the company hoped that occupancy could happen as early as April.
They missed that deadline, too.
In “Brandon: A City,” author G.F. Barker says the delay was due to “material shortages, occasional accidents, strike action.”
Material shortages may not have made the papers, but labour disputes sure did. Striking workers walked off the job at least three times during the construction of the hotel.
In May, 1911, carpenters struck. They wanted wages of 40 cents an hour — and it turned out that some of them were only making 30 or 35 cents an hour.
It was a short strike — bosses caved before the day was out.
But was just one early episode in what Brandon University archivist Tom Mitchell would later write about as “a growing militancy (in) the city’s organized labour movement.”
In November, plaster workers put down their tools. They were mad that a superintendent was meddling in his foreman’s affairs (the superintendent had fired an assistant that the foreman had taken on).
That was another short strike.
But, the following March, just as the hotel was finally nearing completion, carpenters walked off the job for a second time.
They would be off work for nearly a week, asking for a nickel-an-hour raise as well as some leniency on filling out their paperwork.
Strikes were serious business at this time — much of the city was following a murder trial from Rivers where a strike-breaker was accused of killing a hotel porter during a brawl with striking workers. (He was acquitted, but later admitted the shot. )
There was nothing quite so dramatic in the Prince Edward carpenters’ strike, but the Sun did follow its twists and turns for several days. In the end, the workers didn’t get their raise, but the company did agree to let them get away without fully itemized time sheets.
Despite the labour strife, there was good news, too: The CNR continued to rapidly expand, and Brandon was named a new divisional point — it meant more workers and a bigger payroll, and it meant company president William Mackenzie was back in the city.
“He made a thorough inspection … and pronounced himself delighted with the work on the new hotel and depot,” wrote the Sun.
In August, swept up in the sentiment of Coronation Year, the company announced that the hotel would be named the “Prince Edward,” after the son of the new King George V.
At the time, it was expected that the hotel would be able to open in January, to usher in 1912.
That was still the official word as late as October, when news reports said that company officials were in town to make arrangements for the “finishing touches” on the new hotel.
The attached depot, itself having taken longer to complete than hoped, finally had workers move in for early November, and although the first floor depot still wasn’t done, the upstairs offices had “ample space” for “the very large staff.”
The company pushed back the hotel’s opening date again near the end of the year, setting a new target as March 1912 at the same time they announced the hiring of J. Edward Hutchinson as the first hotel manager.
He had an approved railway hotel pedigree.
“Hutchinson,” the Sun noted, “has been assistant manager of the Royal Alexandra [in Winnipeg] for a period and later held the same position in the Empress Hotel, Victoria.”
The promised March date passed, again, without an open hotel.
Finally, on June 1, 1912, the Brandon Daily Sun published a lengthy, detailed look at the new hotel: “Today the new C.N.R. hotel, which it is hoped will prove one of the city’s best assets, opens its doors for the reception of guests,” the Sun wrote.
“Right up to last night were an army of employees busy putting on finishing touches to the elaborate interior appointments.”
The Prince Edward was a roaring success from the start.
The opening gala, held June 12 as a hospital fundraiser, was deemed “brilliant” in news accounts: “Brandon’s new handsome hostelry, the Prince Edward Hotel, was the scene of one of the most brilliant gatherings in the history of the Wheat City last evening … in celebration of the opening of the splendid structure.
“Never before has such a brilliant scene been witnessed in this city. The sumptuous surroundings provided a splendid setting for just a magnificent affair.”
Even more ink was printed about the fashion of the evening. Just a few ladies featured in the Sun were:
“Miss Pieling, very pretty gown of yellow satin with crystal trimmings; Mrs. Hanbury, gold embroidered gown of crepe metior; Miss Wares, the debutante of the evening looked charming in a cream satin dress with pearl trimmings, carrying a bouquet of roses.”
The men would get their turn a couple of weeks later, as hundreds of Winnipeg financiers came on a special train to the new hotel. Brandon was ready for its close-up:
“A huge banquet (will be held) at the new Prince Edward hotel … and speeches will be made bearing upon the prosperous outlook for Brandon,” wrote the Sun.
“The citizens are asked to display bunting on both days and make the appearance of the city especially bright and attractive.”
It worked. The hotel immediately focused attention on Brandon as a city growing in both size and importance.
The Winnipeg Saturday Post published lavish photos of the hotel’s interior. The Manitoba Free Press said that it showed how much confidence the CNR had in Brandon:
“This hotel is one worthy of a city of 50,000. Brandon’s population is 16,000.”
Less than a year after the hotel’s triumphant opening, it seemed briefly that the imposing edifice would be just the start of something even bigger.
“Prince Edward Hotel May Have To Be Enlarged,” was the headline in April 1913.
“This palatial building has become so popular with travelling salesmen that … the rooms are packed,” the Sun wrote, noting that the Prince Edward had had to requisition space at other city hotels to deal with the overflow.
“It is known that the building was constructed so as to permit of another two storeys being added, and the possibility of this move being carried out is made a probability.”
But it was not to be. The First World War was just around the corner.