During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Canada, train travel was both popular and glamorous, and an important part of that experience included staying at big luxury hotels along the rail lines, built in a château-style that resembled a mix of Scottish and French castles. The grandeur of these hotels lives on amid stunning landscapes such as the Fairmont Banff Springs.
In order to understand the importance of these hotels, it’s necessary to look at the history of the railway. In 1885, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was built (partly with the help of 17,000 Chinese workers), it introduced the world to this land of sweeping landscapes, both as tourists and new immigrants.
Perhaps because they had the financial motivation, it became the CPR’s job to populate Canada all along the new rail lines. An immigration department was set up with offices in Europe and Great Britain. Pamphlets and posters were printed in multiple languages and distributed far and wide.
Canada was also advertised overseas as a holiday destination, with a focus on hunting, fishing and beautiful mountain vistas. It was a new idea at the time to think of mountains as beautiful places to be enjoyed as tourist attractions, rather than just as obstacles to settlement.
Most of this is thanks to the railway company’s president (who was first hired as a general manager then promoted), William Cornelius Van Horne. When the company’s latest railway hotel, Banff Springs, which was styled after a Scottish Baronial Castle, opened in June, 1888, Van Horne asked the federal government to turn the surrounding area into a national park. Eager tourists quickly flocked to the area. He also requested that more parks be created all along the rail line in the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia (modelled on the Northern Pacific Railway's successful relationship with Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming). He was already imagining grand hotels across the country, which would attract a constant string of visitors from overseas. The Government of Canada listened, creating Banff National Park in 1885 (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) followed by Glacier and Yoho National Parks.
Canada's first grand railway hotel, the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, which opened in 1878 next to Montreal’s main station, was not actually owned by a railway company. The first grand hotel CPR opened was the Hotel Vancouver in 1888. (Two weeks later, it opened the Banff Springs Hotel). Next, it built the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City in 1893, which was designed to rival the hotels in Europe. Built to stand out, it was constructed on elevated land overlooking the St. Lawrence River, where it could easily be seen by anyone passing by in trains or ships. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed strategy for World War II at this hotel during The Quebec Conference of 1943.
Other grand railway hotels built during this time include Place Viger in Montreal, The Empress in Victoria, B.C., the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, and the Royal York in Toronto, then considered the largest hotel in the British Commonwealth. Other hotels were built by CPR’s competitor, the Grand Trunk Railway, such as the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg and the Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton.
In 1988, Canadian Pacific acquired the Canadian National Railway hotels (which included those previously owned by Grand Trunk Railway). For the first time, many of Canada’s railway hotels were operated by the same company. In 1999, Canadian Pacific Hotels became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. Fairmont continues to operate many of Canada’s landmark hotels, which means you can still visit these historic places and imagine what it was like back in those early years of Canada’s settlement.