First 50 years of hotels in Winnipeg — in the beginning was the Royal

by Bruce Cherney

The Manitoba, the Royal Alexandra, the Empire, the Mariaggi, the Marlborough, the Fort Garry, the Fairmont are all names of hotels associated with elegance today or in the past. 

Even its first hotel, established in 1859, would have been seen as a signal that the tiny community scattered along the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was about to enter a new era.

When Henry McKenney stepped off the Anson Northrup, the first steamboat to arrive in Manitoba and a better means of transportation for potential settlers, there really was no Winnipeg. It was McKenney who is credited with creating Winnipeg’s most famous corner — Portage and Main — but that was three years in the future. 

McKenney bought a store from Andrew McDermott, a pioneer who came to Manitoba in the third shipload of Selkirk Settlers, and immediately converted it into a hotel, naming it the Royal. Although a hotel, McKenney also sold general supplies out of the location. 

The main selling feature of the Royal Hotel was that it held the first licensed bar in Western Canada. 

The Council of Assiniboia, which was appointed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and governed the colony, was apparently quite strict when granting liquor licences. James Carnegie, the ninth earl of Southesk, who came to the community in 1860, said the cost of a licence was £10. “A breach of this law involves a penalty of £10,” he wrote in his diary. “— half going to the informer and half to the public funds — but nevertheless, transgressions and convictions are constantly taking place.”

The Royal Hotel became a popular watering hole which produced a phenomenon that McKenney would later use to his advantage. 

At the time, the commercial centre of the Red River settlement was the HBC post at Upper Fort Garry. It was the intention of the Company to maintain their fort as the crossroads of the West, but they didn’t count on McKenney and his concept of what the future configuration of the community should be.

McKenney noticed that patrons of his bar didn’t follow the traditional Portage Trail that went directly to Fort Garry, but made a beeline to his establishment when coming from the West. The Royal Hotel was about a kilometre north of the fort and the travel arrangements of its patrons created two branches of the Portage Trail — the southern branch followed the meandering course of the Assiniboine River and the other to the north proceeded to the Royal Hotel.

One traveller, Ottawa journalist George B. Elliott, who came to Winnipeg in 1860, said the accommodations at the Royal “are good considering the difficulties he (McKenney) had to encounter.”

Elliott eventually became the accountant and a correspondent for the Manitoba Free Press, which was later renamed the Winnipeg Free Press.

James Joseph Hargrave, a local historian of the era, wrote that the Royal was “a well-sized wooden one,” which McKenney “rented and fitted up comfortably enough for the purpose he had in view.”

In 1862, McKenney sold the Royal to “Dutch George” Emmerling, a recent arrival by way of the United States. McKenney then built the store which would become the hub of today’s famous corner of Portage and Main. 

By 1869, 33 buildings had clustered around the corner of the community which had two years previously been dubbed “Winnipeg” in the masthead of the Nor’wester, the town’s first newspaper.

Emmerling, Hargrave said, within six years had risen from itinerant retail dealer in fruits and small wares — he arrived in Winnipeg with a barrel of whiskey and two barrels of apples — to the landlord of the principle hotel in the village of Winnipeg .

In 1870, when Manitoba became Canada’s fifth province, all Winnipeg could boast was a population of 100.

“What a sorry sight was presented by that long-thought-of town of Winnipeg on the day we entered,” wrote Reverend George Young when he came to Winnipeg in 1868. “What a mass of soft, black, slippery and sticky Red River mud was everywhere spread out before us! Streets with neither sidewalks nor crossings, with now and again a good-sized pit of mire for the traveller to avoid or flounder through as best he could; a few small stores with poor goods and high prices: one little tavern where Dutch George was ‘monarch of all his survey;’ a few passable dwellings with no ‘rooms to let,’ nor space for boarders.”

Emmerling’s new Main Street hotel, which was built in the late 1860s, would become the focus of  the so-called “American Party” during the years leading up to the unrest of 1869-70 in the settlement. The American Party, in contrast to the Canadian Party led by rabble-rouser Dr. John Christian Schulz, promoted annexation of the settlement to the United States.

Emmerling felt so strongly about American annexation that, when Thomas Spence and his followers attempted to pass resolutions favouring the joining of the Red River Settlement with Canada in 1866, a brawl erupted in his bar. The brawl only ended when the bar was demolished.

Besides not being adverse to the use of fisticuffs, Emmerling also promoted the arts. The first recorded theatrical night in the settlement was held at his hotel in a room rented out and dubbed Red River Hall. The crowd at the September 1867 performance was said to be so numerous that they were advised not to applaud lest the floor collapse. 

Despite the warning the “... applause (was) of so violent a nature as severely tried the frail supports with which the flooring was upheld and was in consequence ‘speedily suppressed’,” according to Hargrave.

The other significant event of the evening was the close call with fire. Emmerling had set out numerous candles to light the stage and in windows to advertise the production. A curtain ignited and if not for the quick action of a latecomer, who doused the flames in the vacant hotel portion of the theatre, the tiny community of closely-packed wood buildings could have burned to the ground.

Another hotelier, Charles Garrett — Garret House on Main Street was his establishment — was a Canadian Party sympathizer. He was imprisoned with other members of the Canadian Party by Riel and the Metis during the Red River Rebellion. After being imprisoned for 66 days, he was forced to leave the country.

When Louis Riel was successful in attaining provincial status in Canada for Manitoba, Emmerling pulled up stakes in disgust and sold his Main Street hotel to Robert Davis who promptly enlarged it and renamed it the Davis Hotel.

Davis Hotel was said in October 1871 to have served 330 meals a day, “and even sleeping room on the floor could not be had,” because of an influx of Eastern Canadians following Manitoba’s entry into Confederation.

The Davis Hotel in 1873 also boasted the city’s first streetlight, described as “beckoning the weary traveller to a haven of warmth, rest and billiards.”

Davis was described as a man of few words, but well respected in the community. He took the lead in creating the bill which led to the incorporation of Winnipeg as a city in 1873.

He used his influence to gain election to the Manitoba Legislature in 1874, becoming known as the “Hotel Premier of Manitoba.”

Significantly, it was the incorporation of Winnipeg into city status which laid the groundwork for future expansion of the hotel business.

Elliott said there were 17 hotels among the 908 buildings that made up Winnipeg in 1874.

Among them was the Pacific Hotel, described by Elliott as “a large three-storey brick building with flat roof.” 

Another was Brouse House, a temperance hotel in a city were saloons and bars were the norm. John Walter Harris, a surveyor who came to Winnipeg in 1873 from Ontario, said in his diary that he paid $7 a week for lodgings in the temperance hotel. 

Drever House at the southwest corner of Main and Portage started out life as a hotel, but later became the Munro Boarding House.

A Quiz magazine advertisement of April 1, 1879 said the St. Nicholas Hotel was “the only good resort in the city. The bar is stocked with the finest liquors and cigars that can be found in Canada.”

Cigars and liquor were constantly used by hotel proprietors as a strong selling point. 

Winnipeg’s oldest existing hotel, the Woodbine, dates back to this time. Peter Sutherland built a two-storey wood hotel on Main Street for $1,000 in 1878 which he called Dufferin Hall. Actually, it was more of a saloon rather than a hotel because it didn’t have rooms to let.

When is was sold, its name was changed to the Woodbine Hotel, the popular name of a Toronto race track and hotel, with the intention to appeal to expatriates from Eastern Canada who were flooding the city.

The first train of the Pembina Branch of the St. Paul and Pacific Railway came into Winnipeg in 1878, but it was the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 that really led to a population explosion and hotel expansion. Other railways converging on the city soon followed. 

This was the start of an era of optimism which local businessmen believed would make Winnipeg “The Chicago of the North.”

“All roads led to Winnipeg,” wrote Chicago journalist William E. Curtis, following a trip to Winnipeg. “It is the focal point of three transcontinental lines of Canada — the CPR, Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern ... It is destined to become one of the greatest commercial centres of the continent ...”

The arrival of the CPR created rampant speculation in Winnipeg property from June 1881 to April 1882. British and North American newspapers all reported on the land boom.

The price along Main Street for property rose to $2,000 a front foot. At that price, downtown lots were more expensive than those found in Chicago.

“The excitement spread like wildlife all over the country,” wrote J. Macoun in his book Manitoba and the Great Northwest, published in 1882. “Cool-headed professors and businessmen left their callings in other parts of the country for the scene of the modern Canadian El Dorado.”

Others would call the boom “a fool’s paradise.” Of course, they ended up being right since such speculative booms are invariably doomed to collapse.

Joseph Wolf sold half a million dollars of real estate in the first six months of the boom. He became known as the “Golden Auctioneer” because he operated out of the Golden Hotel and Real Estate Exchange.

The feeling of wealth so permeated Winnipeg that the Palace Hotel advertised a lunch of quail on toast and a dozen oysters on the half shell.

In 1881, rooms for let were hard to come by. In fact, it became necessary to import 1,500 tents from Ottawa for emergency accommodations. The city’s population in just two years doubled to 16,000 people.

“Hotel and rooming-house keepers reaped a golden harvest,” reported W.T. Thompson and E.E. Boyer. “According to the Commercial (a business weekly of the era) all hotels were jammed and hotel keepers slept two men in a bed. In addition, they charged 50 cents a night for the privilege of sleeping on their floors, with the guest using his overcoat as a pillow, and repeatedly covered every inch of floor space every night.

“It was said that there was one hotel keeper so greedy that whenever he saw someone on the floor fall fast asleep, he would pick him up and and stand him against the a wall to make room for another man on the floor,” the Commercial reported.

A hotel clerk at the Queen’s Hotel reported to the newspapers that he gave up his own bed to weary guests and had been without sleep for three nights.

Beecham Trotter paid $2 for the privilege of spending the evening sleeping in a chair in a “miserable hotel” on Main Street.

Accommodations were so dear that Winnipeg’s first police court at 496 Main St. was sold in 1882 to Henry Brown and Dan Rogers, with its cellar then converted into the Hub Hotel and its upstairs portion becoming the Royal Theatre. The building was demolished in 1884 to make way for the Clements Block.

So many hotels were being built at this time that Main Street became known as Hotel Row. The resulting competition meant that hoteliers had to come up with ways to attract customers. One hotel offered a meal with a five-cent drink at the bar. All the major hotels offered carriage service to and from the rail stations. Potential patrons came to realize that the more eleborately designed the script was on the side of the carriage, the more costly the hotel accommodations.

The Bell Hotel was the class of the street until the McLaren Hotel opened. The McLaren brothers later built the Brunswick and Empire hotels. The Empire started out its life in 1882 as a commercial building. It wasn’t converted into a hotel until 1904.

Conversion of a commercial building into hotel wasn’t uncommon. For example, the Drake Hotel on Princess Street  started out as a location for stables which were demolished in 1883 to create a wholesale grocery in what became known as the Benson Block. After a stint as a grocery, the block housed an implement and printing establishment. In 1894, it became the Globe Hotel, and then the Market Hotel. By 1917, it was again a commercial building, but was re-invented as the Market Hotel in 1925. After that it was the Bank Hotel and after that the Drake Hotel.

A selection of other hotels from this era include: 

• The Dominion Hotel which had undergone “a thorough renovation” and was opened as a “first-class house.”

• Manitoba House, built by the Northern Pacific Railway on First Street, opened on June 2, 1881 “as a first-class hotel.” It remained the city’s most luxurious hotel and social centre until it burned down On February 7, 1899. The Winnipeg Morning Telegram described the fire as “the most stupendous and costly conflagration in the city’s history.” Because of the extreme cold, the firemen’s hoses froze and they looked on hopelessly as the hotel burned. It was reported that the value of the building before the fire was $800,000. 

• The Grand Pacific Hotel wasn’t exactly structurally sound. In August 1893, its east wall collapsed and flattened the next-door Wilson’s Furniture store on Market Street. The Wilson brothers moved their operation, but that didn’t change their luck. After a February 1898 fire gutted the McIntyre Block, its wall collapsed and flattened their new store. The brothers were forced to once again move..

• The Brunswick was called “the favourite hotel.”

• Russell House at Main and Graham was the “Palace Hotel of the Northwest.”

• Mansion House, Main and First (now Pioneer), offered regular meals at 25 cents.

• The Leland, which started out as Rossin House, in 1884 boasted richly carpeted rooms featuring walnut and ash furniture. 

• The Queen’s Hotel, built in 1879 at the northwest corner of Notre Dame and Portage, boasted the longest bar in the city at 100 feet and the floor was covered in sawdust to a depth of six inches.

Six years after the CPR passenger terminal was erected, James Shaver Woodsworth, a minister, social activist and Manitoba Labour MP, noted there were 60 hotels in Winnipeg of all types.

On the ground floor, each hotel typically had a barbershop, cigar stand, news stand, restaurant and pub. There could also be a billiard room and a reading room for guests.

Barbering was apparently a lucrative profession since W. Woods Fairbanks was able to parlay the money he earned cutting hair in the Exchange Hotel into a partnership with J.W. Stewart in the hotel. They called the Exchange Hotel “the most comfortable hotel in Winnipeg.” 

The Manitoba Free Press reported that the “tonsorial artist Fairbanks, having realized a fortune in the barber business, saw fit to abandon a good thing and go into hotel-keeping, which is not always good for green hands at the business. Fairbanks bought an interest in the Exchange Hotel, and failed, his tonsorial savings scattered to the wind.”

It was further reported that Fairbanks had left town as a bankrupt and started a barbershop in Utica, New York.

Winnipeg after the arrival of the railways became noted as the “wickedest” city in Canada.

In a stretch along Main Street, between the CPR and CNR rail stations, there were 65 hotels offering a cornucopia of earthly delights. Main Street hotels were said to be “heavy on booze and light on rooms.”

“Pedestrians were never beyond the aroma of booze that wafted through the windows and doors of hotels,” wrote Winnipeg author James Gray.

This was the state of affairs until prohibition started in 1916 and the hotel business went into a downturn with many of the smaller establishments failing.