The Enduring Legacy of the Canadian Pacific's Hotels

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Banff Springs Hotel in Banff, Alberta. Photo by Justin Franz.
Ever since moving to Northwest Montana seven years ago, I've been fascinated with the lodges and chalets built in Glacier National Park by the Great Northern Railway in the 1910s. Walking through the doors of the such rustic accommodations as the Many Glacier Hotel or the Granite Park Chalet is truly like stepping back in time.

The Glacier Park lodges were built to compliment the landscape that surrounded them and emulate the rural lodges of Switzerland. It was all part of the GN’s campaign to encourage eastern travelers to “See America First” and venture to the “American Alps.” Whenever I walk into one of those storied buildings, I try to pause for a moment and imagine what it was like for travelers a century ago to experience those spaces.

The GN’s hotels were, in my mind, the quintessential example of the role railroads played in the development of national parks. At least that’s what I thought until a few weeks ago, when my wife and I took a Labor Day Weekend road trip to Banff and Yoho National Parks. While I’ve spent considerable time trackside in that area, I had never had the opportunity to check out the Canadian Pacific hotels at Banff and Lake Louise until this most recent visit. Walking into the lobby of the Banff Springs Hotel only one thing crossed my mind: “My God, this place makes the GN lodges look like backwood cabins.”

I honestly write that with no disrespect to my local lodges. However, it is hard to match the spectacle of CP’s accommodations in the Canadian Rockies.

A statue of CP president William Cornelius Van Horne. Photo by Justin Franz.
CP first opened a hotel in Banff in 1888 along the banks of the Bow River. The original building was made of wood and could accommodate up to 280 guests. The original wood structure burned to the ground in 1926, but CP was undeterred and built an impressive stone hotel designed by CP engineer John W. Orrock. Additional expansions have brought the number of guest rooms at Banff Springs to more than 750.

Further west, Chateau Lake Louise was constructed on the shores of its namesake lake at the turn of the century. Like the hotel in Banff, part of Chateau Lake Louise fell victim to fire in 1924 but a year later it was restored.

CP stayed in the hotel business for decades longer than other railroads. In 1999, CP purchased Fairmont Hotels, a hospitality company dating back to 1907. Two years later, CP spun off all of its non-railroad subsidiaries, including the hotel division, which by then was known as Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.

The Canadian Pacific shield at Banff Springs Hotel. Photo by Justin Franz.
Walking into either hotel, you’ll quickly realize that the CP’s designers set out to build accommodations that matched the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. Massive windows look out into the mountains from nearly every public space and grand staircases take guests to their rooms (unfortunately we weren’t among those staying the weekend).

Nearly two decades after the CP got out of the hotel business, there are still signs of the railroad’s involvement. In front of the Banff Springs Hotel, a statue of CP president William Cornelius Van Horne stands tall and inside a gift shop dedicated entirely to the railroad sells souvenirs. But there’s perhaps no better birthmark on the Banff Springs Hotel than the Canadian Pacific shield etched in stone on exterior wall, an enduring memorial to the railroad that built the hotel a century ago.

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