The Ottawa International Dog Derby

5 February 1930

If you ask most Canadians today to name the principal winter sports, hockey would undoubtedly top any list. Other contenders would include skiing (alpine or cross-country), ice-skating, snow-boarding, bobsledding, and snowmobiling. Curling too would likely make the cut. If people thought about the question a bit longer, dog sled racing might also be mentioned. Today, the most famous dog sled race is the 1,000-mile Alaskan Iditarod from Anchorage in the south to Nome on the western Bering Sea. The race, held annually, covers some of the toughest winter terrain. The race was started in 1973 in part as a means of saving the dog-sled culture and the Alaskan husky, threatened by the growing popularity of the snowmobile. Another prominent sled race is the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile journey, held annually since 1984, from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, tracing the route prospectors took during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

Despite the high profile of these two races, dog-sledding is pursued by relatively few outdoor winter enthusiasts. But ninety years ago, it was mainstream stuff, with both national and locally-sponsored races known as “dog derbies.” Major sled races of the day included the American Dog Derby of Ashton, Idaho, the Hudson Bay Dog Derby of Le Pas, Manitoba, and the Eastern International Dog Derby held at Quebec City. Just as today’s fans idolize star hockey players, the top sled drivers, such as Emile St. Godard of Le Pas, Manitoba and Finnish-American Leonhard Seppala of Nome, Alaska were household names. Seppala became world famous in 1925 when he and his team of dogs led by Togo, along with other “mushers,” brought much needed anti-diphtheria serum to Nome from Nenana, Alaska, a distance of 600 miles, by sled. Seppala, who drove the most dangerous section across the treacherous ice of Norton Sound in order to save a day’s travel time, handed the serum off to Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his team of dogs led by Balto for the final leg of the journey into Nome. Being the first dog to enter Nome, Balto received the public’s adulation; a fact that didn’t sit well with Seppala who thought his dog Togo was more deserving of honour. A bronze statue of Balto stands in New York’s Central Park, while his stuffed body is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In 1995, an animated Hollywood movie titled Balto, which was loosely based on the 1925 serum run, was produced by Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal Pictures.

In 1930, as part of the Ottawa’s Winter Carnival activities, the Ottawa Business Men’s Association organized the first Ottawa International Dog Derby. Under the leadership of Major F. D. Burpee, the Association raised $3,895 from area businesses and citizens to help fund the event. The Sparks Street department stores Murphy-Gamble and Bryson-Graham donated $100 and $50, respectively. The Ottawa Electric Railway and the Ottawa Electric Company each gave $50, while Thomas Ahearn, the great Ottawa inventor and entrepreneur personally donated $25. Additional funding to cover transportation, as well as room and board for the drivers and their dogs, was provided by the Canadian National Railways and the Château Laurier Hotel. The Château also purchased the gold Challenge Trophy for the Derby winner valued at $1,000.

dog-derby-chateaulgoldchallengecup

The Challenge Trophy donated by the Château Laurier Hotel, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 7 February 1930

The 100-mile Derby was held over three days, with the third and last segment of the race taking place on 5 February 1930. The course for the Derby started at Connaught Place in front of the Château Laurier. It crossed the site of the old Russell Hotel, before heading down the Driveway, under the Bank Street Bridge, along Carling Avenue out to Britannia and Bell’s Corners, over to Fallowfield, down a side road to the Prescott Highway (Prince of Wales Drive), then homeward for the “final dash” along the Driveway to the finish line at Connaught Place. Weather conditions for the Derby were perfect—cold and snowy.

The event was open to any individual from Canada and the United States, with teams of no more than seven dogs. The dogs’ feet could be enclosed in protective boots or moccasins. Doping was prohibited. Teams were divided into three groups, with starting positions within each group determined by lot. The starting position of each group rotated so that the sled teams in the first group on Day One would start last on Day Two, and second on Day Three. There were five race judges, among whom were some eminent mushers, including Major Burwash who had gone out to the Yukon in the 1898 Gold Rush and had mushed 175,000 miles through the Arctic and sub-Arctic.

There was lots of pre-race hype. In late January, one of the Derby contestants, Jack “Yukon” Melville, an Algonquin Park camp owner, made a $500 bet with Mayor Plant and Joseph Van Wyck, the manager of the Château Laurier, that he could mush 400 miles from Rochester to Ottawa, and arrive in time for the start of the race. Melville attached long banners to the sides of his sled inviting everybody to Ottawa to advertise the Dog Derby and the Ottawa Winter Carnival. To facilitate Melville’s journey, Mayor Plant wired town mayors along his route. The Ottawa Automobile Club also wired ahead to ascertain snow conditions on the highways. While Melville completed the sled trip, he arrived back in Ottawa one day late, losing the bet and missing the start of the Ottawa Derby, owing to a lack of snow in upstate New York. The unfortunate Melville also broke two ribs setting out from Rochester. However, so delighted was the city, hotel and the Ottawa Business Men’s Association with the massive press coverage of Melville’s journey and the Ottawa Winter Carnival, his losses were covered. “Jack Melville is not going to lose out on his trip, wager or no wager,” the Château’s manager said according to The Ottawa Evening Journal.

With Melville out of the running, eight sled teams showed up on Day One of the Derby on Monday 3 February. However, judges scratched the entry of Mrs E. P. Ricker Jr of Poland Springs, Maine, the only female musher, owing to four of her dogs being injured in a fight. This left seven teams to contest the first Ottawa International Dog Derby. At noon, in front of a huge, frenzied crowd, estimated at up to 20,000 people, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King who attended with his dog Pat, the Governor General, the Viscount Willingdon, officially opened the Derby. First away was Harry Wheeler of Grey Rocks, Quebec and his team of five huskies. Next was the crowd favourite, Emile St. Godard of Le Pas, Manitoba and his team of seven greyhound/husky mixed breeds led by Toby. Third out was Leonhard Seppala and his seven huskies, followed by Georges Chevrette of Quebec City. Chevrette’s team of greyhound/husky mixed breeds dashed into the crowds on the word “Go,” forcing people to scatter. Undeterred, Chrevette continued the race after disentangling his team, aided by a helpful bystander. Next came Earl Brydges of Le Pas and his seven huskies, followed by Boston’s Walter Channing and his seven Russian wolfhound/husky mixed breeds. Last, was Frank Dupuis of Berthier, Quebec and his six-dog team, owned by the “Come-On Travellers’ Club” of Quebec. Dupuis, held up by Ottawa traffic, almost missed his start. A bellboy from the Château Laurier rushed out to the starting line with a telephone message to the officials saying that Dupuis was on his way. Arriving a few minutes later, Dupuis, unperturbed by a time penalty, gave a jaunty wave to the crowd, and set out puffing on a big cigar. St. Godard easily won the first leg of the Derby in a time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, many minutes ahead of his nearest opponent.

Day Two was also easily won by St. Godard who set the pace in front of another huge crowd that lined the route. But the second day of the competition was not without its excitement. Frank Dupuis’ dogs got spooked by a heaving throng of people who had pushed their way onto the Driveway track despite police barricades. With no place to go, he and his sled were forced over a snow bank into the railing of the Rideau Canal. As it wasn’t his fault, Derby judges allowed him to restart the race without penalty.

dog-derby-st-godard-canada-dept-of-interiorlibrary-and-archives-canadapa-043702

Emile St. Godard led by Toby, The Ottawa International Dog Derby, 1930, Department of the Interior, Library and Archives Canada, PA-043702.

The third and final day of the competition also had its share of thrills. Prior to the start of the last lap, judges disqualified Frank Dupuis “for cause,” reducing the field to just six teams. The rumour was that he had mistreated his dogs. Then St. Godard, who had run flawless legs the previous two days, got into early difficulties when his dogs ran into the crowd and tangled their leashes. Although he lost more than a minute of time re-organizing his sled team, St. Godard continued to have commanding cumulative time advantage over his nearest rivals, leaving Seppala and Brydges to fight it out for second place.

As the clock on the old Post Office read 3.04 pm, a loud roar went up from the huge crowd of spectators, many of whom were school children whose principals had given them time off to watch the race. “Here comes St. Godard under the bridge” was the cry as the “The Saint” mushed his way down the Driveway under the Laurier Street Bridge. Onlookers crowded the windows and even the roof tops of the Post Office, the Château Laurier and Union Station. When the leaders swept down the Driveway past the court house, the presiding magistrate allowed people to rush to the eastern windows for a view of the passing sledders. Emile St. Godard won the first Ottawa International Derby in a total time of 8 hours, 13 minute and 23 seconds. Second place went to fellow Manitoban Earl Brydges with a time of 8 hours 33 minutes and 45 seconds. In third place, close behind, was Leonhard Seppala with a time of 8 hours 34 minutes and 13 seconds.

The following evening at the Carnival Ball, hosted by the Ottawa Business Men’s Association, St. Godard strode into the Château Laurier’s ballroom wearing breeches and moccasins with Toby by his side to be presented the gold Challenge Trophy by the Governor General. To honour Toby, the Trophy was filled with milk. Lord Willingdon also gave St. Godard a cheque for $1,000, the purse for first place. (An anonymous sportsman gave St. Godard an additional $300.)  Earl Brydges, the runner-up, received $400, while third-place Leonhard Seppala received $100.

With the Derby judged a huge success, organizers of the Ottawa Carnival hoped that it would become an annual event. While the second Ottawa International Dog Derby, which was also won by St. Godard, was held in 1931, it was to be the last, a victim of the Depression. In its place a “Junior Dog Derby” for youngsters was organized at Lansdowne Park until it too succumbed. While local dog derbies continued to be held in Ottawa under the auspices of the Ottawa Valley Dog Sled Association, as well in communities in west Quebec through the late 1930s, World War II saw the end of organized dog sled racing in the Ottawa region.

Over a sledding career that spanned ten years from 1925 to 1934, Emile St. Godard and his dog team won more than twenty major races, including the 1932 Winter Olympics held at Lake Placid, New York. A demonstration sport at that year’s Olympics, St. Godard took the gold medal beating his arch-rival Leonhard Seppala who had to settle for silver. Fellow Canadian Shorty Russick took bronze.

Toby, St. Godard’s lead dog, died from peritonitis in 1934 at the age of nine. Indicative of his fame, many newspapers, including The Ottawa Evening Journal, ran obituaries for the half husky, half greyhound sled dog. Devastated by the death of his devoted friend, to whom he credited his victories, St. Godard retired. He died in 1948 at the age of 43. He was inducted posthumously into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1956, the only sled dog racer so honoured. In 2007, he was also inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

Dog sledding has seen a modest revival in recent years, helped by the success of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest races. In eastern Ontario and west Quebec, there are a number of dog sled operators, including Escapade Eskimo, Timberland Tours, and Mush Larose, who offer the chance to feel the thrill of racing across snow-covered fields behind a team of powerful, sled dogs.

Sources:

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Emile St. Godard, http://www.sportshall.ca/stories.html?proID=196&catID=all.

Escapade Ottawa, 2016. Activités Extérieure en Outaouais, http://www.escapade-eskimo.com/.

Iditarod, 2016. The Last Great Race, http://iditarod.com/.

Ottawa, Evening Journal (The), 1930. “State Dog Derby Will be Greatest of Any In Canada,” 18 January.

————————————, 1930. “Course Is Decided For Big Dog Derby,” 21 January.

————————————, 1930. “Dogs To Mush 400 Miles Before February 2 To Win $500 Wager,” 27 January.

————————————, 1930. “Woman’s Entry Leave Field To Seven Men,” 3 February.

————————————, 1930. “Rules For Dog Sled Derby,” 3 February.

————————————, 1930. “Melville Suffers Two Smashed Ribs On Rochester Trip,” 4 February.

————————————, 1930. “Another Huge Crowd To See Dog Teams Go,” 4 February.

————————————, 1930. “These Dog Derby Judges Men With A Keen Sense For Adventurous Life,” 5 February.

————————————, 1930. “St. Godard’s Team Runs Into Crowd At Starting Post,” 5 February.

————————————, 1930. “St. Godard Wins Dog Derby; Brydges Comes Second,” 5 February.

————————————, 1930. “Godard Sets Up World Record 100-Mile Course.” 6 February.

————————————, 1930. “Toby Attends Ball As St. Godard Gets Beautiful Trophy,” 7 February.

————————————, 1930. “Total Dog Derby Donations $3,895, 25 February.

————————————, 1931. “Goes To Dogs With Great Vigor,” 6 February.

————————————, 1931. “Junior Dog Derby To Be Big Feature Of Carnival Week,” 29 December.

————————————, 1934. “Toby, Famous Lead Dog, Dead,” 31 July.

Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, 2106. Emile St. Godard, http://honouredmembers.sportmanitoba.ca/inductee.php?id=360&criteria_sort=name.

Mush Larose, 2016. Ottawa Region Harness Dog Sports Club, http://mushlarose.ca/.

Sam Waller Museum, Le Pas, Manitoba, Sled Dog Racing, Community Memories, Virtual Museum, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line_index&fl=0&lg=English&ex=00000382&pos=1.

Rankin, Joan, E. 1990. Meet me at the Château, A Legacy of Memory, Natural Heritage Books: Toronto.

Timberland Tours, Avec chiens de traineaux toute l’année, http://timberlandtours.ca/index.html.

Yukon Quest, 2016. The 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race – Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, http://yukonquest.com/about.

“Hello Ottawa–Hello Montreal”

20 May 1920

At the turn of the twentieth century, radio was the new, cutting-edge technology. Building on the work of others, including Nikola Tesla, Édouard Branly, and Jagadish Bose, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi established in the early years of the century a wireless telegraph system using a spark-gap transmitter that could send transatlantic radio messages in Morse code. The first such radio transmission, greetings from U.S. President Roosevelt to King Edward VII, was sent in 1903. Subsequently, ships began to be equipped with radio transmitters and receivers; radio distress signals sent by the RMS Titanic using Marconi equipment are credited with saving hundreds of lives in 1912. The Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden demonstrated the feasibility of audio radio using continuous waves by sending a two-way voice message in 1906 between Machrihanish, Scotland and Brant Rock, Massachusetts.  On Christmas Eve of that year, he broadcasted a short programme of music by Handel, his own rendition of some Christmas carols, and a reading from the Bible to ships at sea along the eastern seaboard of the United States from his Brant Rock base of operations. World War I brought further major technological advances, including the invention of the vacuum tube and the transceiver (a unit with both a radio transmitter and receiver), that spurred the development of commercial radio. By 1920, the world stood on the cusp of a new radio age with instantaneous, wireless, audio communication and entertainment.

On 19 May 1920, the Royal Society of Canada convened in Ottawa for its 39th Annual Meeting. The Society had been founded in 1882 with the patronage of the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, to promote scientific research in Canada. Society fellows gathered at the Victoria Memorial Museum for the opening of the conference, chaired by the Society’s president, Dr R. F. Ruttan of McGill University, and for the election of new fellows. They subsequently broke into specialist groups, to hear addresses on a variety of topics, including plant pathology, and the properties of super-conductors. That evening, President Ruttan gave the presidential address in the ballroom of the Château Laurier Hotel. The topic of his speech was “International Co-operation in Science.” The general public was cordially welcomed to attend this presentation, and another to be held the following evening at the same venue by Dr A.S. Eve, also of McGill University.

Dr Eve’s lecture commenced at 8.30pm on 20 May. Its intriguing title was “Some Great War Inventions.” Among the discoveries he discussed was the detection of submarines. Canadians had been on the forefront of this research, starting with Reginald Fessenden who pioneered underwater communications and echo-ranging to detect icebergs following the Titanic disaster. Subsequently, Canadian physicist Robert Boyle developed ASDIC in 1917, the first practical underwater sound detector machine, or sonar, for the Anti-Submarine Division of the Royal Navy. At the evening’s presentation, Dr Eve also demonstrated the advances made in the radio-telephone. At 9.44pm, the Society fellows and members of the public heard the words “Hello Ottawa—Hello Montreal” over a large loudspeaker called a “Magnavox,” set up in the Château Laurier’s ball room. The first public wireless conversation in Canada had begun.

Marconi Radio Station, CFCF, formerly XWA, Montreal, circa 1922

Marconi Radio Station, CFCF, formerly XWA, Montreal, circa 1922

For two days, engineers from the Canadian Marconi Company in Montreal and officers of the Naval Radio Station on Wellington Street in Ottawa had laboured to prepare for the event. The experimental radio station, located on the top floor of the Marconi building on William Street in Montreal, operated under the call letters “XWA” for “Experimental Wireless Apparatus.” It had first gone on the air on 1 December 1919 on an experimental basis. Another transmitting and receiver station was established at the Naval Radio Station, with a secondary receiving station set up at the Château Laurier, with an amplifier to ensure all attending Dr Eve’s presentation could hear the broadcast. At the Montreal end, Mr J. Cann, chief engineer for the Marconi Company, was in charge, while at the Naval Radio Station in Ottawa was Mr Arthur Runciman, also from the Marconi Company. Assisting Runciman were engineers, Mr D. Mason, and Mr J. Arial. Also present were Mr E. Hawken, the commanding officer of the Marine Department, and his wife. Stationed at the receiving station in the Château Laurier were Commander C. Edwards, director of the Canadian Radio Service and Lieutenant J. Thompson, his assistant. Journalists covering the historic radio broadcast were based at the Naval Radio Station.

Following the introductory exchange of words, the notes of “Dear Old Pal of Mine,” a 1918 hit song, sung by the Irish tenor John McCormick and played on a phonograph in Montreal, could be distinctly heard in Ottawa. This was followed by a one-step ballroom dance tune popular at the time. So well could the orchestra be heard, the Ottawa Journal reporter wrote that some of his colleagues listening to the broadcast at the Naval Station actually started an impromptu dance.

After the dance tune, one of the radio operators in Montreal delivered a speech prepared earlier by Dr Ruttan on behalf of the Royal Society of Ottawa in which he congratulated the Marconi Company and the Radio-Telegraph Branch of the Department of Naval Service for “their generous co-operation in this difficult scientific experiment.” Following a short pause, Society follows were treated to a live performance from Montreal of the early nineteenth century Irish folk ballad “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore and sung by vocalist Dorothy Lutton. She sang a second song, “Merrily Shall I Live” as an encore.

It was then Ottawa’s turn to communicate to Montreal. The Ottawa operator first explained the radio experiment to his listeners. This was followed by Mr. E. Hawken singing the first verse of “Annie Laurie,” an old Scottish song that begins “Maxwelton’s braes are bonnie.” Receiving a wild round of applause from his Château Laurier audience, Hawken was persuaded to sing the second verse. Hawken’s performance was followed by the transmission of several dance tunes played on a phonograph. The evening’s programme concluded with hearty congratulations sent in both directions.

Dr Eve’s demonstration of radio telephony was deemed a huge success. The wireless operators in Ottawa and Montreal were elated. Never before had two-way radio communication had been achieved over such a long distance—110 miles (177 kilometres). The broadcast, at least at the Ottawa end, and especially at the Château Laurier where the signal was boosted by an amplifier, was generally clear and distinct. However, listeners at the Marconi station in Montreal had a more difficult time picking up the signal from Ottawa. Marconi officials explained that reception was adversely affected by  interference from Montreal’s large buildings. There were apparently some tense minutes as Montreal listeners wearing headphones tried to decipher the sounds coming from the capital.

The broadcast launched Canada into the radio age. Some radio historians argue that the 20 May radio performance by Marconi’s XWA station to the Royal Society’s meeting in Ottawa was the first scheduled radio broadcast in Canada, and possibly the world. XWA became CFCF in November 1922. Reputedly, the call letters stood for “Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest.” The station’s call letters were changed to CIQC in 1991, and to CINW in 1999. The station went off the air in 2010.

 

Sources:

Broadcaster, 2001, 100 Years of Radio: Celebrating 100 years of radio broadcasting, http://www.broadcastermagazine.com/news/100-years-of-radio-celebrating-100-years-of-radio-broadcasting/1000108605/?&er=NA.

Canadian Communications Foundation, Radio Station History, http://www.broadcasting-history.ca/index3.html?url=http%3A//www.broadcasting-history.ca/listings_and_histories/radio/histories.php%3Fid%3D492%26historyID%3D243.

Historica Canada, Broadcasting, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/broadcasting-emc/.

The Citizen, 1920. “May Meeting of The Royal Society of Canada Opens,” 19 May.

The Gazette, 1920. “Wireless Concert Given For Ottawa,” Montreal, 21 May.

————–, 1920. “Heard In Ottawa.” Montreal, 21 May.

The Ottawa Journal, 1920. “Ottawa Hears Montreal Concert Over the Wireless Telephone, Experiment Complete Success,” 21 May.

Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe, ” http://bilan.usherbrooke.ca/bilan/pages/evenements/20173.html.

Vipond, Mary, 1992. Listening In: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting, 1922-32, Carleton University Press: Ottawa.

Image: CFCF Radio, Montreal, author unknown, Université de Sherbrooke, Bilan du Siècle, “Diffusion d’une émission radiophonique directe,” http://bilan.usherbrooke.ca/bilan/pages/evenements/20173.html.

Ottawa’s Castle

1 June 1912

The Château Laurier Hotel with its fairyland turrets and copper roof is one of Ottawa’s iconic buildings. Majestically located beside the Rideau Canal locks on Wellington Street and backing onto Major Hill’s Park, it has breathtaking views of Parliament Hill, the Ottawa River, and the Gatineau Hills. Given its aristocratic bearing and central location, one can almost forgive tourists for confusing it with Canada’s Parliament buildings but a short walk away. Indeed, its architecture was deliberately chosen to complement the Gothic Revival style of Canada’s legislative buildings.

The hotel and the Union Train Station (now the Conference Centre), located across the street and connected via a pedestrian subway, were constructed by the Grand Trunk Railway Company (GTR) during the early twentieth century. They were lynchpins in a new trans-continental rail and hotel network being developed by the GTR to compete head on with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the travel and hospitality industry. The Château Laurier was the first in a series of grand railway hotels that the GTR was to build, including the Macdonald Hotel in Edmonton and the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. For the federal government, which had an almost symbiotic relationship with the GTR, the hotel and train station were part of a broader plan to beautify Ottawa. They provided a striking entrance to the city, helping to realize Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s dream of turning it into the “Washington of the North.”

Chateau Laurier

Château Laurier Hotel, circa 1912

The preliminary design for the hotel was drafted by U.S. architect Bradford Lee Gilbert who had been hired in 1907 by fellow American, Charles Melville Hays, then General Manager and later President of the Grand Trunk Railway. Gilbert was famous for designing the “Tower Building” in New York City, that city’s first skyscraper. The French château architecture he proposed for Ottawa’s new hotel was a style popularized by the CPR which had previously built several grand baronial hotels, including the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, and the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff, Alberta. After submitting drawings of the proposed hotel to Hays, the railway tycoon fired Gilbert, replacing him with George Ross and David McFarlane of Montreal. However, the new Ross-McFarlane design was remarkably similar to that originally submitted by Gilbert, leading to charges of architectural plagiarism.  Gilbert sued in 1908, and received $20,000 (close to $500,000 in today’s money) in an out-of-court settlement with the Grand Trunk Railway. Although their ethics were debatable, the controversy did not dent Ross and McFarlane’s careers. Their success with the Château Laurier demonstrated that Canadians were competent to tackle large architectural projects, hitherto typically given to Americans. Their company subsequently gained national prominence, winning major contracts across the country.

With a budget of $1.5 million, construction on the new hotel began in 1909 and was competed in 1912. It was named after Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the sitting prime minister of Canada. If this sounds a bit odd, it was. But it was an astute political move. Laurier had used his influence to carve out a piece of Major’s Hill Park for the site of the new hotel; an action that had provoked considerable controversy in Ottawa. Also, the railway owed its survival to the federal government that had provided it with millions in subsidies and loan guarantees. Even as the Château was being readied for its opening day in the spring of 1912, the GTR’s finances were on shaky grounds, with President Hays in London trying to find fresh funds for the railway. Indeed, the Grand Trunk was destined to be nationalized roughly a decade later to form, along with other bankrupt lines, the Canadian National Railway (CNR).

The grand opening of the hotel, with guests coming from across Canada and the United States, was scheduled for late April 1912. But catastrophe struck. Charles Hays and his family, which had accompanied him to England, elected to return to North America for the hotel’s opening on the RMS Titanic. They were the special guests of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line that owned the “unsinkable” liner. As we all know, the ship struck an iceberg four hundred miles south of Newfoundland and sank. More than 1,500 people perished in the cold North Atlantic waters. Although Hays’s wife and daughter survived the ship’s sinking, as did Ismay, Hays, his son-in-law, and his secretary drowned. Hays’s body was subsequently recovered, and was buried in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.  Also lost in the sinking of the Titanic were dining room furniture and other decorations purchased in London by Hays for his new hotel.

Paul Chevré, the Belgain-born sculptor of the bust of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which can be seen today in the lobby of the Château Laurier, was also aboard the Titanic. He boarded the ship as a first class passenger at Cherbourg, France. Chevré was on his way to Canada for the installation of his statue of former Quebec Premier Honoré Mercier on the grounds of the National Assembly in Quebec City, and for the unveiling of his Laurier bust in Ottawa. Chevré survived the sinking, having been persuaded to board the first life boat to be lowered into the water. Contrary to rumours, the bust, which was also making its way across the Atlantic, neither went down with the Titanic, nor was smuggled onto one of the Titanic’s life boats. Instead, it was safely shipped aboard another ship, La Bretagne, arriving in Ottawa in time for the hotel’s official opening.

On 1 June 1912, the magnificent Château Laurier and Union Station were officially opened to the public. With Hays’s death just six weeks before, the opening was a subdued affair. A silent toast was drunk to his memory. In attendance were senior executives of the Grand Truck Railway who played hosts at an informal banquet for the Parliamentary Press Gallery and a few journalists from Montreal, Boston and New York. That day, two hundred guests registered, with Sir Wilfrid Laurier the first to sign the hotel’s register.

The Château Laurier received rave reviews. The day after the opening, the reporter from Toronto’s Globe newspaper enthused “The latest word in palace hotels on this continent in point of chaste and impressive architecture, in point of beauty of interior decorations, and in point of completeness of arrangements for the comfort and convenience of guests, was spoken last night.” The hotel was indeed a masterpiece. Its walls were built of Indiana limestone, its lobby of Belgian marble, and its windows by Tiffany. Each of its principal public rooms on the main floor was thematically decorated: the lobby in simple Flemish style, the “palm room” in Renaissance style, and the waiting room in wainscoted oak, reminiscent of Tudor England. The dining rooms were fitted out in the manner of Louis XVI, with panels painted with classical subjects. In the basement, was the grill-room, bar, and barber shop, while on the mezzanine were the ladies’ parlours and the corridor writing room; a balcony overlooked the rotunda. As well as being beautiful, the hotel had all the modern comforts of the time, with electricity, and a state-of-the art kitchen and refrigeration plant. Also almost unheard of for the era, 155 of the hotel’s 350 bedrooms had private baths. The rest were equipped with washstands, complete with running hot and cold water. Room rates started as low as $2 per night, (equivalent to roughly $42 today).

The hotel immediately became the premier resting spot for visitors to the capital, eclipsing the old Russell hotel which subsequently fell on hard times. The Château also became the watering hole of choice for MPs and senators; so much so that it became known as the “third chamber of Parliament”—and not necessarily the least important being the location of many smoke-filled, back-room, political deals. In 1929, the hotel underwent a major expansion, adding its east wing and the installation of an art deco swimming pool. Another major refit occurred in 1983 that saw many of its small rooms enlarged to present-day standards.

In recent years, the hotel has changed hands several times. It’s currently owned by Capital Hotel Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Larco Investments of Vancouver. Larco is a family-run private company co-owned by Amin and Mansour Lalji.  The Laljis purchased it in late 2013 from Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate subsidiary of Quebec’s Caisse du dépôt et placement, for an undisclosed amount, but believed to have been in the range of $100-150 million.

Over its storied past, the Château has hosted kings, queens, princes and princesses, as well as a host of celebrities and politicians, including Shirley Temple, Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, the Beatles, Roger Moore, and Nelson Mandela. R.B. Bennett called it home from 1930 to 1935 while he was prime minister of Canada. Yousuf Karsh, the famed portrait photographer, had his studio in the Château from 1973 until his retirement in 1992. The sixth floor of the Château was also the home of the Canadian National Railway Radio Station (CNRO) from 1924 until 1937 when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) took it over. CBC continued to broadcast from the same location until it moved to its new headquarters on Sparks Street in 2004. The Château Laurier Hotel was designated a national historic site in 1981.

Sources:

CBC News, 2013. “Ottawa’s Iconic Fairmont Château Laurier hotel sold,” http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-s-iconic-fairmont-ch%C3%A2teau-laurier-hotel-sold-1.2335695, 2 November.

Charles, R., 2012. “Fairmont Château Laurier,’s Unsinkable Titanic Link,” Vacay.ca, http://vacay.ca/2012/04/fairmont-chateau-lauriers-unsinkable-titanic-link/.

Encylopedia Titanica, 2014. “Paul Romaine Marie Léonce Chevré,” http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/paul-chevre.html.

Fairmont Chateau Laurier, 2014. Hotel History, http://www.fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa/hotel-history/.

Lachapelle. J., 2001. “Le Fantasme Métropolitaine,” Érudit, http://www.erudit.org/livre/lachapellej/2001/livrel1_div7.htm.

National Post, “Not just any hotel: Ottawa’s Château Laurier celebrates 100 years of celebrity,” http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/06/01/not-just-any-hotel-ottawas-chateau-laurier-celebrates-100-years-of-celebrity/.

The Citizen, 1929. “Fills a Long Felt Want In The Capital,” 8 June.

 The Globe, 1908. “Chateau Laurier Plans,” 10 October.

—————, 1912. “Mr. Chevre Repudiates False ‘Interviews,’” 13 April.

—————, 1912. “Chateau Laurier Opened in Ottawa,” 3 June.

Wikipedia, 2014. “Château Laurier,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_Laurier.

Image: Château Laurier, circa 1912, City of Ottawa Archives