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July 25, 2011

RAIL MAN’S HOTEL PROVES A ROCKY RIDE


david ellis

FOR a highly successful businessman, the American railway magnate Louis Hill could be remarkably indecisive.

But he had a quick eye for a dollar, and it was this that generally saved him from his own indecisiveness.

Thus in the early 1900s his quest for the greenback saw Mr Hill turn his attention to the Canadian Rockies, where he reasoned that there were some quick profits to be had from those enjoying the newly-founded Waterton Lakes National Park in the Province of Alberta.

And to indulge their passion for hunting and fishing in this grand new wilderness, he decided to build them a grand hotel that would cater to their every whim, coupled with a luxury rail service to get them there.

He would call his hotel The Prince of Wales in an unsuccessful bid to have the visiting Prince (later King Edward VIIII) officially open it; it would have 200 rooms with breathtaking views and the sort of service that, whilst not out in the field, would encourage leisurely hours wining and dining in an almost fairy-tale setting.

But although he first mooted his hotel in 1913, between his own indecisiveness and the Canadian bureaucracy, it was not until 1926 that he actually started building it.

And when he was nearly finished the long, low, 3-storied affair with spectacular views overlooking Waterton Lake and Village, Mr Hill suddenly decided he didn't like the look of it.

So he had half of it pulled down, and a fresh start made. Upwards.

Then after a business trip to Europe he decided he didn't like the look of the top of his hotel. So he had that pulled down too, and re-built to look more like a Swiss Alpine chalet. He also increased the size of rooms, in the process reducing their number from 200 to just eighty seven.

And throughout all this, Mr Hill was also struggling with getting his Great Northern Railroad line through the tortuous Rockies.

The mountains, he found, were aptly named, their granite in places almost impossible to dig through. And in the end, with motor-cars and roads fast snaking across the Rockies, he gave up on his rail line nearly fifty kilometres short of its target.

Instead he used mule teams to haul hundred of tonnes of construction materials those final 50kms, including a massive steel-framed window that had been prefabricated in England, and was 3-storeys-high and the full width of the hotel's lobby.

That window is still a highlight of the hotel today, offering diners and those relaxing in the hotel's lounge one of the Rockies' most spectacular vistas.

Violent winds that howled off the lake twice blew the hotel askew, so Mr Hill had steel cables buried in massive underground concrete blocks on one side, run up through the walls, across the loft, and down the other side into equally enormous concrete anchors. The hotel still sways slightly in high winds today, but is certified safe against the fiercest gales.

The ingenious Mr Hill also built a timber mill and carpentry shop at Waterton Village and bought local cedar that he made into furniture on the spot, rather than hauling ready-made stuff hundreds of kilometres by rail, road and mule train; much of this furniture is still in use today, nearly 85-years after the hotel opened.

The Prince of Wales is open from May to early September each year – from October to April the local population dwindles to around just-over 100 hardy locals who see through winter.

Dining at the hotel is still as grand today as Mr Hill envisaged it, with traditional British and Canadian fare, and English Afternoon Tea from 2pm to 5pm daily that is much sought-out by visitors to Waterton Lakes, whether they stay at the hotel or not.

The hotel even has its very own tea blend for this daily ritual.

The Prince of Wales Hotel is a good base for fishing, hiking, horseback-riding, golf and scheduled lake cruising – or just taking-in the views – and is easily accessible by road in summer months. Just accept that it was built in 1927.

Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays have packages to the Prince of Wales Hotel, including air to Vancouver and self-drive to the hotel; phone 1300 79 49 59.


PHOTO CAPTIONS:   

MAJESTIC: The Prince of Wales Hotel commands grand views from its hilltop site overlooking Waterton        Lake and Village amid Canada's Rockies.

HISTORIC Ford 'Jammer' Buses are a novel way of sightseeing National Parks in the Rockies. 

WILD – the area abounds with wildlife, including Bald Eagles that can be seen from walking trails or from boats on the Lake.

(Photos: National Parks Canada)

Originally issued for FOR WEEK BEGINNING 25 JULY 2011
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