September 13th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 37
Looking Back - John Kinnear
The Prince of Wales Part Deux– A Builder’s Nightmare
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Just off the Red Rock Canyon trail in Waterton - an example of the scary fire ladder fuel that exists in parts of the park
It was rather disconcerting to watch the television news coverage last weekend on the mandatory evacuation of Waterton. The videographer chose in one shot to show the Prince of Wales shrouded in smoke, standing alone and vulnerable on that promontory overlooking the upper lake. I took some solace in knowing that the bluff it has stood on for a hundred years is bereft of trees and that measures undoubtedly were been taken to protect this jewel of the Rockies. Resources from as far away as Calgary are standing by to defend against the unthinkable there.

It was interesting to note that in Ray Djuff’s book High on a Windy Hill he mentions an August 1935 forest fire near Boundary Creek, five miles south of Waterton that jumped fireguards and raced north along the west shore of the lake. The fire came to within a mile of the town site and residents were put on evacuation alert before the south west winds shifted and this hellish firestorm was finally stopped by more fireguards. The threat of fire was and always will be there for Waterton.
In a recent column (Aug 2nd) I delved briefly into the early history of Waterton and talked about the dream of Louis Warren Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, to build a hotel there comparable to his magnificent Glacier efforts . That idea, hatched in 1913, finally started to come together in 1926. With a lease acquired from the feds Hill instructed the Great Northern engineering department and the Glacier Park Hotel Company to calculate estimates of a similar effort to be built at Waterton Park.

The original design proposal was to use the same design as the Many Glacier Hotel and was to be nothing like what you see today. It was to have only a bedroom annex of 118 rooms connected to a lobby/dining room/kitchen complex by a covered walkway. The hotel was to be built in stages like the Glacier Park and Many Glacier Hotels and like them had many logistical headaches to design for. That included water and sewer system and a stand-alone electrical supply. As an aside there was not public power available in Waterton until after the Second World War. Most businesses used generators in town until then.
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When it was announced by GN in New York in 1926 that they would proceed with the hotel contractors and suppliers from all over the U.S. expressed interest. Most did not even know exactly where Waterton was nor were they aware of the road access nightmare to the park that existed back then. But Hill was and had gone through a similar frustrating process at Glacier. Hill had a couple of contractors in mind including Evansta and Company, the builders of the Many Glacier and Glacier Park hotels, but felt in the end it would be: “a public relations headache to have a U.S. company build a hotel for an American railway in a Canadian national park.”

Struggling to find a suitable contractor the hotel idea was almost set aside but just before it was a suitable Canadian contractor was found. They were Oland and Scott out of Cardston, a respected and capable contractor who had recently completed a beautiful dance pavilion in Waterton. This 1925 structure was 112 feet square with a second floor balcony and a capacity of about a thousand people. At the pavilion’s opening dance were the surveyor working on the Prince of Wales layout and Albert Hogeland, GN’s chief engineer and the man in charge of the hotel construction. Hogeland most have been impressed by this dance hall construction and after interviewing and verifying their financial ability to build the hotel GN awarded Oland and Scott the contract.

In the spring of 1926 Oland and Scott were required to build a huge construction camp, dining room, cookhouse and four bunkhouses north of the hotel site near Linnett Lake as there was little accommodation in Waterton. Linnett Lake is an unusual anomaly near the hotel. It formed after an ice block, buried by debris and left behind as the Waterton Valley glacier retreated, melted to form the lake. It has no inlet and depends on seepage from surrounding lakes and slopes for its water.
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Excavation for the hotel’s foundation, which mercifully only had to penetrate ten feet deep into that rocky knob, was completed in July. GN was to supply all the lumber for the hotel construction from its mill near Kalispell and shipped it to Cardston on rail in freight cars. There is was stored and hauled 35 miles west to Waterton on what was not more than a dirt trail. Fall rains and early snows in September of 1926 turned that road into a “sea of mud.” It caused Oland and Scott no end of headaches for most of the construction period.

GN and groups like the Cardston Board of Trade and the Alberta Motor Association pressed Alberta’s Brownlee government continually for an upgraded road to Waterton. GN threatened to vastly reduce the size of or halt its construction until something was done. Cardston was also worried that if it wasn’t fixed GN would act on a proposal to build a direct road north from Glacier to Waterton through Beazer. The economics of this bypass of Cardston tourist-wise motivated their involvement. That bypass did in fact eventually happen but that was ten years after the hotel was finally finished. It is the beautiful Chief Mountain Highway.

While GN deliberately gave the impression that a scaled back version to only 64 rooms was being considered as a direct result of the road condition issue, it was in fact a ruse. Their architect, Thomas McMahon, with almost continual, never-ending input from Hill, was revamping the design to a much larger and different looking hotel than Many Glacier. Hill had just returned from a long vacation in Europe and thus inspired, just like he had done for the Glacier design: “inundated McMahon with suggestions and ideas” which resulted in a rather unique interpretation of Swiss style with ornate accoutrements like ginger-bread mouldings or fretwork.
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The design went from 64 to 78 rooms and from four to seven stories with steeper pitches and 12 beautiful dormers. Balconies were added everywhere and a thirty foot tower topped off the building. I am sure Hill must have driven his architect McMahon nuts with continual revisions and this translated into construction often coming almost to a halt as updated revised drawings were created. Imagine what it must have been like for Oland and Scott when they saw that the low profile Many Glacier design they were preparing to build had turned into a “towering, scene-stealing monument, reaching to the sky as if to challenge the mountains around it.”

That design was dropped on them in late October and they had a June 1927 deadline to meet. Good Grief. They “pulled out all the stops”, even worked Sundays but you and I know what Waterton weather can be like. In March of 1926 a GN engineer had travelled to Waterton prior to construction to assess comments made by Canadian Parks Commissioner James Harkin about the site being: “directly in the path of the strongest prevailing gales.” His 12 hours worth of readings, taken that March, showed an average velocity of 74 km/h (46 mph) with gusts up to 120 km/h (75 mph). GN engineering said this was similar to those at Glacier and “shouldn’t prove a difficulty.” Really?

To suppose that Oland and Scott contractors would not be seriously affected by the “notoriously fickle weather” of Southern Alberta and especially the Waterton area would be naïve and in the next installment I will cover the horrific weather that 1926 winter and the havoc it reeked on the hotel’s construction. This is just too good of a story to sweep through quickly and Ray Djuff book, which I have drawn heavily on, does a remarkable job of unfolding it. Stay tuned for part trios.

Author’s Note: As of Monday morning the Keenow fire west of Waterton was at 10,000 hectares and there were 678 firefighters and 17 helicopters working to keep it out of the Akamina Valley. There is a Calgary fire department ladder/pumper truck parked in front of the Prince of Wales Hotel on standby. Rain forecast for Wednesday!
September 13th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 37
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