Museum Musings – The National Hotel

Photo Courtesy of The Bill Smiley Archives. The National Hotel, seen here in this photo from October 1990, is one of Prince Albert's most recognizable landmarks.

By Fred Payton

Most people living in Prince Albert and area are familiar with the National Hotel, even if it is just from driving across the Diefenbaker Bridge and seeing it off to the east.  Fewer people would be able to identify it by its original name, the Prince Albert Hotel (some probably confusing it with the Prince Albert Inn).  Only a very few would know that it was, in the late 1920s, known as the Empire Hotel.

My interest in the history of the National was piqued when I came across an article from the June 2nd, 1904 edition of the Saskatchewan Times.  The article referred to “an interesting ceremony…on Saturday evening last at the site of the new Prince Albert hotel”.  The occasion of interest entailed the town’s mayor, William Gillmor, placing the corner stone for a new building which would replace the original hotel which had burned down in February of that year.

Built, I understand, in 1887, the original Prince Albert Hotel had been a wooden building.  When it caught fire around noon on Sunday February 15th, 1904, it took less than an hour before it was a mere “heap of ashes”.  The hotel’s proprietor, D. Pollock, remained undeterred and within four months was over-seeing the construction of the new brick structure.

Using a silver trowel, presented to him by the proprietor of the hotel, Mayor Gillmor placed a sealer containing various items within a niche provided, prior to the stone being plumbed and set in place.  The sealer contained bills and coins of various denominations of American and Canadian money.  It also contained a history of the hotel and of the town of Prince Albert, as well as documents listing the names of town officials and school trustees, and photographs of the proprietor and his family, a record of wages paid, and the price of materials.  Copies of the most recent issues of the Prince Albert Advocate and the Saskatchewan Times were also included.  

Although it would have been of interest, there was no mention in the article of who might have been amongst those who looked on at this “interesting ceremony”; nor of the weather conditions.  Had the streets been dry and dusty, or had rain brought about muddy conditions?  Were other dignitaries from the town council in attendance besides Mayor Gillmor?  Neighbours of the hotel, including those whose businesses were negatively impacted by the February fire might also have looked on.  It might have been of interest to readers whether Mayor Gillmor, who owned a furniture store in the block to the west of the hotel, might have expected to provide the furnishings required in the new building.  However, none of these matters were addressed in the article, and as a result must remain unaddressed.

Obviously the new building had a deck leading to the front door.  Many of the hotels of the day had such amenities, where guests could sit to enjoy fresh air, the view, and perhaps a beverage.  In the case of the Prince Albert Hotel, sitting on the deck would allow for a view out over the river and the expanse of trees to the north and west of the hotel.  This deck, however, was often crowded with “loiterers” and as a result, Mr. Pollock received a letter dated April 5th, 1906 from the secretary-treasurer of the town council requesting that he remove that “obstruction”.  It would appear that Mr. Pollock acquiesced in this request, as no further correspondence appears to have been sent.  Incidentally, the mayor of the town at this time was John Bradshaw.

Within two years of council’s request, Pollock sold the hotel.  It may not have been council’s perceived interference.  It may simply have been an offer too good to refuse (as noted in a story Joan Champ wrote regarding the Empress Hotel – later the Astro Hotel – after the Canadian Northern Railway arrived in Prince Albert in 1906, construction workers, settlers and their families, and commercial travellers ensured hotel rooms of the day were in high demand).  S W & R Real estate bought the hotel.  Initially, J.D. McLeod managed it, but in 1909 the hotel was under the management of William R. McLeod.  It was during the McLeods’ ownership that a second fire occurred at the hotel.  Fortunately, the building’s brick construction and the community’s much improved fire department allowed this second fire to be contained to the basement, and primarily in the kitchen portion of the hotel.

Exactly how long Samuel McLeod and his family owned the hotel is unknown.  We do know that by 1911 it was being managed by G E Dangerfield, and by 1913 the hotel was under new ownership.  Thomas Herrington and Joseph Peoples were the new owners, although Peoples appears to have sold out his share to Herrington by 1914, and Herrington had sold the hotel to E.H. Biggar by 1919.  Biggar owned it until 1927, and began advertising the hotel as having “Good Fully Modern Rooms, Home-like Surroundings”.

The hotel changed hands again when Biggar sold out to Tom Michas in 1928.  He changed the name of the hotel from the Prince Albert Hotel to the Empire Hotel, likely in the second half of 1928.  He then sold the hotel to Robert Hindes.  Hindes made many changes to the hotel, including improving the lobby.   He then sold the hotel to E.F. Bessette and Victor Colleaux in November 1930.  When they granted an Estevan man, W. Henley, a ten- year lease on the hotel in 1931, the name had once again been changed to the National Hotel.  As well as buying the lease on the hotel, Henley also purchased the contents. Throughout this time, W. G. Tickle had been managing the hotel, as the owners were all absentee owners.

It was also through this time period that the hotel was advertised as having “Good, Fully Modern.  Hot and cold water in all rooms.  Bus meets all trains.”  There are pictures of the vehicles to which this referred.  One is of a 1928 Studebaker “President” straight eight, nine passenger limousine.  Another was a 1938 Ford, eight passenger station wagon.

Henley hired Ernest O’Brien to manage the hotel in 1932, but by 1938 the manager was Thomas Isherwood who continued to manage it.  Benjamin Panar took over as manager in 1943, and began using the advertising tag “Rebuilt & Refurbished.  Rooms with or without showers, bath”.

Harry McKay bought the hotel in the mid-1940s, managing it himself through to the early 1950s.  He continued to use the advertising line about the hotel being rebuilt and refurbished, with or without showers or bath.”

By 1952, Daniel Lutzak had taken over the management.  Ownership at that time was apparently Northern Hotels Limited.  This appeared to have been a company located outside of Prince Albert, and likely included Daniel Lutzak, Richard Lutzak, and Walter Dowhaniuk.

B.T. Laskin and Frank J. Masich owned the hotel by 1956.  They changed the advertising tag to “Newly Renovated Throughout” but still offered rooms with or without showers or bath.  In 1958, they started to advertise that the hotel was “Modern Throughout.  Free Parking” while still advertising rooms “with or without bath”.  Masich, a farmer from Bladworth, appears to have bought out his partner shortly after they purchased the business, and he owned and operated it until his death in 1969.

After that, the hotel was managed by Roger Eggert, Gary Anderson, and Ray Pilon.  It would appear that little effort went into promotions during this time.  That changed, however, in 1981 when Russ Williams and Allan Ferster bought the hotel.  Soon after, the advertising began, offering room rates by the day, week, or month.  More importantly, the advertising suggested that the hotel offered weekly entertainment.  Williams and Ferster remained as the managers until 1983, when Russ’s wife Georgie became a co-manager. Ferster appears to have been bought out.  In 1986, they brought Marilyn Evans in as an assistant manager, and they later added the drive through liquor store, named after Williams’ wife.

When the Williams family sold out, ownership went out of province, and remains there.

Some of the more interesting items regarding the hotel includes the fact that the boiler from the river boat the Marquis, is believed to have provided the heating for the hotel for many years.

Guests who stayed in the hotel included many of the northern bush pilots such as Bill Windrum and Cec McNeil.  Th latter went on to be a pilot for Canadian Pacific Air and was killed in a crash landing in Tokyo, Japan.  Grey Owl and his wife, Anahareo, stayed in the hotel on occasion, and Elmer Diefenbaker, brother to Canada’s thirteenth prime minister, stayed in the hotel on a monthly rental.

In the late 1930s, a glass of beer could be had for ten cents, and a bottle for twenty-five cents.  Deluxe rooms were $2.50 a night, $1.50 for a regular room, and $1.00 for a room on the top floor.

Probably the busiest day in the bar room occurred on January 21st, 1967.  It was a bitterly cold day, but people wanted to get as near as possible to the fire burning in the Astro Hotel down the street.  The cold drove them into the bar, where there was standing room only, and extra staff had to be brought in. That silver trowel which Mayor Gillmor used when laying the corner-stone can be seen in the Historical Museum at 10 River Street East.