FORGOTTEN CHRONICLES of the FRONTIER HOTEL INDUSTRY IN COWLEY
by Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
A much forgotten yet coveted chapter of Cowley’s business history is told in the chronicles of the settlement’s hotel industry. Related businesses in Pincher Creek, Pincher City and Lundbreck have retained a higher historical profile than those located in the C.P.R.’s eighth siding. This article hopes to re-capture some of the former glory associated with Cowley’s hotel heritage.
ALBERTA HOTEL EMBEDDED IN PIONEER ERA
Two hotels dominated the village’s history: the Alberta and the Cowley, the latter of which evolved over two stages spanning nearly half a century. Cowley’s Alberta Hotel, however, was the community’s first such establishment, dating back to circa March 1904 or 1905 when it was opened under the partnership of Bridget and Mason. Little is known of Fred Bridget’s history but more has been chronicled of the extended Mason family. Joseph and Mary Mason and their four children farmed to the north of the village, most likely in the Olin Creek district. The spread was located in T9 R1 W5th.
Joseph and Mary were born in England in April and July 1879 respectively; in 1907 they immigrated with their eldest sons James and Eric, born in April 1904 and November 1905 respectively. The youngest two children, David and Annie, had births dating to September 1908 and October 1910. Although Joseph’s and Mary’s arrival in Alberta may have post-dated the family’s ownership of the hotel, it does bespeak of their rural agricultural roots in the community.
The second set of owners of Cowley’s Alberta Hotel was the business partnership of Olmstead and Flood. The extended Olmstead Family included Pincher Creek resident Edwin R. Olmstead (1873 – 1941) who boarded at the Arlington Hotel. He worked as a ranch foreman, served in the First World War, and was active in the fire brigade as well as sports endeavours. The only Flood family member recorded in our history was one Pat Flood, a boarder at the King Edward hotel in Pincher Creek who sold insurance for a living. He was born in Ontario in August 1861. Olmstead and Flood purchased the Alberta Hotel in early March 1906.
The hotel’s Manager was Frederick W. Doubt whose family came from Ontario and Manitoba before landing in Frank circa 1901. They also had a homestead near Mountain Mill but lived in Cowley for a time. The Alberta Hotel became an active local entertainment centre under Doubt’s tenure.
Structurally, the Alberta Hotel was noted for its utilitarian façade. It was a three-storey building with close to sixteen rooms being housed on the second and third floors. Traditional vertical windows faced out onto the street and yard. A single door surrounded by transom windows served as the public entrance from the wooden boardwalk flanking the street. Large block letters attached to the front of the building between its second and third floors proudly proclaimed the establishment’s name.
The Alberta Hotel tragically burned down in January 1910. It was not re-built.
HOTEL IDENTIFIED WITH SETTLEMENT’S NAME
The community’s second hotel was the Cowley Hotel. This may have been the larger of the two establishments, although it was two-and-a-half stories rather than its competitor’s three. It was a rectangular structure that ran lengthwise with the street. A façade adorning the establishment’s public entrance featured double doors and large windows. The hotel’s name blazed across the structure’s front just above the second floor widows. At one point early in the hotel’s chronicles there was a functional verandah to the façade’s second floor which guests could access via a single door.
The rest of the building stood back slightly from the street but looked aesthetically pleasing with a series of five vertical widows on each level facing the street. Similar windows were placed along the structure’s east wall. Advertizements dating circa 1906 noted that the business had both a tavern and dining room where its “bar and table [were] supplied with the best”. Also on the main floor were the billiard and pool rooms. Sample rooms, where the travelling sales people could display their wares, also were featured. Accommodations were provided, primarily on the second floor but also at the west end of the main level. That year, the business was newly furnished.
The Cowley Hotel was located in the community’s downtown core, on the south side of Railway Avenue. It faced the railway tracks and was promoted was being the “nearest the depot” of the two hotels.
The establishment was noted for its quality services. Early in its chronicles it quickly established itself as a tourist centre for the travelling public. Long distance journeys were accessed via the Crowsnest Branch of the C.P.R. Hotel management paid special attention to fishing parties. Knowledgeable guides and horse drawn buggies provided easy frontier access to the best fishing spots, several of them along the South Fork itself. A nearby stable provided shelter and feed for the horses used on these excursions.
The Cowley Hotel regularly hosted special events for the community. One such pioneer gathering was the charter ceremony for the Chinook Chapter of the Masonic Lodge which took place on February 21st, 1909. The establishment’s dining room was highly decorated for the gathering and featured a home-cooked meal was served the Masons. Guests came from Cowley, Lundbreck, Pincher Creek and Lethbridge.
In keeping with its sample room mandate, the Hotel often hosted regional doctors and dentists who travelled through the rural areas offering medical appointments and services to local ranchers. One such person was the Lethbridge-based Dr. J. S. Stewart who also was heavily involved in the Royal Canadian Legion. At one of his stops at the Cowley Hotel with his foot-powered drill, one of dentist’s patients was none other than Barbwire Johnny, a colourful character from the Heath Creek District who had his dentures made by Stewart.
The long term proprietor of the Cowley Hotel was local pioneer Hugh D. MacMillan. It is believed that he owned the business for over twenty years dating from its construction circa 1906. He was born in Ontario in January 1868 to parents of Scottish ancestry and settled in the Cowley area in the early 1900s. Religiously, he was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church; sports wise, he was active in the champion North Fork Polo Team. His wife Mary E. hailed from the United States, immigrating to Canada in 1898. The couple had a daughter Agnes.
In June 1928, MacMillan sold the hotel to John Kent whose hometown was Gleichen, Alberta.
Some of the early staff, according to the 1911 Census, included Mary Gibson and Maud McKenzie who worked as a servant and domestic respectively. The former was born in June 1884 in England, immigrating to Canada in 1906. Her 1910 employment at the hotel lasted all year and earned her 300 dollars in wages. McKenzie’s birth dated to January 1884 in Ontario to parents of Scottish ancestry. Her year round work also earned her $300.
The hotel’s bartender was Kenneth McLean who was born in March 1887 in Scotland. His family immigrated to Canada when he was five years old. His 1910 year-round wages came to 800 dollars. In the kitchen, the Cowley Hotel employed two cooks who were of Chinese ancestry: Mah Moon and Sing Awing. They were born in China in May 1884 and March 1889 respectively. Mah immigrated to Canada in 1900. Their year round employment fetched them 300 dollars apiece in 1910.
Like its counterpart, the Cowley Hotel too came to a tragic end due to fire. This establishment was destroyed at four a.m. the morning of Tuesday, February 19th, 1929 when a massive fire swept through much of the Cowley business district. Other structures felled in the disaster included the local garage, barber shop, restaurant and Masonic Hall.
Further damage was prevented only by the fast action of the volunteer fire brigade who effectively used the chemical fire engine and the melt water from nearby snowdrifts accumulated that winter. It was said that the fire originated in the hotel kitchen and was easily spread due to high winds blowing from the west. Fortunately, all the hotel guests and employees escaped the fire, albeit in their nightwear. The hotel’s financial losses were partially covered by insurance.
Trade within the community still required the services of a hotel so shortly after this disaster a second Cowley Hotel was established, the chronicles of which are to be recounted in Volume Two of Prairie Grass to Mountain Pass.