THE ALEXANDRA HOTEL IN PINCHER CITY
by Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
HOTEL’S BUSINESS RATIONALE AND MONARCHICAL ICON
The Alexandra Hotel was constructed in the early 1900s, shortly after the 1898 completion of the Crowsnest Branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The timing was important on two fronts, the first being the arrival of the railway. Pincher City was the seventh siding along that rail route, and was the closest depot to the more populous centre to the south, Pincher Creek. The volume of trade, in goods agricultural and retail, and the number of passengers traveling through this point meant that it was a very busy centre. It was only natural that a hotel be built to provide accommodations in Pincher City, although at least two similar establishments in nearby Pincher Creek offered “bus service” between the two centres.
The timing of the hotel’s opening also had significance in its naming. It was memorialized in honour of Queen Alexandra, the Danish born consort of King Edward VII, who reigned over the British Empire from 1901 to 1910. It was common practice during the pioneer era to name hotels after the British Monarch under whose rule they were built. Constructed early in the reign of Queen Alexandra, it is believed that this structure was the only hotel in southern Alberta to be named after her.
IMPRESSIVE STRUCTURE HAD AN IDEAL LOCATION
The Alexandra Hotel was located north of the railway tracks in Pincher City, within walking distance of the C.P.R. station and depot. Its location was important for its commercial success. Proximity to the railway meant that it had easy trade with embarking and disembarking business people and passengers. The hotel was situated in the midst of Pincher City’s small but bustling downtown which helped to increase local trade and strengthen business ties.
Physically, the Alexandra Hotel was a landmark to be reckoned with. It was an imposing structure measuring three and one-half stories in height. Its front, picturesquely adorned with a ground floor verandah and two sets of balconies, faced to the north with the rear of the structure directly across from the tracks. The length of the building ran back to the south, equipped with an exterior fire escape and two attached sheds on the east side. The larger of the two had a peaked roof while the smaller was the more easterly. The hotel’s upper half floor was noted for its gabled architecture. Most of the building was solid white in colour but the gabled and peaked roofs were eye-catching black. Blazing across the west and south sides of the building, between the second and third floors, the letters proudly proclaiming “Alexandra Hotel” could be easily read by all incoming trains. Marketing was alive and well during the pioneer era.
While few descriptions of the hotel’s interior survive, some facts we have been able to ascertain. There may have been an underground cellar. On the ground floor a frontier-style lobby was found just inside the verandah. Also on the main floor one found the bar, a dining room which was particular impressive during the First World War era, and kitchen facilities. During the 1920s there was a grocery store associated with the hotel’s office, both operated by the Alexanders. The rear sheds likely were used for storage. The upper levels housed the hotel’s accommodations with the rooms perhaps numbering as many as fifty. On the north side there were five sets of windows on each of the non-ground floors with corresponding four windows on each level gazing out to the west. These are indicative of an abundance of rooms. The hotel which had by April 1912 according to the Pincher Creek Echo, “already enjoy[ed] the reputation of being one of the best and most modernly equipped country hotels in the province” went through extensive renovations on all levels. Although the nature of the work is no longer known, it did allow the hotel to keep up with the times.
Only a few relics of the hotel’s furnishings survive. Most are dishes, off-white in colour, with the Hotel Alexandra logo firmly embossed near the top of each plate. The order appears to have been placed with the Deans 1910 Ltd. of Borsteen, England in the early 1910s, perhaps timing with the 1912 renovations. A partial set of these dishes are coveted artifacts exhibited at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village. Some had been previously acquired by Pincher City area pioneers following the hotel’s closure.
PIONEER MANAGERS AND STAFF
Numerous pioneers were associated with the hotel’s operation. A Mr. and Mrs. Alexander were its original proprietors; they built and operated the hotel. However, Mrs. Alexander was not fond of rural life and the couple left for parts unknown, leasing the business to Fred M. and Mary Collins, who managed the Alexandra Hotel during the early 1910s. The Collins’ were born in the United States, Fred in September 1873, and Mary over a decade later in December 1883. The couple immigrated to Canada in 1902. Fred’s background was Irish and he was associated with the Church of England; his wife Mary, Scottish in ancestry, was Presbyterian in faith. Fred Collins was very sports-minded, and although the Collins’ resided in Pincher City itself, he enthusiastically participated in the Pincher Creek Baseball Team. He joined the team in 1908 – 1909, when the team competed against Taber and possibly Spokane. The couple remained with the Alexandra until circa 1920, when they moved elsewhere. Improved vehicle transportation meant that there were fewer people travelling by train, resulting in less business at the Hotel.
At this point the Alexanders returned to Pincher City and took over the Hotel’s daily operation. This continued until at least 1929, as they are listed in that year’s Henderson’s Directory. They were particularly attentive to hiring waitresses in the dining room and chambermaids upstairs.
Hotel staff was numerous over the years. Max Small was the bartender under the Collins’ management. Born in August 1882 in the United States, he came north of the border as a young lad in 1893. He was Irish in ancestry and affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. His bartending wages in 1910 totaled one-thousand dollars. Being single at that time meant that Small was suited to the many evening and weekend shifts associated with this type of work.
Other staff at the Alexandra Hotel included two Chinese cooks, an oft-common practice in the Prairie Canadian hotel industry of the era and which added a much-overlooked aspect of the cultural history of Pincher City itself. The two gentlemen were Frank Mar and Leo Chow, who were both born in China. Mar was the eldest, being born in March 1884; Chow’s birth occurred in April 1891. Both immigrated to Canada in 1906, several years after the construction of the railway. Each earned wages of 800 dollars apiece in 1910.
Two other employees of 1910 were Lillian Sweetman and Lizzie Taggart, both of whom were enumerated as domestics in the Census of the following year. This meant that they were housekeepers, responsible for the daily cleaning of the hotel rooms and laundering of the linens. Sweetman’s birth, dating to October 1894, took place in Ontario. She had an Irish ancestry and worshiped in the Methodist faith. Sweetman was employed for forty weeks that year and earned 350 dollars in wages. Her colleague Miss Taggart was a bit older, her birth taking place in June 1889, also in Ontario. She worked the full year with a 48-hour work week and her wages were 700 dollars. She was of English background and Presbyterian in religion.
WELL-PATRONIZED LODGINGS AND PUBLIC FUNCTIONS
The Alexandra Hotel was a busy commercial centre during the 1910s, well-patronized by locals and the traveling public for both accommodations and public events. The Dominion Census of 1911 indicates that the facility was likely well-patronized as a place of lodging for temporary workers, many of them single young men in their teens, twenties and early thirties who worked in the construction trades. The previous year there were twenty such fellows staying at the Alexandra, the majority of whom worked on bridge construction, most likely the road and trestle improvements in the area. There also was one individual who specifically listed railway work as his occupation and another three who worked in local coal mines. Unfortunately, which mines they were associated with were not recorded, but it appears that they lodged at the Alexandra. These men came from a variety of Canadian, American and western European cultural backgrounds. Many may have been in the area only on a short term basis, as long as the work lasted, but they provided an important source of revenue in terms of accommodation, food and bar beverages for the hotel. Providing room and board for temporary workers and single men was commonplace for many such pioneer hotels across the Canadian Prairies.
Community minded events were the norm at the Alexandra Hotel, both before and during the First World War. The business likely realized some revenues out of such functions, but also hosted them because they represented popular causes. The first one of note, dating from the evening of Friday, December 17th, 1909 was a fundraising event for the Memorial Hospital in Pincher Creek. It was likely held in the hotel’s dining room. Organized by the pioneers of the neighbouring Summerview District to the east, the event comprised of a basket social accompanied by a dance. The baskets, brought in by the ladies, were auctioned off under the auspices of H. Ambrose.
Two patriotic events associated with the war effort of 1914 – 1918 were held in the Alexandra Hotel. The first, a fundraising dance and supper was held early in the war, was held the evening of Friday, November 27th, 1914. Organized by citizens of Pincher City who attended an organizational meeting nearly three weeks earlier, the crowd selected Hotel Manager Fred Collins as the meeting chairman. He immediately offered the use of the Hotel and a catered supper for the event. Rather than serving it “lap style”, which was usual during pioneer dances, the supper was a buffet event served from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on the second floor. Patrons could chose and pay for what they specifically ordered. It was said that the menu included oysters, a specialty of the era. The public was charged thirty-five cents apiece for the meal, and general admission to the event was one dollar for gentlemen; ladies were admitted on a complimentary basis.
Dance music was provided by the band of Purkis and Derritt. Also in attendance were members of the 23rd Alberta Rangers, who attended in uniform. Press reports indicate that there was a large crowd from both Pincher City and Pincher Creek at the event and that it was a resounding success due in part to the hosting abilities of the Collins Family.
A similar event was held at the Alexandra some eighteen months later, on Friday, April 28th, 1916. Proceeds again went to the Patriotic Fund. Reports in the Echo indicated that ticket sales “have been going like the proverbial hot cakes”, and the event witnessed one of the largest public crowds of the Great War. Supper was served in the Hotel’s dining room and the Pincher Creek Orchestra played at the accompanying dance until four o’clock in the morning.
The Alexandra Hotel saw many good times during the early 1900s, but apparently fell upon hard times during the 1930s. Aside from the Henderson Directory references from 1924 and 1929, the last record of the hotel is a photo taken during the tough times connected with the spring of 1920 when local farmers descended upon Pincher City to collect feed transported in by rail from northern Alberta. The hotel can be seen in the background. Eventually the ever popular stop-over was torn down, hurt perhaps the most by the Great Depression. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander, held an auction sale where the hotel’s bedding and the store’s inventory was sold. The business was briefly rented out to other operators but eventually Mr. Alexander had the hotel dismantled and the lumber shipped to Lethbridge where he and his wife retired. A few on-site archaeological features remained. Local children such as John Sinnott who grew up in Pincher City during the 1930s and 1940s recalled that the structure’s concrete foundation, measuring perhaps forty feet in length and six feet in height, was a formidable monument for youngsters playing in the area.