THE PRINCE OF WALES HOTEL

Prince of Wales Hotel

The Prince of Wales Hotel almost wasn’t, for the Fates seemed
determined to keep it from ever being born. Louis Hill had long dreamed of creating a third great hotel that would link Waterton
Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada to Glacier National Park.
More than a little envious, Hill looked across the border at the
chain of great hotels Canadian Pacific Railway had constructed
throughout the Canadian Rockies.

In 1913, Hill found just the place:  windswept knoll overlooking the magnificent Waterton Lakes that straddled the border between the two nations. Here he proposed to build a 300 room hotel. But then, World War I broke out, and travel for pleasure came to a virtual halt. After the war, it appeared for a time that the U.S. and Canada would jointly dam the narrows between the two lakes. Only when that plan failed to gain traction was Hill able to garner support for his decade-old dream hotel. But by now, Hill’s own enthusiasm for the project had begun to wane, partly because he began to doubt that sufficient tourists would find this out-of-the-way place to make it a paying proposition. Nevertheless, it was announced to the media that Great Northern would construct a 450-room hotel on the site. Estimated cost: $500,000.

Problems, one after another, delayed the project. All these roadblocks spawned such corporate pessimism that the proposed size kept shrinking, reaching a bottom of only 65 rooms. With torrential rain, heavy snow, deteriorating roads, and major transportation problems, the outlook for a hotel on this site was increasingly dismal. Except for Hill, who was then traveling in Europe, touring France and Switzerland. Every time he’d see a building he really liked, he’d have his photographer take pictures and send them back to Thomas McMahon (his architect). Result: the hotel was rebuilt four times; in the process, the hotel grew from four to seven stories, and from 65 to 90 rooms. Finally, it appeared that the hotel would become a reality after all.

There remained, however, one not-so-small problem: the wind. The building spot just happened to be one of the windiest places in North America. Hotel historian
Christine Barnes chronicles what happened on December 10 of 1926: “According to Oland’s memoirs [Douglas Oland, the builder], the resident engineer estimated readings of an average of 84 mph with gusts of 100 mph. ‘I would not have been too greatly surprised if the whole building had blown down, as it was, it blew eight inches off plumb,’ wrote Oland. Timber landed two miles from the site. Oland’s crew winched the structure back within four inches of the original site” (Barnes, 107).

There then followed snowstorms, a second major windstorm, cutting off all transportation. But indefatigable Oland refused to give up: when trucks couldn’t make it through, supplies and building materials were brought in by sleigh.

Romayne Wheeler giving a concert in the Prince ofWales Hotel & Waterton Lakes

It paid off: on July 25, 1927, the largest wooden structure in Alberta, the Prince of Wales Hotel, opened. It had cost $300,000. According to Barnes, “The exterior of the Prince of Wales Hotel seemed like a fairy-tale creation [others label it a ‘giant dollhouse”], but it is also a shelter from which to view the park. Eighteen-foot-high windows along the lake-side of the great hall frame a scene that none of Hill’s artists hired to promote the hotels could possibly capture. Every window, from the attic to the cocktail lounge, contains the spectacular surroundings” (Barnes, 107). As befits its name, the hotel leans more to rustic Tudor than to the “Wild West.” It is the most formal of any of the Great Northern hostelries.

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Years passed. After its creator, Louis Hill, died in 1948, there was no one to ensure his legacy’s survival. It has always been victimized by weather extremes and winter road closures. But yet it still stands.

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Connie & GregWheeler at the Prince of Wales Hotel

Connie and I love this place. And each time we return, we find it more difficult to leave. Strangely enough, even though its location is remote and often difficult to get to, the small town of Waterton,
about a mile away, keeps it from seeming isolated. The views out
those giant windows are to die for. If you revel in the elements,
as we do, you’ll stay in one of the high-up lake-side rooms where
you get the full force of the wind. On one never-to-be-forgotten
night, when I attempted to go out on the balcony, the wind blew so hard it was virtually impossible to open the door!

One ofthe local Grizzly Bears at Prince of Wales Hotel

People come here from all around the world, and here one rubs shoulders with a new breed of travelers: those who seek to escape from cookie-cutter boxes and ennui induced by five-star glitzy palaces of sameness. These new travelers revel in lodgings that have withstood the ravages of time, and still retain the unique
qualities that have endeared them to generations of travelers who
have loved them. So, if you have not yet come here, write down on
your Bucket List: I must stay at Prince of Wales Hotel before I die!

SOURCES: The best source of information, by far, is found in Christine Barnes’ landmark Great Lodges of the West 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc, 1997).

GLACIER PARK LODGE

Glacier National Park is perceived by many as being one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48, for it is a destination rather than being a way-station on a route to somewhere.  Comparatively few Americans have ever been here, which is a pity for it is a magical place of great beauty.

That the park exists at all we owe no small thanks to railroad tycoon, Louis Hill, son of James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern empire of trains and ships.  Indeed, such a passion did Louis Hill have for the park and its development that he temporarily stepped down from the presidency of Great Northern so that he could devote all his time to Glacier.  His dream was to create a park on the European model, complete with great hotels, chalets, roads, trails, telephone and boat service—something never before accomplished in America.

He began by using his Great Northern clout to secure a special Act of Congress in 1912 to purchase 160 acres of land that was part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation that bordered the just created [in 1910] Glacier National Park.  Here he would position his flagship hotel, and he would lay transcontinental railway track right to his front door (one of the very few national parks where this was done).  Even El Tovar’s rail connection would be a spur rather than being part of a transcontinental route.

Glacier Park Lodge

Hill lay awake nights dreaming of ways to make his first Glacier hotel into one of the nation’s greatest.  The linchpin had come to him earlier, in 1905, while attending the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon.  Unquestionably, the hit of the exposition was the great Oregon Forestry Building, constructed in the rectangular colonnaded basilica style pioneered by Roman architects—only, rather than built of brick, stone, and masonry, this one was anchored by massive Oregon Douglas fir, four feet thick and 48 feet high, each weighing 30,000 – 36,000 pounds.  Now Hill determined to make those same great columns the WOW factor at Glacier.

So it came to pass that Hill constructed (with the able assistance of architects S. L. Bartlett and Thomas McMahon) a great forest basilica at East Glacier.  When the Blackfeet Indians saw those 60 massive logs hauled in by train, they were in awe, for they’d never seen trees that big!  They promptly dubbed the new building “Oom-Coo-Mush-Taw” (Big Tree Lodge”).  Hill did not miss a trick: to ensure that the bark wouldn’t fall off later, he had the logs cut before the sap began to run in the spring.  The Great Hall with its 200 by 100 foot lobby, soaring 60 feet high with three atriums, flanked by galleries on each side, is indeed—as Hill planned it to be—akin to a great European cathedral, only created out of trees.

Great Lobby of Glacier Park Lodge

Inside, Hill orchestrated a most eclectic mix: Indian pictographs; animal horns and skins; buffalo skulls; Indian teepees; Blackfeet crafts, rugs, blankets, baskets; two great fireplaces [the open one has since been removed]; Japanese lanterns hung from rafters, and tea served by women in kimonos; Blackfeet Indians in full regalia and porters in Bavarian uniforms.

When the hotel was completed in 1913, its upperscale rooms featured private baths, fireplaces, and porches.  So successful was it that Hill added 111 additional rooms to the original 61.  Altogether, it cost more than $500,000 to build.

But here we are, almost a hundred years later, and it remains one of America’s great hotels.

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Connie and I have not only seen the lodge from the windows of an Amtrak train, we have stayed there three times, most recently when the Zane Grey’s West Society held its annual convention there.  Bob and Lucy Earp were also in attendance with us.  My brother, concert pianist Romayne Wheeler, feted our Society and hotel guests with a concert in the Grand Hall.

Red jammers at Glacier Park Lodge

Each of Hill’s three great Glacier hotels has a unique feel all its own.  Glacier Park Lodge feels more like a jumping-off place rather than a park hotel.  Vintage red jammers ferry people all over the park, departing and returning to the hotel.  It is part of a small railroad town so it has its own infrastructure, and it borders the large Blackfeet reservation.

Yet, with all this, it remains a serene place to stay.  Separating the railway terminal from the hotel is a thousand-foot-long garden.  In the great lobby and long vista’d verandas, guests play board games, write letters, visit with friends, and regenerate from the hectic life they left behind.  No one misses the television sets ubiquitous in cookie-cutter lodgings elsewhere.  To experience the Great Hall alone is worth the trip.  Especially at night when you stare into the flickering flames in the fireplace.

And once you’ve stayed here one time, you’ll yearn to return.

SOURCES CONSULTED

Invaluable for the history of the hotel is Christine Barnes’ splendid Great Lodges of the West 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. W. West, Inc, 1997).  Also helpful is David and Kay W. Scott’s The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).