Fairmont Château Laurier’s unsinkable Titanic link

Fairmont Château Laurier

Château Laurier in 1930. Charles Melville Hays, the architect of “Ottawa’s Castle” died on Titanic. (Fairmont Image)

Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Writer

OTTAWA — The grand opening of the Fairmont Château Laurier would have been a splendid affair, a who’s who of Canada’s business and political movers and shakers.

But sadly Charles Melville Hays, the man who played a leading role in building this magnificent hotel, was lost aboard the Titanic before he could see his dream realized.

“Ottawa’s Castle” opened its doors on June 1, 1912  at a cost of $2 million. It forever changed the face of Canada’s capital, lending a new elegance and sophistication to the city. And that isn’t an understatement. Located very close to Canada’s Parliament Buildings and the famous Rideau Canal, the Fairmont Château Laurier really does stand out like a castle on Rideau Street.

The hotel was designed and built by Hays, one of the prime architects of the great Canadian railroad expansion and general manager of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. At the time, Hays and his company were in direct competition with Canadian Pacific and the Canadian Northern Railway.

Château Laurier (today known as Fairmont Château Laurier) had 360 rooms, with an additional 240 added to the original building in 1930. This magnificent hotel forever changed the face of Canada’s capital, lending a new elegance and sophistication to the city.

The past comes to life

And while the hotel has changed, it also managed to maintain its glorious past. You can still find Tiffany Glass Windows in the lobby, as well as the oak paneling and marble floors – all original.

The pool hasn’t changed since the addition and the Karsh Photographs in the Reading Lounge are all originals. Many great names and celebrities have made this historical landmark a temporary home including former South African President Nelson Mandela, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and singer Madonna.

A friend and supporter of Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, Hays envisioned 7 grand hotels situated at key points along the line to complement the trains.The flagship hotel in his ambitious plan would be built in the nation’s capital and would be named after Laurier. The Château’s lobby would be (and still is) adorned with a marble bust of its namesake.

Don Butler of The Ottawa Citizen wrote about Hays, saying “(He) was a devoted husband, a parent to four daughters and a father figure to Vivian Payne, the son of a neighbour and Grand Trunk comptroller who died when young Vivian was 13. Yet he could also be a bully and was virulently anti-union. When Grand Trunk employees went on strike in 1910, demanding wage parity with American railway workers, he fired the ringleaders and later reneged on a promise to reinstate them once the strike was settled.

While Hays may not have been a ray of sunshine, he was a family man and shrewd businessperson who got results. Fairmont Château Laurier is a testament to that.

In the spring of 1912, Hays and his family were visiting England. They were invited to make the return trip as the private guests of White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay on the Titanic. Hays gladly accepted the invitation to travel on the lavish ship, as it was scheduled to arrive in New York in time for the grand opening of one of his greatest accomplishments, the Château Laurier.

Charles Melville Hays

Charles Melville Hays

Sadly, the rest is history. Just before midnight on April 14, 1912 the Titanic, carrying 2,223 people, struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic. Tragically, 1,517 perished in the disaster.

“You and mother go ahead”

According to a CBC story about the Hays family: “When the ship hit the iceberg Charles Hays ensured that the women in his party were quickly put into life boat number 3. He told his daughter Orian: “You and mother go ahead, the rest of us will wait here until morning. Don’t worry. This ship is good for eight hours, and long before then help will arrive.” Orian and Clara were so sure they would see their husbands again they didn’t think to kiss them goodbye. Clara, Orian and Anne Perreault survived and all of them lived into their 90s. There is a magnificent Hays family tombstone in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.

There was initial hope for Hays after a wireless message was received in Montreal claiming he survived.  The truth emerged in the headlines of the Montreal Daily Star when they announced “ABANDON HOPE FOR C.M. HAYS.”

All opening ceremonies of the Château Laurier were cancelled once the news of the disaster reached Ottawa.  It was not until six weeks later that a modest opening was held. Prime Minister Laurier was the first to sign the register.

An enduring legacy

The sinking of the Titanic had taken one of the most important and skilled business minds in the world. But Hays left an enduring legacy – Fairmont Château Laurier, one of the most famous landmarks in North America.

“We are Ottawa’s castle. The outpouring of stories and interest has been incredible,”  said Deneen Perrin, Director, Public Relations for Fairmont Château Laurier.  “There is a huge link to the community and everyone wants to take part in the celebrations in one way or another. As a result we have numerous packages, tours, activities and promotions planned.

“On April 5th we released 100 rooms at a rate of $19.12 per person,” says Perrin. “It was a huge success and we’re excited to be welcoming guests on April 14th to commemorate Charles Melville Hays, general manager of the Grand Trunk Railway. Our chef and his team have also put together an adaptation of the eleven course Titanic Menu which we will be offering Thursday, Friday and Saturday for the entire month of April.”

Perrin went on to say that Fairmont Chateau Laurier is developing a tablet tour which will allow guests to take an interactive self-guided tour of the hotel until the end of the year.

Address: 1 Rideau Street, Ottawa, Ontario Canada
Telephone: 1(613) 241-1414 or call toll free: (866) 540-4410
Website: www.fairmont.com
Email: chateaulaurier@fairmont.com

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Rod has previously worked for Canoe.ca and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.

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