Story by Jeremy Derksen
EDMONTON, ALBERTA — A bellman’s jacket, a set of master keys, bejewelled necklaces strung over chandeliers, a souvenir program from a dress ball — as I look out the window of my suite at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald, the moon rippling on the North Saskatchewan River, pigeons cooing on the balustrade below, I ponder what it might all mean.
Among others, these items have been returned by former patrons as part of an “amnesty” return for the hotel’s 100th anniversary. Are they simply unconnected relics, things accidentally pocketed or packed by strangers and staff over the years? Or were they clung to as keepsakes — remembrances, perhaps, of grand turn-of-the-20th-century romances and social intrigues that began here in 1915 and spanned decades?
That portentous year a century ago was also when the Titanic sank, taking with it the former president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad Company, Charles Melville Hays. Hays was the man whose vision founded the Hotel MacDonald. He was travelling back to Canada with a shipment of furniture when the historic disaster occurred.
It’s easy to understand why Hays wanted to start a hotel in this location in the Alberta capital. Designed in the grand French chateau style with Indiana limestone facing and copper roofing, here is a place preserved in time, where romance can blossom like the flowers on the terrace below, overlooking the deep, swift flowing river.
Romance and History in Edmonton
For an afternoon excursion, one can take a leisurely river cruise on the Edmonton Queen, a paddlewheeler, a replica of the old steamboats that first ferried across the river in 1909. Sitting on the sundeck you can imagine women twisting their parasols over their shoulders, men checking their pocket watches. The perfect setting for a rendez-vous between a young damsel and her beau, playing hooky from his bellhop duties to court the daughter of a wealthy visiting aristocrat.
The young lady would have to be back for high tea in the Harvest Room of the Hotel MacDonald, of course. Tea service is not to be missed by any visiting debutante, even today — scones slathered in Devonshire cream and Mayberry compote, finger sandwiches of Sterling beef and lobster and delicate blueberry lemon tarts, accompanied by organic loose leaf tea and flutes of Champagne will coax even the most modest of pinkie fingers into salute.
In preparing this kind of repast you can imagine liveried hotel servants bustling about the City Market — Edmonton’s first farmer’s market, opened in 1903. The Sunday market on 104 Avenue remains a popular outing for present-day socialites, who sip free-trade coffee from Credo café, gnosh on handmade delicacies from Jacek Chocolate and fill baskets with carrots, beets, lettuce, berries and baked sweets.
From there, a picnic near the refreshing fountains of the Alberta Legislature grounds, and a ride across the High Level Bridge on the historic Edmonton streetcar is enough to transport conspiring young couples to new levels of infatuated bliss — then, as now.
Meanwhile the world carries on about its business — war, financial scandals, political controversies (and Alberta has had its fair share of the latter two) — until the moment when fates collide.
The Hotel MacDonald endured as the centre of Edmonton social life, attracting visits by Queen Elizabeth II and other dignitaries, until its ownership met with financial difficulties in the 1980s. The hotel fell into disrepair and eventually closed. One can picture an elderly, down-at-the-heel bellman closing the door on the hotel’s final day in 1983, a suitcase filled with sepia daydreams of long-lost love.
After the hotel closed everything that wasn’t nailed down was carried off, save for a dirty, cobwebbed old chandelier that had hung from the portico. In 1985, the building narrowly avoided the wrecking ball when city officials designated it a historic resource.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the hotel reopened. The old chandelier, remnant of those bygone times, was restored and now hangs in the lobby, shining new light on the past.
Visitors to the Hotel MacDonald this summer will find numerous events spotlighting the hotel’s history. In addition to the amnesty return, there will be a Historic Open House in August that will see the entire hotel transported back to 1915, with period vehicles, members of historic regiment the Lord Strathcona’s Horse and a game of croquet or two to be had. But the highlight of the social season — and anniversary celebrations — will be the Homecoming Weekend, July 4-6, with alumni events, a formal ball, brunch and historic high tea.
What happy reunions, grand romances and intrigues might blossom there? Only time may tell, but perhaps one of those tales will be yours.
MORE ABOUT FAIRMONT HOTEL MACDONALD
Address: 10065 100th Street, Edmonton, AB (see map below)
Reservations: 1-866-540-4468 (toll free)
Room Rates: A recent search for a weekend night in June returned rates starting at $229. The property is featuring numerous hotel deals during 2015, marking its centennial anniversary. Visit its website for details.