Room at the Inn: Historic Hotels of British Columbia’s Southern Interior
Review By Janet Nicol
August 15, 2023
Hold-ups, fires and bar-room brawls are a few of the dramatic events described in Glen A. Mofford’s A Room at the Inn: Historic Hotels of British Columbia’s Southern Interior. The author highlights forty establishments, most operating from the 1890s to 1950s and nestled among mountains, near hot springs and lakes or within proximity of mines, logging camps, and fruit orchards. Exceptional hotel owners are profiled along with patrons and townspeople whose experiences are both pleasurable and harrowing.
The foreword by BC historian Greg Nesteroff offers a heart-felt tribute to the author, who died suddenly prior to the book’s publication. Mofford had explored similar themes in his previous publications, Along the E& N – A Journey Back to the Historic Hotels of Vancouver Island (2019) and Aqua Vitae: A History of the Saloons and Hotel Bars of Victoria, (2016) and his accumulated knowledge about this aspect of social history serves to enrich A Room at the Inn.
Prefacing the hotel accounts is an acknowledgement of the Indigenous people who lived on the land for thousands of years prior to the arrival of immigrant settlers. Additionally, the meaning behind place names, both Indigenous and settler, are explained. A publisher’s note acknowledges “…some hotels and pubs remained inaccessible by people of colour for years, even after the 1920s….” (p. xi) The author’s diligent research reveals exceptions, such as at the Ashcroft Hotel (1885-1974). When the town of Ashcroft burned down in the great fire of 1916, Chinese residents in the segregated quarter were instrumental in assisting with re-building. “It is no surprise,” Mofford writes,” that a Chinese proprietor, Joy Shung, managed the new (Ashcroft) hotel and would do so until she stepped down in 1928.” (p. 46)
Vintage postcards and archival photographs accompany each chapter, giving the reader an appreciation of the architecture, which is both palatial and conventional, with all the hotels originally built of wood. A two-page map of BC’s southern interior indicates hotel locations, stretching from Shuswap to the East Kootenays. Emerald Lake Chalet (1902-Present) is the northernmost hotel marked on the map and farthest south is the Rialto Hotel (1939-95) in Osoyoos.
Most hotels depicted in this book eventually went down in flames, with few surviving beyond the 1950s. However, the Oliver Hotel (1921-2010), established in the town of the same name, ironically closed down before a fire destroyed it in 2010, because the owners had not met the fire-code requirements.
The author earmarks five hotels as “so significant that they were deemed essential to the growth and prosperity of the town where they were built.” (p. 121) Among them was the Incola Hotel (1912 to 1979) in Penticton. The four-storey structure was part of a Canadian Pacific Railway hotel chain and built in a mock Tudor style using BC fir. The establishment had 62 bedrooms, common parlours and a wrap-around verandah as well as expansive lawns and gardens. Lavish balls and special events were held regularly and the public enjoyed access to the dining room. During the Spanish Flu epidemic (1918-19), a wing was opened for patients when the hospital in town reached capacity.
Hotels were a backdrop to incidents reminiscent of the mythic ‘wild west.’ In 1916, a single masked gunman entered the Brideswell Hotel (1906-1952), lined up 13 people in the lobby and robbed them of their cash and jewelry, then woke the patrons in the rooms and seized their valuables. Before making an escape on horseback, he broke into the hotel bar and stole beer and whisky. The reader is assured the outlaw was caught and brought to trial in Nelson. Today Bridewell is a ghost town with no identifiable historic buildings left on its main street and thus no “old- timers” to tell tales.
Owners came and went with frequency but those who stayed for a substantial number of years were as much a community landmark as the hotel they operated. In 1924, Brigadier General Frederick Burnham bought the Halcyon Hot Springs Hotel (1894-1955) in the West Kootenay and spent the next thirty-one years running the establishment as a sanitarium and hospital, the nearby natural hot springs a medicinal draw for patrons. Countess Bubna of Austria built the Eldorado Arms (1927-89) in Okanagan Mission with the intention of drawing wealthy customers. William and Lena Yusep and their four children operated the Rialto Hotel (1939-95) in Osoyoos from 1946 to 1979. In 1955, they opened the Bamboo Room and the Yusep’s son, Terry was considered “one of the greatest bartenders” to have run it. (p. 141)
Silver mines brought prospectors to Sandon in the West Kootenay. Incorporated in 1898, the town site’s location was precarious from the start, situated deep in a gulch and over a creek. With a population of more than 2,000 people, Sandon boosted 23 hotels, 11 salons, two railways and an opera house. But fires, floods and avalanches took a toll on the settlement and by 1954, the only rooms available for travelers were at the Rico Hotel (1898 to 1954). In 1955 eleven families were left in Sandon when a flood “finished off the town.” (p. 221)
The bulk of Mofford’s research was accessed from sixty-four newspapers, as listed in the bibliography. Also referenced are court and archival documents, telephone directories and books about the province’s ghost towns, gold rush and railways. Further research could include oral interviews with descendants of hotel owners, staff, patrons and townspeople, their stories potentially expanding the historical lens, especially in relation to race, gender, and class.
When the Beverdell Hotel (1925-2011) burned down in 2011, a Kelowna newspaper reporter quoted local resident Lorna Hollingsworth in an article: “People are just crying. When the town was active, it was like everybody’s front room. Weddings, birthdays, you went to the hotel.” (p. 164) Mofford’s meticulously detailed account affirms this sentiment, proving the value of hotels in our communities and the fascinating stories within their walls.
Mofford, Glen A. Room at the Inn: Historic Hotels of British Columbia’s Southern Interior. Victoria, BC: Heritage House, 2023. 336 pp. $26.95 paper.