90 Years: Inside the Opening of the Prince of Wales

Jun 29, 2017

From conception to inauguration, it was an epic effort that marked a new era in Waterton

Nothing was simple in Waterton, Alberta in 1927.

When the Prince of Wales Hotel opened its doors to the public on July 25 of that year, it represented a new direction for the sleepy village on the big lake next to the border with Montana. In Waterton, there was the 'before the Prince' and 'after the Prince'.
 
Considering the challenges the construction team had to overcome in the lead-up to that date, it was indeed an enormous moment.
 
Opening mid-summer was hardly ideal. Already halfway through the summer, the clock was ticking on the busy tourist season - the pressure had been huge to get 'the Prince' open. The original opening day had been scheduled for June. It was postponed many times as the crew dealt with setbacks and complications.  
 
It was a “desperate move to get it open,” says historian Ray Djuff, author of the comprehensive book High on a Windy Hill: The Story of the Prince of Wales Hotel.
 
July 25 that year was a beautiful summer day and the hotel welcomed 172 guests including various local dignitaries. Djuff says the hotel grounds still weren’t complete – wood piles and debris lay scattered around. Still, it was a celebratory day, and a relief.
 
The opening of the Prince of Wales marked a new beginning for sleepy little Waterton – with a landmark hotel providing luxury services, it was finally ‘on the map’.

 

Prince of Wales

 

⇑ Prince of Wales Hotel 1927. Camera

Photo courtesy of T.J. Hileman

 





Railway baron Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway (GNR), had first identified an dramatic hilltop above Upper Waterton Lake as the ideal spot for an iconic lodge in 1913. He commissioned an architect to draw up plans for something classy, something that would be legendary and would mimic Swiss design. It took another 14 years for his vision to become reality. First, the Great War and then later, the possibility of damming Upper Waterton Lake, held up the project for years. Eventually the war ended, the dam proposal was defeated and things started to look up for Hill’s dream.

 
Although still in full force in the US, prohibition ended in Alberta in 1924. With Waterton being so close to Montana, the door began to knock even louder. All of a sudden, the Prince of Wales Hotel felt like it could happen again.  
 
Ground was finally broken in 1926. The aim was to have the hotel open to the public in time for the following summer. It was a big push. Djuff says it was “a grueling year, to say the least.”
 
First, there were the storms.  
 
“It was all going quite smoothly until roughly October 1926 when everything went haywire,” he says. That was when the rain came. And it came in fierce. Roads turned to muddy puddles. Trucks couldn’t get through from Cardston, where all supplies sat waiting. Everything was stalled.
 
A mid-winter hurricane-like storm blew through the site, tearing down scaffolding and wreaking havoc. Another delay.
 
Due in large part to the storms – and the delays, heavy costs and complications they provoked – the GNR started changing the architectural design of the hotel. What was originally designed to be several four-story buildings forming a sort of complex, and housing up to 300 guestrooms, ended up being one solitary building with 90 rooms and a towering seven stories. The crews had to constantly adjust to the new direction. 
 
A cold winter allowed the road to freeze, and construction got back on track. But in spring, heavy rain meant muddy roads again. The crew reverted to using horses and wagons, doing whatever it took to stick to plan. “They had to keep going,” Djuff says. "They had to meet the deadline.”
 
Eventually, by mid-July, it was ready.
 
The hotel didn’t look much like it had originally be planned. 
 
“It was taller and smaller,” Djuff says. “But that makes more sense.”
 
Guests arrived shortly after noon on July 25 via a tour car and several buses. Elegant, uniformed staff welcomed them and ushered them into a grand hotel to admire the tremendous view. Each room had hot and cold running water and a bathtub. They also had telephones and the hotel had the area’s first elevator - all top of the line and state of the art. 


Glacier Transportation transporting guests through the mountains
 
 

⇑ A Glacier Park Transport Company caravan, 1927. Camera

Photo courtesy of Great Northern Railway publicity and advertising department. Minnesota Historical Society.

 




 

It was a new era in Waterton. And worth all the trouble.
 
Join us this summer in Waterton as we celebrate the 90th Birthday of the Prince of Wales Hotel.
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