Castle in the rockies

Story & Photos by: Alan Luke & Jacquie Durand

It appears as a majestic palace in a vast wilderness of Alberta. Yet this veritable castle in the mountains is the result of a man with a vision and a country on a mission.  The common element was the long twin ribbon of steel punctuated by the “last spike” in the autumn of 1885.

Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) tied the entire Dominion of Canada together from east to west. From the concept of the dining pavilion for passengers aboard, trains arose the fundamental necessity for grandiose CPR Hotels for relaxation and refreshment.  CPR’s vice president, William Cornelius Van Horne, capitalized on the scenic Canadian West and stated: “Since we cannot export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne commissioned Bruce Price as the architect to construct the Banff Springs Hotel, which is near the confluence of the Spray and Bow Rivers.  His Baronial Scottish architectural style was combined with an appreciation of Victorian Gothic Revival.  His influential Château style then became the only acceptable architectural mode for government structures.

During a summertime visit by Van Horne in 1887, he was astonished that the hotel was being erected 180° off from the original plan. This afforded the kitchen staff the “million-dollar view” of the rivers and he was not amused. Consequently, his displeasure reverberated into the far reaches of the Bow Valley. Shortly thereafter the coveted view was well on its way to being resurrected and the hotel opened to the public in the spring of 1888.  Consequently, there was evidence of his subtle sense of humor pertaining to the construction reversal.  At the end of the Spanish Walk on the Mezzanine Two level of the hotel is a 1903 painting by Van Horne.  Depicted is an Ontario forest scene in which he prints his name backwards, alluding to the backward blueprint faux pas no doubt.

Disaster struck in 1926 when a fire destroyed one third of the hotel, but it reopened in 1928. The hotel’s exterior is locally quarried limestone from Mount Rundle (Rundlestone).  CPR imported Italian stonecutters and Scottish masons to handle the rock facing on the Centre Wing of the hotel. The tower here is the highest suite, which opened in 1986. The impressive Presidential Suite features eight bedrooms, a fireplace, lap pool, original ornate wall tapestries and a baby grand piano among other amenities. Inside the suite, I gazed out at the mountains and valley.  The framed window view made it appear as a scenic painting while the balcony encircling the tower provided an additional panorama.

It was not until 1969 that the Banff Springs became open year-round and was officially branded as the Fairmont Banff Springs in 2007. Dave Moberg, Guest Relations Manager is as amiable as he is knowledgeable. He proudly told us that “being the longest serving employee of ‘Canada’s Castle in the Rockies’, I feel that this Canadian historical landmark is almost sacred.  Built for the ages, the Fairmont Banff Springs is more than just another mountain heritage resort.”  He should know since he celebrated his 50th year as an employee in 2012. During our hotel tour he provided a wealth of information and offered several anecdotes pertaining to the impressive list of clientele.

 In 2018, the Banff Springs Hotel is celebrating the 130th anniversary of hosting guests from around the world.  This has included numerous celebrities such as Cole Porter, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Henry Fonda and Bob Hope. Several had been in the region due to film productions that were in progress.  Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin were shooting “Death Hunt” (1981), the latter was one of Moberg’s favourites and will receive a mention in his forthcoming book: “If the Lobby Could Talk, the Real Story of the Castle”!

“The River of No Return” (1953), with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe was filmed at Bow Falls.  Marilyn twisted her left ankle while in the town of Jasper (August 14, 1953) and when on the set near Bow Falls in Banff one week later, she re-injured it requiring a leg cast. “Consequently, the bell hops every morning from that day on would flip a coin to see who would be the lucky one to push her around the hotel in her wheelchair,” according to Brian Brennan, author of “Romancing the Rockies”. 

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt also stayed for a period.  The latter commented “Banff is the center of all that is beautiful, and this part of the mountains is the Yellowstone Park of Canada.” During a transcontinental tour across Canada with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Queen Elizabeth and King George VI stopped over in Banff.  The Royal couple and entourage enjoyed the entire hotel for two days. There are 778 rooms (with four different suite styles) to accommodate the perpetual parade of patrons.

Elevated in the centre of the flower-filled traffic circle, stands another prominent bronze statue honouring the main man himself. Moberg conveyed that “William Cornelius Van Horne was not only the driving force in the creation of Canadian Pacific’s national railroad which unified our nation in 1885 and was also responsible for the birth of a world-recognized, architectural icon.”  While admiring the enduring edifice, a buck and a doe strolled within 50 feet (15 metres) of us.  Elk were introduced to Banff National Park and evidently developed an affinity for open fairways and imported grass. Thus, while enjoying a round on their Stanley Thompson designed golf course, one may experience a leisurely activity amid wildlife and wilderness.

The hotel management invites guests to reduce, reuse and recycle. Banff Springs “encourages environmental stewardship upon which sustainable tourism depends.” Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park (opened three years prior to the hotel), has continued to promote an eco-friendly environment. The Town of Banff has developed into a microcosm of the region.

It is no surprise that nature merges and manifests itself in different forms here.  We arrived appropriately at the popular lookout, “Surprise Corner”, for a full view of the “Castle in the Rockies.” We marveled at her majesty in mute testament to a man and a railroad and applauded his insight and his vision.  For our final stop, we paid tribute to the Banff Hot Springs and literally soaked up the spring’s benefits with its humbling surroundings.