Exploring the grandeur of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Roadtrippin’ at Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
The view from our room on the 10th floor of the Banff Springs Hotel gazed long over the famous golf course, between Tunnel and Rundle Mountain and out with the Bow River to the valley bend that leads to Canmore. (Please see our video presentations of the hotel and Banff at the bottom of this article.)
During our two-night stay in one of Canada’s great classic hotels, now a designated National Historic Site of Canada, we stood and stared at that view many times. It was a cool early June visit, with weather ranging from cool and moist to almost seasonal and the steadily changing light altered that view in subtle and revealing ways for photographers’ eyes left starving by a pandemic.
Turning from the view and looking inward, the Banff Springs Hotel was what I always envisaged it to be; but eerily and welcomely unoccupied by visitors thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and because our visit was on a Sunday and Monday.
Rarely so unoccupied, the hotel echoed with grandeur, elegance and opulence; equally historical and chic, fascinating and fun. Fitting considering the likes of Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) and King George VI, among countless VIPs, Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities have toured and enjoyed the Châteauesque-style hotel.
Monroe sprained her ankle while filming River of no Return in the park and convalesced at Banff Springs.
“She spent some time just relaxing and it was quite an exciting time” for hotel staff and visitors, noted Casey Bachand, hotel communications manager who graciously provided us with a private tour of the facility.
Bachand is a true Banff resident, admitting to having once arrived for one ski season and five years later she’s still in town. One cannot swing a cat in Banff, or Canmore, or Invermere or Kimberley of Fernie without hearing a similar story.
It just happened her journey into the Banff story landed her in the midst of the famous resort town’s iconic places, which survived fire, world wars, pandemic and economic crises.
Construction began on the first of the two sections that make up the 764-room hotel and resort in 1886 under the guidance of Canadian Pacific Railway general manager William Cornelius Van Horne and Architect Bruce Price. The first section opened for business that same year.
The siting of the hotel at the convergence of the Bow and Spray rivers followed the 1883 accidental discovery of the Banff mineral springs by CPR employees.
The hotel’s iconic 11-story tower, designed by architect Walter Painter, followed beginning in 1911 and concluding in 1914.
In 1926/27, CPR engineer John W. Orrock restored the hotel, establishing its current façade.
“Orrock’s team endeavored to restore much of the hotel’s structural elements, such as its Bedford flagstone flooring and fossil-filled Tyndall limestone,” noted website Historic Hotels Worldwide.
The Manitoba Tyndall stone was also used in Canada’s Parliament buildings.
Orrock reoriented the entire layout of the main building, dividing it into two distinctive sections known as the north and south wings.
“Yet, Orrock’s most enduring legacy was his decision to unify the structure’s exterior appearance with a single architectural form. He chose to preserve the main building’s Châteauesque-style architecture, blending it seamlessly into the unique Scottish designs of Painter’s tower. Similar to many other Châteauesque-style hotels, the Fairmont Banff Springs soon came to resemble a grand manor from France’s Loire Valley. A series of steep copper roofs, dormers, and gables soon came to define the Fairmont Banff Springs’ façade, making it one of the most elite vacation retreats in Canada,” Historic Hotels outlined.
After closing due to the Second World War between 1942 and 1945, the Banff Springs began to again shine as one of the great hotels in the world moving through the 1950s and ‘60s.
The Banff Springs began to stay open year-round in 1970 and in the 1990s, the Banff Springs Conference Centre was added to the complex.
In 2011, Canadian Pacific Limited, parent company to Canadian Pacific Hotels, merged with Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. The hotel was then renamed as the Fairmont Banff Springs.
The enduring legacy of the grand old hotel holds up in today’s rapid pace world, inviting visitors to unplug and soak in the vibes of another time with comforts of the 21st Century.
Of course, when considering ‘vibes,’ one cannot mention Banff Springs without a foray into its ghost stories, especially the ‘Ghost Bride’ and Sam the Bellman.
While sightings of Sam McCAuley, a long-time bellman who died in 1975, tend to be scattered around the hotel, the Ghost Bride has her own set location, the grand marble stairwell leading from Riverview Lounge where she fell to her death in the 1920s.
The verified incident involved a young bride on her wedding day who somehow slipped and fell down the stairs, illuminated by candlelight. Some say her billowing wedding dress was lit ablaze as she descended the stairs, leading to her fall.
Since that tragic evening, there have been many sightings of her walking up and down the stairs in her wedding gown.
“Guests have allegedly seen her dancing around Cascade Ballroom and in windows upstairs. I unfortunately have not,” Bachand said.
A former Banff Springs bellboy I spoke with several decades ago once told me about seeing a veiled woman walking down the stairs and then disappearing down inside them before she reached the bottom.
There is another ‘ghost story’ that the Internet wants to exist but hotel management denies – Room 873.
The story has it that a man killed his wife and daughter and then himself in the room and over the years a number of hotel guests were allegedly woken by screaming and finding blood stains on the walls. The ghost of a child has been reported walking the halls of the eighth floor, too.
However, Bachand said it “is a made-up story” and was just a matter of a corner room being required on that floor and rooms 873 And 875 were merged together. They did not bother to re-number the rooms, meaning the room order goes from 871 to 875.
In compiling this feature, we uncovered a Cranbrook friend who shared a story of staying in Room 873 And she corroborated the hotel’s position on the corner room. She also noted that on two occasions she closed and locked a window in the room only to find it open again… with no one else in the room.
Old places, whether grand and amazing or funky and run down, always have associated tales and legends.
From the regal Van Horne Ballroom to the sprawling Rundle Bar and its hidden smoking room to the Alhambra Room, Alberta Room, Riverview Lounge, Vermilion and Cascade Ballrooms, to the flared grand stairways and numerous heritage features, the hotel made for one of the most enjoyable photo tours we’ve had in years.
A popular location for weddings, the medieval themed room pays homage to Canada and her overseas roots. Each province is represented with coats-of-arms spaced along the upper walls. The lone coat-of-arms missing is Newfoundland’s, which didn’t become a province until 1949, 35 years after the hall was opened.
The Cascade Ballroom – experienced empty and quiet – sends imaginations wandering backwards in time.
“During the Big Band era you can picture this place being filled with people dancing and hopefully the Roaring 20s will be back,” Bachand said, her voice echoing in the ballroom.
While we were staying at the hotel, the majority of its regular features, such as the Rundle Bar (pictured), Grapes and the famous 1888 Chop House were closed for indoor dining, with outdoor dining (Mexican fare and other) provided along with appreciated propane heaters. It was a cool and rainy time of year.
Of note, the 133-year tradition of Afternoon Tea will return once COVID-19 restrictions are eased.
“It’s been a challenging year,” Bachand admitted.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has been trying on everyone and thing. As it slowly subsides, travel and normality will return.
The grand old Banff Springs knows all too well. It was just starting its ascent to becoming one of the finest hotels in the world when the Spanish Flu pandemic ran roughshod over the globe.
Banff Springs Hotel endures.
Our accompanying photo/video features interior and exterior views of the hotel, along with views from it. We also added a brief selection of images from our two-days touring around Banff, and of course some shots of that captivating view from our room.
Banff is a three hour drive from Cranbrook; 1.5 hours from Invermere.
Photos by Ian Cobb and Carrie Schafer
Lead image: A view of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel from the Conference Centre. Ian Cobb/e-KNOW photo