I have stayed at a few of Canada’s prestigious old railway hotels: the Hotel Vancouver, the MacDonald, The Bessborough, the Hotel Saskatchewan, the Manoir Richelieu. The splendour is of another time, and reflects the romance of rail travel’s golden age.
But passenger rail wasn’t all about silver tea services and club-car dining. Before the explosion in car ownership and the advent of relatively cheap airfares, the train was how people got around.
I stayed in another grand old railway hotel last week—the Desrochers Hotel (formerly the Hudson Bay Hotel) in Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan.
Maybe “grand” is no longer the right word, especially if you’re comparing the venerable Desrochers to a landmark like the Banff Springs Hotel. Its exterior is a little tired-looking, as are the lobby and the corridors. The rooms, though, are well-appointed and meticulously clean. I had two perfectly restful stays there—one on my way to Winnipeg, and another on my way home a few days later.
The hotel is across Railway Avenue from the Hudson Bay elevator. If you’re familiar with small prairie towns, you know the layout: Railway Avenue runs parallel to the tracks, and Main Street runs perpendicular, across from the station. The hotel is on the corner.
Travelling businesspeople relied on the hotels not just for accommodation, but as a place to display their various wares and to meet local merchants. And the hotels typically housed the town’s coffee shop, dining room, and beer parlour.
I was a genuine railway traveller when I first stayed at the Hudson Bay Hotel in 1981. There was an opening for an editor at the town paper, and I took the train up from Winnipeg for an interview.
Hudson Bay was formerly known as Hudson Bay Junction. It is where the CN main line meets the Hudson Bay Company railway that goes through northern Manitoba to the port of Churchill. It remains a vital connection for northern communities where there is no road access.
The train stopped in Hudson Bay just after four in the morning the day of my interview. It had been a fun ride, revelling with fellow passengers who were on their way to Churchill to look at polar bears. And so it was an early call when the porter came to get me from my berth as we approached town.
In those days, even small hotels had a desk clerk all night. I didn’t have a reservation, but I was confident there would be room at the inn. I trundled my luggage across Railway Avenue to the hotel, checked in, and had a very short sleep before my 8:00 am interview. I got the job, and took the next train home to get ready for my move.
My first try at a journalism career was brief. I was fired within a month, mostly because I was genuinely terrible. But I enjoyed my time there and the people I met; I had some fun and got into a little trouble. Ah, youth.
The hotel hasn’t changed a lot. The rooms are nicer now; the bar is almost exactly as I remembered it, except for
the addition of some VLT machines.
I guess if the economics supported the idea of passenger rail in Western Canada, we’d
still have it. The main barrier seems to be our preference for driving our own vehicles from place to place, whether near or far. Not only have passenger trains all but disappeared, even bus lines have shut down their routes.
It’s a shame we’ve been pulling up the tracks and turning our backs on the railway. Everywhere else in the world, rail infrastructure is expanding and improving. Here, it seems improbable that it can ever return.
And so those little railway hotels like the Desrochers are no longer as relevant, and there’s no need for a drowsy desk clerk to be ready for the 4:10 from Winnipeg anymore. The remaining small-town hotels are there mostly to maintain a beverage room licence, not to accommodate travellers.
My visits to Hudson Bay last week were a trip down memory lane—an appropriately short trip, considering the brief time I spent there in 1981. And my stays at the stately Desrochers (she still deserves to be called “stately”) were a sweet memory of my own little moment at the caboose end of Western Canada’s age of rail.