20th Century, Buildings, Businesses

The Failed Chateau Rideau

This never happened.

This never happened.

As I was searching for a new topic to write about, I came across a short article written by Brian S. Osborne on the Kingston Historical Society website. Entitled “Kingston’s Chateau Rideau,” it briefly goes over the short life and death of the hotel pictured above. Yes, only pictured. It was never built.

It reminded me that a few months ago I had found, on Archive.org, the original booklet advertising the potential for such a hotel in Kingston, so that’s what I’ll be sharing with you today! (Research on the internet is shamefully easy…)

You might think that this hotel looks rather large and unwieldy for Kingston, which is probably true. But in the early twentieth century, when the Chateau Rideau was proposed, tourism in the Thousand Islands by prominent Canadians and Americans, as well as by simple pleasure-seekers, was quite high. For Kingston, an “if you build it they will come” approach may have seemed like a good way to capitalize on the traffic coming through the area.

The circa 1908 booklet chides,

Modern lines of lake and river steamers annually bring thousands of travelers to Canadian and New York points near the Islands. But not to Kingston. Neither do the thousands who come to the Islands by rail make Kingston their vantage point. Why? Everyone in Kingston knows why. Because Kingston cannot entertain them as they want to be entertained. Because Kingston does not provide the comforts and conveniences they ask.

Essentially, the Kingston Hotel Company, who organized the proposition, were looking to make the Chateau Rideau a high-class establishment. They suggest that instead of stopping in Kingston, the preferred clientele goes to Alexandria Bay or “little Gananoque,” because those towns have the appropriate accommodation for wealthy guests, providing them with “the physical comforts to which they are accustomed.”

The hotel was going to be built in Macdonald Park. You might realize that this brings about a certain obstacle – a round obstacle, with a pointy roof.

Turn-of-the-century tourism photo.

Turn-of-the-century tourism photo.

Yes, Murney Tower would have to be torn down to build the Chateau Rideau. Apparently there was some debate about this. Osborne cites a letter to the Daily British Whig which states, “Give a Martello tower to be replaced by a $500,000 hotel! Yes, by all means. We have lots of old military landmarks left, in fact, too many for our own good.” The next day, another writer disagreed, calling Murney Tower “the most distinctive historical landmark of our historic city”; to demolish it would be “an unthinkable proposition.” In any case, Macdonald Park belonged to the Canadian government and it was supposed to remain as a park.

But did the Kingston Hotel Company have a point? Was Kingston lagging behind not just the Thousand Islands, but also places like Montréal, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and “even little Regina” in terms of hotel accommodation? In addition to many smaller hotels, some of Kingston’s larger and more established hotels in 1908 were:

  • Albion Hotel, 46 Montreal
  • Anglo-American Hotel, 172 Ontario
  • Bowen House, 419-425 King St. E
  • British American Hotel, corner of King and Clarence.
  • Grand Union Hotel (including this because it has the same address as the Anglo-American?)
  • Hotel Frontenac, 178-182 Ontario
  • Hotel Randolph, 133-137 Princess
  • Iroquois Hotel, 200-204 Ontario
  • Windsor Hotel, 203-205 Princess

Of these, Bowen House, Grand Union Hotel, and Hotel Frontenac were listed as “vacant.” Several of these buildings are still standing as part of city blocks, by the way, which gives you a sense of their relative size. So, no – Kingston didn’t really have a big fancy hotel to call its own.

Gananoque did to an extent, however, in the Gananoque Inn. This hotel is probably what the booklet refers to when it states that guests to the Thousand Islands choose to stay in Gananoque instead of Kingston.

The Gananoque Inn in 1902, giving an idea of its original size. (click photo to go to source)

The Gananoque Inn in 1902, giving an idea of its overall size. (click photo to go to source)

As mentioned, the Thousand Islands region was a popular tourist destination through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was more developed on the American side, with wealthy families like the Boldts of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Pullmans of railroad car fame, and the Bournes of the Singer Sewing Machine Company building impressive homes on private islands. Development was slower in Canada due to the islands belonging to the Crown and taking more time to sell; therefore the tourist industry emerged more as small cottage settlements and hotels. However, it still brought revenue and a certain amount of fame to the area, which Kingston may have felt it deserved, and was missing out on.

I think the Kingston Hotel Company were trying to do Gananoque one better. After all, the Chateau Rideau was intended not just for tourists, but to entertain royalty:

In the north wing is the state suite, or regal suite, where the Governor-General or the Prince of Wales, or any other dignitary or person of note may be entertained. This suite may be rented by persons of wealth desiring to live in state with their retinue, or for large house parties.

Here’s another comparison – the dining room of the Gananoque Inn versus the planned dining room of the Chateau Rideau:

(click photo to go to source)

(click photo to go to source)

No tables and chairs?

No tables and chairs?

As it turned out, by 1914 – about six years after the project had been proposed – there was still no hotel. The idea had apparently just fizzled out. Sadly, I can’t imagine that this behemoth of a hotel, had it been built, would have remained in the same condition today. Although it may possibly have attracted more people to Kingston at the time, most of us know that Thousand Islands tourism is not what it once was.

The Gananoque Inn is still around, but it is smaller and has been lucky to have had sustained interest by a series of owners. I think the Chateau Rideau would have been an awkward fit in Kingston, and it’s probably for the best that it wasn’t built!

 

Sources

I’ve linked to my main sources in the opening paragraphs of the post. I also used:

Photographs from the McCord Museum

Kingston City Directory, 1908-09

“History” page on the Gananoque Inn website

The photo of Murney Tower is from this tourism booklet (or one similar to it)

Adrian Ten Cate, ed. Pictorial History of the Thousand Islands. Brockville, ON: Besancourt Publishers, 1982.

 

 

 

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