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Hotel History

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada is more than simply a grand luxury hotel.  Since 1890, it has played a considerable role in the colourful history of Canada's mountain West.  Here are just a few chapters in that continuing story. 

In the summer of 1882, young Thomas Wilson was employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway, packing supplies and equipment for construction crews for Kicking Horse Pass.  One night, while camped with a group of Stoney Indians, he heard the rumble of avalanches.  Using his limited vocabulary of native words and some sign language, Wilson learned that the noise was coming from ''snow mountains above the lake of little fishes.''  The next day, two Stoney guides took Wilson to the lake on horseback.  The first white man to see what he originally named Emerald Lake was captivated by the ''blue and green water'' of this gem beneath the glacier.  He sat and gazed, sharing a smoke with his companions. ''As God is my judge, I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene.''

(This Emerald Lake was later renamed Lake Louise in honor of Queen Victoria's fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta.  Wilson also named nearby Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.  And that's Tom Wilson in the photo at left, above.)

''A hotel for outdoor adventurer and alpinist,'' was the vision Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, had in mind for the one-story log cabin constructed on the shore of Lake Louise in 1890.   It contained a central area that served as dining room, office, bar and gathering place, a kitchen and two small bedrooms, fronted by large windows facing the lake and a verandah.  The original Chalet Lake Louise hosted visitors from different dining stations along the railway line as well as day visitors from its elegant sister, the Banff Springs Hotel.  While only 50 guests registered at the chalet in 1890, by 1912, 50,000 guests had already slept here.

(Through two early fires and four architects, this small, summer cabin would evolve to become today's Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a building which dates back as far as 1911.)

Lake Louise is renowned as the birthplace of Canadian mountaineering.  In August 1896, during a small but much publicized expedition to Mount Lefroy, Phillip Abbot fell to his death just feet from the summit, becoming the first man known to have been killed in Canadian mountaineering.  His tragic death sent a shockwave through North America's climbing community.  It also influenced Canadian Pacific to hire their first two professional Swiss mountain guides to lead guests safely to the summits of their dreams. 

Between 1899 and 1954, generations of these Swiss mountaineers taught thousands of visitors and locals to climb and, later, to ski.  Canadian Pacific Swiss guides were responsible for over 250 first ascents in these mountains, most of them in the company of hotel guests.  From fondues to hikes, the Swiss influence on architecture, cuisine and our guided program of Mountain Heritage Adventures can still be felt at the Chateau today.

Right from the start, holidays in Lake Louise have meant mountain climbing, horseback riding and gazing at stars - both natural and human.  A top location within western Canada's continuing reputation as ''Hollywood North,'' early movies shot in Lake Louise include 1928 ''Eternal Love'' starring John Barrymore, 1942 ''Springtime in the Rockies'' with Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda and 1944 ''Son of Lassie.''  Literally hundreds of stars have come here for filming or vacationing, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Christopher Reeve, Angie Dickinson and many of the latest celebs - whose privacy we like to protect. 

As early as 1912, when the British Prince of Wales (King Edward VIII, who abdicated) included a hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse as a part of his ''morning exercise'' the Chateau has also welcomed dozens of royals including Prince Rainier of Monaco, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, Queen Margrethe of Denmark, King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan.  You never know who you might see on a stroll around the lake...


''I first came to the Chateau Lake Louise in 1926 with my parents...The interior was spacious and charming with the great plate glass windows in the lounge which opened onto that marvelous vista of lake and mountains.  It was a friendly place too.

The lake and valley were still in deep shadow, but the surrounding peaks, all I had climbed, were bathed in golden, rosy light.  I was seized by an indescribable ecstasy, filled with the joy of conquest.  They were all mine - my beautiful, private world of mountains.  Yet at the same time, I felt how infinitesimal I was.  It was an unforgettable experience.''

From a letter by Georgia Engelhard Cromwell, niece of famed photographer Arthur Stieglitz and artist Georgia O'Keefe.  A widely published photographer and accomplished mountaineer, in 1931 Engelhard ascended Mount Victoria at the back of Lake Louise seven times in nine days, while starring in the film ''She Climbs to Conquer.''
(That's Engelhard on the right in the center photo, above.)

In April 1943, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten dropped a chunk of special Lake Louise ice called ''Pykrete'' in British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's bathtub at sister hotel the Chateau Frontenac, during the historic Quebec Conference.  Much to the chagrin of Churchill, who was in the bath!

Due to gas rationing and patriotism, Chateau Lake Louise was closed to the public during WWII, but scientists from the Universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba used the lake and some surrounding facilities to develop the ''Pykrete,'  a difficult to break and slow to melt mixture of wood pulp and ice that was part of plans for a potential Allied invasion through Northern Europe.  ''Project Habbakuk'' involved the creation of floating ice platforms for equipment transport.  What ''Maclean's'' magazine termed ''the weirdest secret weapon of the war,'' was seriously considered by Churchill and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but abandoned in favor of other, faster techniques.

Swiss and Austrian mountain guides introduced Banff and Lake Louise youth to skiing as early as 1909.  The Banff Ski Club was founded in 1917.  And by the early 1920s adventurous Albertans and their guests were carving the logging trails and flying over jumps at Tunnel Mountain.  Full-scale ski areas at Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise were all in operation by the 1930s. 

Although they were conceived as summer-only resorts, the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise opened for skiers on a trial basis during the peak winter holiday seasons of the 1970s, breathing new life into both luxury hotels.  A decade later the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics would showcase Banff National Park's ski resorts to the world.  Today, this hotel is one of the highlights of the international ski circuit, hosting the Lake Louise World Cup racers each November, and welcoming eager skiers, snowboarders and winter sport enthusiasts from as close as Calgary and the United States and as far away as Great Britain, Australia and Japan.

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