The great want of the city is good hotel accommodation. The pubic houses are all small, the tables rather poor, and are all so much alike that it will be of little use to mention the names of any. Frank Clark – Our Vacations. Where to go, how to go, and how to enjoy them Boston 1874
For most of Charlottetown’s history its waterfront was the welcome mat to Prince Edward Island. The major wharves served the sailing ships and later the steamers that brought visitors – at first only those with business here, and then casual visitors and tourists – who were arriving for business or pleasure to the city and the colony. Water, Queen and Great George Streets were the first business district for the city and it is not surprising that many of the early hotels were located only a short walk from the wharves.
The hotel business, then as now, is a precarious one owing to the seasonal trade. Prior to reliable winter steamers, the port was essentially closed for four months each year and even internal travel within the Island reduced business to only a few hotel guests. In such an environment the hotel trade was a difficult one. Early hotels were often simply taverns or private homes with a few rooms on offer and early visitors spoke often about the difficulties of finding a suitable place to stay.
By the 1870s this was becoming a point of concern for those interested in the development of the city. Even before then there had been many editorials and letters in newspapers bemoaning the lack of proper accommodation. The views of early visitors, especially American journalists, mirrored (or perhaps gave rise to) the public airing of the matter.
… the accommodations [are] in no respect first class. One good hotel, in Boston style, would be worth the whole score or more of little martin boxes which are scattered throughout the city Boston Globe 1872
The erection of a good hotel in Charlottetown is absolutely necessary. It is the great centre for travel, and such an establishment must soon make its appearance, not to be superintended by a down-east pork and beans vender, but by a purveyor whose experience in large cities will enable him to appreciate the situation. New York Herald 1873
In the 1878 Panoramic View of Charlottetown several hotels are noted almost all of them were either at the head of the city’s wharves or on Water Street, near the steamer wharf. Rankin House was at the Head of the Pownal Wharf, the Revere House was on the Steam Navigation Wharf at the foot of Great George Street, Nearby were the Osborne, and the St. Lawrence. The only listed hotel not adjacent to the waterfront was the Rocklan House on Kent Street – far from the action.
The Revere House had been opened in 1871 on land owned by the Steam Navigation Company and in 1875 was offering the land and building for sale in hopes of having a large new hotel build at the corner of Great George and Water Streets. A new building does not appear to have been erected but by 1879 an addition to the east of the original building brought the accommodations up to 40 rooms along with dining hall, parlors, sitting rooms, sample rooms and baggage rooms — “all the accommodations necessary for a first class hotel.” However increased size did not result in year-round business and the hotel was soon advertising for a few permanent boarders over the winter season. The hotel accommodated passengers from various ships and was quite successful, which makes it surprising when we learn that in 1886 the hotel closed and the building was sold to the Charlottetown Hospital. They planned to enlarge the building and convert it for use as a hospital. It is not clear why the plan did not come to fruition but in 1890, the building was advertised for sale. Prominent architect, William Critchlow Harris purchased the Revere House and had it moved to its present location on Brighton Road where it was converted into two large double tenements still standing on Brighton Road between Ambrose Street and Greenfield Avenue.
The Rankin House stood at the head of Pownal wharf at the South East corner of Pownal and Water Streets . It was larger than the Revere with fifty rooms to the forty of Revere House. In 1878 it was managed by John J. Davies who would later take over the St. Lawrence Hotel. Rankin House operated into the twentieth century but it had ceased to be identified as one of the city’s better hotels and was operating as little more than a boarding house. The building was torn down 1908.
Just to the east of Great George on Water Street stood the St. Lawrence Hotel, opened in 1869. There were changes of ownership and refurbishments of the hotel in 1881 and again in 1883. It was offered for sale 1887 and was taken over by John J. Davies, the son of the former proprietor of the Rankin. It reopened as the Hotel Davies the same year. The hotel was a busy spot and its dining room, was the site of many meetings and receptions. Sometime before 1900 a large addition was built to the west of the original building featuring a five-story turret which soon became a city landmark. The hotel closed suddenly in December of 1903, apparently a victim of prohibition as the owners claimed it was impossible to run the hotel at a profit without liquor sales.
The closure of the hotel triggered a rash of proposals for the erection of a new and modern hotel but in spite of support from the Board of Trade and the City funds could not be found. In April 1904 the hotel was purchased by J.G. Sterns proprietor of Sterns Livery Stable and the name changed to the Hotel Victoria. The hotel continued to operate until 1929 when it was destroyed by fire. For more information and photos of the Victoria and the Davies hotels click here.
The Osborne House was also located near the intersection of Great George and Water Streets and had been opened sometime prior to 1858. In 1877 a three story addition with seven or eight new bedrooms had been made to the building and James Davies (whose family was later to be involved with the Rankin and St. Lawrence hotels) was able to welcome “an additional number of transient and permanent boarders.” After James’ death in 1879 the hotel, now with seventeen bedrooms, was offered for sale but owing to low offers was retained by Davies heirs. By 1880 the hotel, now owned by Cyrus V. McGregor, had 25 rooms. In 1882 a further addition to the building and the addition of a third story made it one of the largest hotels in the province. Sold again in 1890 the new owner, P.P. Archibald, had the hotel completely refurnished, re-painted and refurbished and announced that the hotel would operate on temperance principles with no liquor served. He also changed the name of the establishment to become the Queen Hotel.
Like bookends to Great George Street the Queen and the Victoria were the city’s biggest and best hotels and in 1919 came under the same ownership. With the loss of the Victoria by fire in 1929 Charlottetown found itself without adequate visitor accommodation until the opening of Canadian National’s Charlottetown Hotel in 1931, but the new structure had followed the business district away from Water Street. The Queen Hotel did not age well and when it burned in 1965 it was a mere shadow if its former self. The lasting legacy of the Queen Hotel is perhaps as the subject of one of Charlottetown’s oldest (and worst) jokes – How is the Queen Hotel like a pair of tight trousers? – No ball room.
A trip of the hat to Ian Scott, author of the Vintage Charlottetown Facebook page, who suggested that the hotels of Charlottetown might make an interesting posting.