The Russell House Hotel
The Russell House Hotel was Ottawa’s premier hotel for over 60 years. Located at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets, it often served as the social and political centre of the Nation’s Capital, offering entertainment and a place to stay for politicians and luminaries alike. Standing at 5-storeys and stretching a full city-block, the hotel was an impressive sight for the young city.
Canada’s Capital Hotel
The first hotel to occupy the corner of Elgin and Sparks was built in 1845. It was called the Campbell House, named after its owner John Campbell. After Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, hotels in the city were in high demand as civil servants and politicians flocked from Quebec City to the new capital and needed a place to stay. In 1863, James Gouin, seeing the potential of the burgeoning capital, purchased and renovated the hotel. He renamed it the Russell House Hotel after a hotel he owned in Quebec City. As the city grew, so did the occupancy at the hotel. In 1880, to make way for more clientele, the original building was demolished and a new 5-storey French Second Empire style building was constructed on the site. The hotel became the most popular place to stay in the Nation's Capital during the last 2 decades of the 19th century. The proprietor during this time, François Xavier St. Jacques, was a renowned figure and known throughout the country. He would often greet his guests and see to their every need.
The hotel had all the amenities common to luxury hotels at the time. At its height, it contained over 250 rooms all heated by steam. It also featured a rotunda, bar, café, dining room, drawing room, grill room and its own theatre connected to the back of the hotel. The ground floor street front contained many shops including a shoe shine, men’s wear, tobacco shop, hat shop, drug shop and candy shop.
As the primary hotel in the Nation’s Capital, the hotel often catered to politicians who would discuss issues of the day while enjoying a meal in the dining room or a drink at the bar. Many members of Parliament chose the hotel as their home while in Ottawa including 3 Prime Ministers: Sir John A. MacDonald, Sir Mackenzie Bowell and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The hotel also accommodated many celebrities at the time including American boxer John L. Sullivan, actresses Lily Langtry and Lillian Russell, and poet Oscar Wilde. The hotel would even host a number of dinner celebrations for the Ottawa Hockey Club. At one such dinner, on March 18, 1892, Lord Stanley announced he would provide a yearly challenge cup to the champion Canadian hockey team, which became the Stanley Cup.
As the proverb states “all good things must come to an end” and the Russell House Hotel was no exception. The year 1912 saw the opening of the Chateau Laurier and it eventually usurped the Russell as the premier hotel in Ottawa. The years also took its toll on the aging hotel and towards the end it was rat and cockroach infested. On October 1, 1925, the last guest checked out at 1:30pm and the hotel was closed for good. The building layed vacant for 3 years as the government was in the process of expropriating the property for an eventual park. On 14 April 1928, the building succumbed to a massive fire that required nearly all of Ottawa’s fire fighters at the time. Thousands came out on that cold night to cheer on the blaze as they knew the demolition of the building was already close at hand. Some of the spectators took advantage of the blaze and looted the shops on the ground level. The fire lit up the city sky and it was reported that the glow of the flames could be seen as far away as L'Orignal, Ontario, about 85 km. The cause of the fire has never been determined. It was initially considered suspicious as first responders found multiple fires on different floors. It was later determined that the fire probably spread through the floors and walls before the firemen arrived. The federal government eventually expropriated the property and by November 1928, the ruins were gone and the Russell House Hotel became just another story of Ottawa's history. The site eventually became part of Confederation Square and the National War Memorial, completed in 1939 as a national monument to the country’s fallen soldiers.
1. The Russell House Hotel | Today in Ottawa's History, https://todayinottawashistory.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/the-russell-house-hotel/
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5. St. Jacques, F.X. (1898). For tourists and sportsmen : The Russell, Ottawa, Hotel Victoria, Aylmer, Que. Retrieved from Internet Archive website: https://archive.org/details/fortouristssport00slsnuoft
6. Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey to Flames (April 16, 1928). The Evening Journal, pp. 13. Retrieved November 9, 2020 - via https://www.newspapers.com/image/46238840/
7. Petty Looting Is Done During Fire In Russell Block (April 16, 1928). The Ottawa Journal, pp. 13. Retrieved November 9, 2020 – via https://www.newspapers.com/image/46239025
8. The Old Russell House: Some Memories (November 13, 1928). The Ottawa Journal, pp. 6. Retrieved November 9, 2020 – via https://www.newspapers.com/image/46123939/