The Hume Hotel looked much different than it does now when it opened in 1898. A renovation in 1929 robbed it of its turrets and balconies. Photo: Submitted

The Hume Hotel looked much different than it does now when it opened in 1898. A renovation in 1929 robbed it of its turrets and balconies. Photo: Submitted

New book recounts stories of Nelson’s greatest hotels

Nelson’s grandest and greatest hotels were built within a few years during the 1890s mining boom

by Greg Nesteroff

They were Nelson’s grandest and greatest hotels, built within a few years of each other on the strength of the 1890s mining boom. But while one still operates today and is as vital as ever, the other was destroyed in the city’s deadliest disaster.

The contrasting fates of the Hume and Strathcona hotels are featured in a new book from Heritage House, Room at the Inn: Historic Hotels of British Columbia’s Southern Interior, along with eight other West Kootenay hostelries including ones in Kaslo, Procter, Sandon, and New Denver.

It’s the final book from the late BC historian Glen Mofford, who nearly completed the manuscript before his sudden death last year. Mofford originally hoped to profile 100 hotels before paring it down to a more manageable 40. While that made for some difficult choices, it wasn’t tough in Nelson’s case. Although the city had other significant hotels — the Tremont, Savoy, and Grand Central among them — the Hume and Strathcona were clearly at the head of the class.

The Hume’s story is better known. Constructed in 1898 for J. Fred and Lydia Hume, it was arguably the most well-appointed hotel in the West Kootenay at the time. The Humes owned the hotel for less than a decade before selling it to George Wells, who in turn sold to George Benwell in 1912.

The Benwell family ran the hotel for the next 34 years. Under their watch, the Hume maintained its position as the city’s leading hostelry but its original Queen Anne appearance was drastically altered in 1929 in the name of modernization. Gone were the turret, cupola, and balconies in favor of a boxy appearance much closer to the way the hotel looks today.

The contrasting fates of the Hume and Strathcona hotels are featured in a new book from Heritage House, Room at the Inn: Historic Hotels of British Columbia’s Southern Interior, along with eight other West Kootenay hostelries including ones in Kaslo, Procter, Sandon, and New Denver. Photo: Submitted

The contrasting fates of the Hume and Strathcona hotels are featured in a new book from Heritage House, Room at the Inn: Historic Hotels of British Columbia’s Southern Interior, along with eight other West Kootenay hostelries including ones in Kaslo, Procter, Sandon, and New Denver. Photo: Submitted

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the start of the Hume’s decline, by the late 1970s things had become dire and the hotel closed for the first time. Thankfully, Dave and Sheila Martin came to the rescue and began a restoration program. When the hotel reopened in 1980, it was under a different name, the Heritage Inn — partly to distance it from the dodgy reputation it had acquired under previous owners. The original name was restored in 2005 as another major reno kicked off.

The hotel remains in the Martin family, who have owned it nearly five times longer than the Humes themselves and even longer than the Benwells. It’s marking its 125th anniversary this year.

Bob Hope, who was a guest in 1991, quipped: “It’s nice to stay in a hotel older than you are.”

The Strathcona, meanwhile, began life in 1891 at the southwest corner of Victoria and Stanley streets as the Phair Hotel, named for its first manager, Edwin E. (Pops) Phair. It was renamed in 1903 upon Phair’s departure to manage a hotel in Spokane.

Mofford’s book delves into a period of the hotel’s history not previously described in any local history.

Armen and Mary Papazian were Armenian emigres who came to Nelson around 1911. Armen was a watchmaker, jeweler, and optometrist who once worked for Tiffany’s in New York while Mary was an outstanding seamstress and dressmaker. Each had their own shop in Nelson and they also owned a building at 356-58 Baker then home to a cafe and theatre (now Buddy’s Place and Gaia Rising).

The Strathcona Hotel stood at the corner of Victoria and Stanley streets, where the library and police station are now. Photo: Submitted

The Strathcona Hotel stood at the corner of Victoria and Stanley streets, where the library and police station are now. Photo: Submitted

The Papazians submitted a bid in 1924 for the Strathcona which was accepted. Mary became the manager and somehow continued to run her dressmaking business. A few years later, hearing of Armenian refugees fleeing to Greece, the couple adopted two orphaned siblings, Levon and Satinik. The family lived in the hotel.

The Papazians relinquished management of the Strathcona in 1937 but still owned the building when a fire broke out in the attic the following year. All 60 occupants got out safely but the top floor was destroyed. That convinced the Papazians to sell but worse was to come.

By 1955, the hotel was long past its glory days and more of a rooming house, mostly home to seniors, although some young people and families lived there too.

Early on May 27 of that year, a fire began out on the ground floor and quickly spread to the entire building. Stories of tragedy and heroism from that night would be retold for generations to come.

The fire department, outmatched by an intense inferno, rescued 41 people, many plucked from windows by a ladder truck. However six others, ranging in age from 10 to 89, died.

The hotel was reduced to rubble. The site later became home to the new RCMP divisional headquarters and later the city police department and library.