History

“The Switzerland of America”

How the Canadian Pacific Railway turned amenity into luxury with its now-forgotten mountain hotel dining stations

  • Sep 18, 2023
  • 717 words
  • 3 minutes
The trains’ dining cars were heavy and had to be unhooked before the steep climb through the mountain passes. The Glacier House dining station opened near the Illecillewaet Glacier in 1887. (Photo: R. Maynard/City of Vancouver Archives)
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When Canada was still very new, the Canadian Pacific Railway was showing off those very old natural wonders — and pairing them with a good meal.

At the turn of the 20th century, the dining cars of the CPR were touted for both their fine food and service. A 1901 tourist brochure stated the company, founded in 1881, “has spared no expense in providing for the wants and comfort of its patrons, as its line of Dining Cars and Mountain Hotels will at all times testify.”

Aboard the train in 1899, travelling west to Banff, Alta., you could dine well on veal cutlets and roast beef paired with Mumm champagne. But as the journey continued to Vancouver, this onboard indulgence had to be relinquished — those fancy dining cars were just too heavy to make it through the steep mountain passes. 

To solve this culinary conundrum, the CPR built three hotels with “First-Class Dining Stations” — Glacier House, Fraser Canyon House and Mount Stephen House. Designed by architect Thomas Sorby, all three hotels were similarly constructed: they had just six or seven bedrooms but boasted expansive dining rooms to welcome the trainloads of mid-journey travellers.

Tourists in search of snow-capped mountains, valleys filled with magnificent glaciers and rushing torrents needed to eat, and these dining station hotels became destinations in their own right. By elevating the experience of what was essentially a pit stop, the CPR turned rest stops into once-in-a-lifetime adventures. Swiss mountaineers were employed to guide tourists, opulent meals were served, and a 1904 book Canadian Rockies: The Switzerland of America helped reinforce this alpine imagery.

News spread fast, with articles appearing in the late 1880s in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times praising the dining experience on these train journeys. Word even travelled across the pond when a talk about these alpine retreats was given at a Royal Geographical Society meeting in London, England, in 1889.

Mount Stephen House in Field, B.C., was the first of the dining station hotels, opening in the fall of 1886, the same year the transcontinental railway’s terminus reached Vancouver. It was named for the company’s first president, George Stephen, and the chalet-like lodging sat at the base of Mount Stephen.

Glacier House opened in the summer of 1887 in Glacier National Park, and the building was expanded several times (in 1892 and 1904) to keep up with the influx of tourists who came first for a pit stop and stayed for the views and fantastic dining. Lunch on July 27, 1915, for example, was a decadent spread that included fried halibut with tomato sauce, beef steak and kidney stew with peas, roast pork loin with apple sauce, mutton tongue with beef foam, potatoes boiled or mashed, string beans, Queen pudding, cherry jelly, tea and coffee.

Fraser Canyon House opened the same summer in North Bend, B.C., and even breakfast was a formal affair. The menu on July 10, 1901, included morning staples we recognize today like fruit, porridge, coffee, toast and omelets, but also broiled salmon, tenderloin steak with mushrooms, sugar-cured ham, dipped toast and graham bread — all for 75 cents.

An almost forgotten chapter in the development of the tourism industry, these early dining hotels were the short-lived precursors to the grand railway hotels that now epitomize the rise of travel in North America. The transformation of these primitive stopping points into luxury dining destinations enticed wealthy tourists to journey to the Canadian wilderness — leisure travel had arrived in the Rockies.

By the time the roaring ’20s were on the horizon, these dining stations began to close. Mount Stephen shut its doors in 1918 and converted into a YMCA, Fraser Canyon burned to the ground in 1927, and Glacier closed in 1925 and was demolished in 1929, overshadowed by upstarts Chateau Lake Louise and Banff Springs Hotel.

These days, though the early luxury dining halls are long gone, the nostalgia lives on in the grander railway hotels that continue to draw deep-pocketed travellers. Today, Victoria’s Empress Hotel (1908) and Quebec City’s Château Frontenac (1893) embody the spirit of the railway dining halls that came before them, their opulent menus geared to a new generation of bon vivants.

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This story is from the September/October 2023 Issue

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