From what we’ve seen online and in the news over the last few weeks, it is clear that the loss of the Welland House Hotel has hit the St. Catharines community hard. It is no different here at the St. Catharines Museum. Within all the varied work of a museum, history of the Welland House would inevitably come up at least once a week among staff, volunteers, researchers, and visitors in some way. We’ve all made a connection to the building and its history. It’s tangible loss is stark.
In an attempt to remember the Welland House, Visitor Services Coordinator Adrian Petry and Public Programmer Sara Nixon worked together to put their feelings to the page.
Where’s the Pig?
The last time we were at the Welland House together, we were filming our final episode of Where’s the Pig? The COVID-19 pandemic had forced us to take this fun, adventure program virtual, and though we were having fun, we were excited to be finished another technically-challenging video series.
Where’s the Pig? was developed a few years ago, as an in-person, downtown ‘adventure’ program. Designed for students in grades 7 and 8, it uses historical resources to help students discover heritage structures and more of the deep layers of the history of downtown. A 1945 photograph of an escaped pig on Ontario Street, near the Welland House Hotel was inspiration. Students received clues from the silly and naughty pig, which led the chase around downtown. Eventually, the students would find their way to the Welland House, where the pig had decided to stay for the night.
The video series maintained the plot, but instead we had Sara take on the chase. Most of the shots were in front of familiar buildings downtown but when it came time to filming in front of the Welland House, we ran into a big – or should I say tall – problem. Once the tallest building in St. Catharines, the Welland House was still quite tall and Sara, well, is not tall at all. Trying to get them into the same frame was very difficult. We ended up filming quite a ways away, so that Sara could be in the frame with the famous building.
The now-famous 1945 photograph of the escaped (and silly / naughty) pig is so great because it reveals so much about the importance of streetscape. Imagine what else the Welland House must have stood witness to, throughout its long life.
With construction beginning in 1853, the Welland House Hotel first opened in 1856 as a two-storey inn to accommodate the overflow of patrons partaking in the mineral baths of the nearby Stephenson House. By 1865, the hotel had drilled its own well (about 400 feet deep!) to access the natural spring water below and quickly built up its own reputation as a summertime resort and spa. By the 1890s, the additional stories on the original structure were added, a new well dug, and a new two-storey bathhouse also erected as the Welland House Hotel became an all-season resort and spa.
High in sodium, calcium, magnesium, and iodine, the mineral waters found in St. Catharines were said to have “special healing powers” believed to help in the treatment of rheumatism, gout, sciatica, skin ailments, among others. According to an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica on the Welland House, “those with jaded nerves and tired bodies find the waters of [its] saline springs invigorating and refreshing.” The water was said to be brown in colour and taste particularly awful, but still notable patrons from across Canada, the United States, and even Europe flocked to the town’s spa resorts to “take in the waters.”
Beyond its own mineral baths, as a “Health Resort”, the Welland House employed special chefs and medical practitioners to tend to convalescents and offer medical services such as a electrical and massage treatments and X-ray exams. The hotel also touted a fine dining restaurant, long verandas, comfortable sitting rooms, a rooftop promenade, a lawn bowling green, and many other leisurely amenities to accommodate its high-class guests. Prominent visitors to the the Welland House include Confederate President Jefferson Davis; Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett; and English Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
A later accounted published in The Star painted the following scene of the Welland House on a typical day in the later 1800s:
That the mineral waters of St. Catharines were a popular destination for the wealthy gentry of the US South is particularly interesting given that many Freedom Seekers, black refugees escaping slavery from the southern states, found paid employment in the spa resorts, including the Welland House Hotel, as servers, cooks, cleaners, and drivers. In fact, it is said that a number of Freedom Seekers were also hired as labourers in constructing the Welland House building. For many Freedom Seekers to St. Catharines, the Welland House provided their first paid wages as free persons.
Thanks to the allure of the Welland House, along with the Stephenson House and Springbank Hotel, tourism flourished in St. Catharines throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. However, as with many seemingly miraculous health trends, eventually the use of mineral baths fell out of fashion. While, this forced the Stephenson House and Springbank to close, the Welland House, under the ownership and management of Captain Alexander Malcolmson and his brother John, was able to reinvent itself to better serve the evolving needs of St. Catharines. By the turn of the century, its banquet hall and other facilities had also become popular meeting places for a number of local service clubs, including the first Girl Guides troop in North America, who’s founder, Mary Malcolmson, was married to Alexander. Even CKTB radio made its first broadcast from the Welland House in 1930.
While the Welland House continued to promote itself as a Health Resort, in 1910, its annex, once occupying the new baths, became the site of the Wellandra, a private maternity hospital. During the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918/1919, the Wellandra was converted into a quarantine hospital in order to provide more room for serious flu cases. The maternity hospital operated at the hotel until 1926.
In 1930, the Welland House once again remodelled itself to keep up with the progressing community. This included the purchasing of a wide-array of furniture, including chandeliers, rugs, and a canopied fireplace from Casa Loma in Toronto, the home of Sir Henry Pellatt. According to an advertisement announcement published in The St. Catharines Standard, new features included an improved dining room, with a special chicken dinner served every Sunday, and a ballroom for “good music” and “weekly supper dances.” The Cypress dining room continued to service high quality cuisine, and the ballroom memorable music and dance, well into the mid-twentieth century. The Welland House continued to offer its mineral waters until 1941.
After the death of both Malcolmson brothers, the hotel was owned and managed successively by the following individuals: Mr. L.B. Spencer K.C., Messrs. Leslie Burt and Robert Sanson, Mr. Clarence W. Kohl and then Mr. Leonard V. Smith. By 1994, the building was again purchased and renovated, but this time to serve as a downtown student residence for Brock University. The university’s student radio station, CFBU 103.7FM broadcasted from the building until 2018.
As we’ve seen through social media and news coverage over the last little while, this is not a complete history of the Welland House. The reactions and stories we’re seeing online tell us that the Welland House means so much more than what we have in the written record. We hope to capture this meaning.
The Giant in the Background
Beyond its own stamp on our history, the Welland House Hotel stood witness to so much of life in downtown St. Catharines for 165 years. Standing at five stories tall since the turn of the twentieth century, and taking up significant real estate at the corner of King St. and Ontario St., the Welland House was an infallible backdrop to daily life and the goings on of the people of St. Catharines.
Aside from the escaped pig in 1945, another such instance of the Welland House Hotel popping up in the background of a significant downtown event is the laying of the cornerstone of City Hall in 1936. As you can see from this photograph from the event, the Mayor, Members of Council, and the public were all assembled at the grounds of the new City Hall to mark the occasion. Other local buildings appear, too: the old police station, and the market’s weigh station are visible in the background.
It takes a keen eye, since it’s a few blocks away, but the great big letters spelling out ‘Welland House’ that are visible on the skyline. The famous hotel has nothing to do with the laying of the cornerstone, yet here it is, present for another historical moment.
– Sara & Adrian
Saying Goodbye; Significance Realized
When I saw the smoke rising from downtown early Monday morning, a number of thoughts flashed through my mind. “I hope it’s not this building, or that building,” until I landed on: “oh no, it must be the Welland House.”
I jumped in the car as the fastest option and drove towards the fire (but not near – I kept a few blocks away) to get confirmation of my suspicions. At first, I thought, maybe they can save it, but within minutes and from another angle, it was clear it was not going to be saved.
It was a hard goodbye. It was one of those goodbyes that you don’t get to choose when or how to make – it just happens.
We often hear stories of other historic buildings lost to fire or demolition and it’s sad, but because our connection to it is so distant, it doesn’t quite land emotionally. The fire at the Welland House Hotel is just another lost heritage building to some, but it has taught many in the community that the tangible connections to the past are fragile and temporary. We don’t need the buildings to study history or understand the past – that understanding comes from stories. However, heritage structures like the Welland House help to ground us in a sense of place that is otherwise often difficult to find.
Saying goodbye quickly transitioned to celebrating its remarkable history. As that’s all we’ve been left with, it was all we could talk about. It was wonderful to hear the historical and very personal connections to the building, and watch the community come to the realization that the Welland House was more than just an old building. It was at the centre the community for over 150 years.
It was wonderful to share that history with our community, even if under such tragic circumstances.
Listen to Adrian on The Weekend Edition on 610 CKTB.
Call for Stories – STC StoryLab
Through continued storytelling and sharing, we can ensure that the Welland House Hotel endures in our collective conscience. The St. Catharines Museum hopes to capture the living memory of the Welland House through STC StoryLab, our oral history collection project. If you have a story or memory of the Welland House Hotel that you’d like us to preserve, please connect with us.
Adrian Petry is Visitor Services Coordinator and Sara Nixon is Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.