A remnant of St. Catharines’ salt-spring tourism, a place of employment for Freedom Seekers, a gathering place for locals and visitors alike, the Welland House Hotel stood as an infallible backdrop to life in downtown St. Catharines for 165 years.
This episode of History from Here brings you to the site of the Welland House Hotel, destroyed by a devastating fire in July 2021.
Built in 1856, the Welland House Hotel first opened 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 to access the natural spring water below and quickly built up its own reputation as a summertime resort and spa.
The mineral waters found in St. Catharines were said to have “special healing powers” believed to help in the treatment of rheumatism, sciatica, skin ailments, among others. The resort’s esteemed guests came from across the continent to rest and rejuvenate. Patrons could take in the waters in bathhouses, steam rooms, or in drink-form, enjoy fine dining, long verandas, a rooftop promenade (later a covered sun parlour), a lawn bowling green, as well as access medical services such as massage treatments and X-ray exams.
The peak of St. Catharines’ spa tourism boom coincided with the influx of Black refugees migrating to the town on the Underground Railroad. For many Freedom Seekers, the Welland House provided their first paid wages as free persons. Men and women found employment as servers, cooks, cleaners, and drivers. In fact, it is said that Freedom Seekers were also hired as labourers in constructing the Welland House building.
Though the popularity of St. Catharines’ mineral spas wanned at the turn of the twentieth century, the Welland House continued to reinvent itself to better serve the evolving needs of St. Catharines.
In 1910, a private maternity hospital, the Wellandra, also opened at the hotel site. During the Spanish Influenza pandemic, the Wellandra was converted into a quarantine hospital to provide more room for serious flu cases.
Its ballroom and restaurant, most well-known as the Cypress Dining Room, came to host countless dinner dances, banquets, and celebrations in its ballroom and dining restaurant. Its lounge and other meeting areas became the meeting place for several local service clubs, including the first Girl Guides troop in North America under founder, Mary Malcolmson, the wife of then co-owner, Alexander Malcolmson. Even CKTB Radio made its first broadcast from the Welland House in 1930.
After the hotel closed in 1993, the building served as a downtown residence for Brock University students. A radio station would once again broadcast from the Welland House, this time Brock’s student radio, CFBU 103.7 FM.
Beyond its role a central gathering place, the Welland House Hotel, with its many storeys and grand rooftop sign, also stood as a substantial landmark in downtown and held witness to so much of city life. While its recent loss leaves a tangible gap on the corner of King Street and Ontario Street, its intangible value to our community will endure.
For more on the Welland House Hotel and the impact its recent loss has had on our community, including the Museum, read Remembering the Welland House on our blog.