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Great Hotels

Demise of the Great Hotels spelled the end to Bellhops.

When you are thinking of this fast changing world and all the jobs that have disappeared then ‘bellhop’ has to be at the top of your list. The history of Portage la Prairie is high-lighted with many grand hotels. By 1880 Portage la Prairie could boast of 14 major hostels along Main Street, most clustered between Duke Avenue and Crescent Road.

The arsonist inspired conflagrations at the end of our boom in the early 1880’s marked a cinder filled and smoky end to most of these fine homes to the westward traveller. Among the large and well appointed hotels still gracing the core in 1900 were the Leland, the Albion, Rossin House, the Manitoba Hotel, the Woodbine, the Merchants, and the Empress. The ‘Merchants’ went through various shocks due to a failing economy but endured much as it had been with only a change of name, until devastated by the great cyclone of June 2, 1922. But that was not the end of it! The large brick hotels had in common an unfailing desire to provide hospitality and they mustered every amenity they could in this small prairie town to keep customer loyalty. Their bars were large, featured free bar snacks such as eggs and sardines and they argued for years over who had the longest bar in the west. Those stand-up bars were indeed fine affairs and were panelled in oak or walnut, heavy with leaded glass, bedecked with crystal mirrors and those altar-like bar accessories that could make a peon feel like a prince as long as you could lay a quarter on the bar for a slug of whiskey!

The hotel rooms, although small by today’s standards, were luxurious to travellers coming off long wagon or train rides from the east and were warmed by that monster boiler in the basement sending up steam to the rooms. Always highly competitive, the Portage hotels vied with each other for customer loyalty and keeping up a good name. Prostitutes were not allowed in the bar room and had to frequent the grog shops on old Main Street. Women and natives were not allowed into the bars at all.

With so many hotels the best method to have loyal customers was to keep a good chef. Seven course dinners featuring venison, roast and scallops followed by a good free cigar manufactured right here in town by the Padrone Cigar Factory on First Street were regular fare in the great old hotels. Maid service and a reading room where you could sit by a roaring birch fire and write letters home, special rooms for travelling salesmen, to use to lay out their merchandise for inspection, a Victrola and brass rolls in the parlour, and even a player piano in the bar. Nothing was too good for those road weary travellers.

After all, why stay on a smokey CPR train when you could disembark for a night or two at the Merchants Hotel and have an opportunity to enjoy the fastest growing little city west of Winnipeg. Telephones made their appearance in local hotels in the late 1890’s and with their coming a bit of glamourous hotel history began to fade. Most Portage hotels, at least those who presumed to be quality establishments and not just glorified dives, maintained an army of bell boys and floor attendants to see to the needs of the guests.

Since there was no way to communicate between the guest on the upper floors and the hotel desk clerk in the lobby, service when needed, had to be personal which usually meant the bell boys or floor attendant.

A clever system of bells attached to beautifully decorated bell pulls was maintained by all hotels and their tinkling at the front desk was a common sound in the lobby and the dining room. Those distinctive bell pulls were often the first thing a guest would look for upon entering his room. The presence of the bell cord offered the rather comforting knowledge that good service was only a cord pull away!

The best hotels in Portage had floor attendants on duty night and day on all floors. Each of the main hotels had at least three floors. These attendants would be either men or women and were prepared to meet almost any of the guests needs. Need more pillows, extra blankets, a hot bath drawn, a plug of tobacco, or a local newspaper? In that era Portage usually had two or three newspapers. Late in the evening the attendants would collect the shoes and boots set outside the doors in the hallway and work them over to a nice shine in their little private cubby-holes. Food from the downstairs kitchen was available but took more effort on the part of the attendant. Once the food order was given to the attendant he or she would use the speaking tube that was connected down to the kitchen. There the orders for the late night snacks such as Welsh Rarebit or even a bottle of whiskey and a steak echoed out over the table where the night staff sat passing the late evening at cards. When the food arrived upstairs the attendant looked it over to see that it was proper and hot. If it was cool it went back for reheating. At the Merchants Hotel the question always to be asked by the bellboy was, “Would you eat this food yourself?”


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