Columbia Hotel – Columbia Street

Columbia Hotel

In 1911 Holloway and Co built a $60,000 ‘6 storey brick building’ on the corner of Columbia Avenue and Cordova Street. Fortunately we know which corner, and that this was the Columbia Hotel, designed by Honeyman and Curtis for Boyd & McWhinnie.

Like many other buildings, there are some strangely inaccurate statements attached to the building’s history. We’re dating the building to 1911 from the Building Permit and the plans (available in the Vancouver Archives). For some reason the hotel itself thinks it’s older – here’s the quote from their website “Built in 1908 hotel specifically served hardy lumberjacks, miners and fishermen“. It is suggested that our photograph from the City Archives was taken around 1904 (which we think is too early). The Heritage Designation curiously attributes construction to between 1925 and 1950 – at least we know that’s not true – it’s clearly already standing on the 1912 Insurance Map. There is a smaller 3-storey part of the building to the south of the lot, and the street Directories suggest that dates back to before 1894 when it was the Columbia House owned by Joseph Dixon, then in 1896 McWhinnie and Murray (and a few years later Thomas McWhinnie owned it on his own). So while an earlier date is correct, it is not for the larger structure standing today.

Thomas McWhinnie was shown as being aged 42 in the 1901 Census, a Scottish-born hotel-keeper who was head of a household of 16 boarders. Ten years earlier he had been in New Westminster, a carpenter and at that time was married to Jennie, born in England. Actually, according to their 1890 wedding record she was called Hannah Jane, and she died just three years later. Later Thomas had another marriage to Etta and five children.

In 1905 E J Hunt, writing from the Columbia Hotel, claimed improved sleep from using Dr A McLaughlin’s Electric Belt which “Cures Varicoeoe, Rheumatism , Kidney Troubles, Lame Back, Sciatica, Stomach Troubles , Nervous Debility, Lost Vitality and every indication that you are breaking down physically”. Curiously, a few months later E J Hurst, also writing from the Columbia Hotel, praised the efficacy of the doctor’s belt which was said to invigorate ‘Weak, Run-Down Worn-Out Men’. Perhaps everybody who lived at the Columbia (and used Dr McLaughlin’s belt) had the initials EJ.

Although Boyd and McWhinnie developed the new building in 1911, McWhinnie is only shown as running the hotel until 1903. In 1904 and 05 James Guthrie was proprietor, in the next two years Conlin and Spearin, and  the hotel proprietors from 1908 to 1913 were listed as J M Conlin and Wm G Thompson. This seems to confirm our suspicion that ‘hotel proprietor’ in the Directories refers to the person running the hotel, but not necessarily the owner of the building.

Thomas disappears from Vancouver Directories from 1904 to 1906, but reappears in 1907 living on West 4th Avenue, listed as ‘farmer’. Apparently he retained the hotel but also acquired a Penticton fruit ranch, and was still living at the 4th Avenue address when he died in 1922.

On the basis of a former logger’s story (recorded in 1945) it seems the Columbia was in part used as a seasonal hotel for resource workers, as many hotels at that time were. “Sometime in November, people from the logging camps came in and stayed for the winter. That’s what I used to do: come in November and stay all winter in the Columbia Hotel. In the spring you went back to logging. Most of the entertainment was in the beer parlour, or a wild woman once in a while.”

These days the Columbia (which for a while became the New Columbia) is partly a tourist hotel / hostel, and partly a single room occupancy hotel. This leads to some interesting comments on tourist review websites, given the hotel’s location and the Whiskey Dix bar downstairs – visitors expecting a quiet evening might check the clubzone listing “A million dollar renovation has turned the bar at the historic Columbia Hotel into what is sure to be the new hot spot for Vancouver party goers. Get ready for the Whiskey Bar experience!”

Photo source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA 359-3

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