Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ghosts In The Chateau

This year in Ottawa, the centennial of a landmark is being marked. The Chateau Laurier is a grand hotel in the heart of the city, and it does have the look of a castle. It's set on high ground across the Rideau Canal from Parliament Hill, and named after one of our Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfred Laurier. Many have passed through its doors in the past hundred years, from the great and good to the not so good (Tory staffers, I'm looking at you). The hotel is certainly luxurious, with all the amenities you might expect. It's rightfully a landmark, and a beautifully rendered building.

There are several restaurants and boutiques inside, and the hotel is perfectly suited for weddings. Passing by in the summer, one will regularly see wedding parties on the terraces or on their way inside. And the hotel is open even if all you're after is a good cup of tea...

The Chateau Laurier was commissioned by Charles Melville Hays, President of the Grand Trunk Railway. It was the habit of railways to establish great hotels at key locations along the line, and here in Ottawa, the original train station is still across the street, still linked to the Chateau by a tunnel. These days that building is rarely open to the public, since it's used extensively as a government conference center. That's a shame, too, since what was once the main waiting room is still arguably the most stunning room in the city.

The hotel has continued to be the premier establishment in the city (my apologies to the Lord Elgin, but you know it's true). It housed the studios for the esteemed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh for years (his famous photograph of a grouchy Winston Churchill still hangs in the lounge just off the entrance).

And is often the case with such places, it's haunted. The stories include sightings of a small child, the feeling of being watched by someone who's not there, and odd sounds. The other ghost of note is Hays himself. He had been President of the Grand Trunk for awhile, working to stabilize the company's financing in the early part of the Twentieth century. Part of that meant convincing Prime Minister Laurier to build another transcontinental railroad. In 1912 he was in Europe, purchasing luxurious furniture meant for the hotel, intending to have it shipped out as cargo while he took passage with his family. His shipment of furniture and other goods was, in fact, the largest amount of cargo onboard.

Charles Melville Hays

He booked passage on the Titanic.


Hays went down with the ship, and his cargo went with it. It's still inside the wreck at the bottom of the Atlantic to this day. The opening of the hotel went on without Hays, but it didn't take long before sightings of a ghost resembling the man himself were made in the hotel. Though he died far from it, it's thought that the significance of the place and the fact that he never got to see its opening have kept him lingering about.

It's a magnificent building here in the city, ideal for a night's stay, a wedding, or a meal. And who knows? Perhaps one might come across a spectral Charles Hays, and hear him muttering about wanting to strangle that rotten coward Bruce Ismay...


  1. This is so beautiful...except for that scowl on Prime Minister Churchill's face. And even that's intriguing. It's just a shame all that beautiful merchandise and Mr. Hays ended up at the bottom of the North Atlantic....

    Great blog, always!

  2. That photograph, more then anything else, made Karsh's reputation. He was already becoming well known here when he took that photograph in the Second World War, but the photo of Churchill made his name known worldwide. Yes, he looks grouchy (Karsh took away his cigar for the photo, which is why he looks mad), but it really captures his resolve. It's an amazing picture.

  3. And Karsh wasn't the only famed photographer of the family. His brother Malak, who went by his first name professionally, spent his life here, and was renowned for his landscapes photography. The two brothers chose different subjects of the same profession, and became the very best at what they did. In fact, the old dollar bill here features their work: one of Yousuf's photos of the Queen on the one side, and a photo by Malak of Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River on the other.

  4. Kind of reminds me of another lovely place where I had tea once in Canada--The Empress Hotel in Victoria.
    Did you take those photos? They really are stunning!

  5. I believe the Empress is also one of the railway legacy hotels, Eve!

    No, I didn't, but I've taken very similar pics. The Chateau is a personal favourite subject of mine.

  6. Beautiful, Wonderful, Fabulous !

    When I visited Quebec I fell in love with the Chateau Frontenac. We didn't stay there but I remember staying at a fabulous hotel that we saw the Chateau from a window. I think ?
    You live in a beautiful country William... except when you send that jet steam down my way...

    cheers, parsnip

  7. I love the research you've done. History is not generally one of my favorite subjects, but you make it come alive. Well done!

  8. That looks like the kind of hotel I'd like to spend the night in...of course, when I'm rich...which isn't anytime soon! LOL

    I love a good ghost story...and that sounds like one. As someone who has experienced a ghost, I think it would be fun.

    Great blog, William!

  9. I had no idea about the hotel's Titanic connection - interesting. And you're right - the Lord Elgin is NO competition.

  10. Last year, when Jack Layton, the Leader of the Opposition, died of cancer, his coffin was lying in state for public visitation in the Parliament buildings. I was in the lineup for the viewing on the Hill, and there was this Mountie telling the story of Hays. I was trying to remember where I'd heard the name, and as he was telling the story, I blurted out Titanic. The Mountie glared at me and said I'd ruined the end of the story!

    @Parsnip: the Frontenac is definitely the one. It dominates the skyline of Quebec City, and it's a gorgeous hotel.

  11. Those last two photographs are beautiful! I love night time photos where lights reflect in the water. Absolutely stunning.

  12. Beautiful place. You can understand why Hays returned there rather than stay where he died and haunt the ocean floor!

  13. Oh, it's so incredibly beautiful!!! I'd love to lock myself away in there for a week to finish up my book!

  14. Gorgeous photos! I had high tea there once and it was divine - made me feel like royalty even though I was a lowly high school student. Didn't get the haunted feeling, but there was a S.W.A.T. Team outside keeping the protesters at bay. Always something political happening in Ottawa.

  15. Gorgeous photos! I had high tea there once and it was divine - made me feel like royalty even though I was a lowly high school student. Didn't get the haunted feeling, but there was a S.W.A.T. Team outside keeping the protesters at bay. Always something political happening in Ottawa.

  16. Beautiful building. I would love to stay there as long as I don't have to share my room with a ghost, especially if it snores!


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