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Grand Narrows entrepreneur breathes life into historic hotel

Reprinted from the Cape Breton Post Monday, December 6, 1999

In 1887, the Intercolonial Railway was being constructed across the vast expanse of this country.

Three routes had been proposed for ie railway extension into Cape reton, including one through verness and Victoria Counties to North Sydney, another from St. Peter’s Sydney, and a central route through Grand Narrows. According to local ègend, Prime Minister John A. IacDonald was so impQessed with the eauty of the Barra Strait area that he ihose the central route through Grand arrows. The Intercolonial Railway eould open in 1891. And the rest, as ey say, is history.

But let’s take a doser look at this era of travel by teamer and coach and the thriving ommunity of Grand Narrows which oasted two restaurants, a post office, ustoms office, railway station, three tores, two canneries, blacksmith hops, boat building businesses, and, f course, the prestigious 26 room rand Narrows Hotel.

According to the guest registers, he Grand Narrows Hotel received its st guest in the summer of 1932. In e summer of 1999, the elegant three torey structure was reopened to the blic under the name, ‘Grand Narrows Bed & Breakfast. After 67 years and a new proprietor, regardless of the name, the building is still grand in its historical splendor. Elaine MacNeil is the owner of the Grand Narrows Bed & Breakfast. She and her husband Terry purchased the property in 1998 with the intention of restoring the hotel to its original grandeur.

Although Elaine took over the property in 1998, the Grand Narrows Hotel had been in her family since October 1956, after her father had inquired of the hotel’s status while waiting for the lona Ferry en route to a hunting expedition in Orangedale. He put a down payment on the property on his way home.

Elaine’s parents used the retired hotel as a summer home where they would bring their six children to spend summers and weekends on the edge of the Bras d’Or Lakes. It was at this time that Elaine fell in love with the property and its grand history as people would drive past the hotel and enquire as to its status and relate stories and associations with parents and grandparents. Many would ask for tours and a chance to view the old guest registers, which Elaine still has in her possession today.

The Grand Narrows Hotel was originally owned by HF. MacDougall and Edward A. MacNeil, two prominent local merchants. HF. MacDougall was also the area’s Conservative Representative in the Dominion Parliament and was successful in lobbying his friend and colleague John A. MacDonald in the Grand Narrows to Sydney railroad route. With the legislation proclaimed immediately in Parliament, the construction of the hotel began.

Grand Narrows became the hub of Cape Breton in terms of rail travel as the village’s railway station became the transfer pQint for travelers journeying to other points on the island, usually by ferry, or waiting for the train to continue onward to Sydney The Grand Nrows Hotel served as an important stop-over as the ‘railcar’ brought intellectuals and others of wealth and means from all corners of the globe. The steel plant was under construction and coal mines were opening up all over the industrial area. Cape Breton was experiencing incredible growth and people were on the move.

A 1888 brochure describing the ‘Magnificent Hotel’ noted that, “it is furnished to afford guests every possible convenience and comfort. The position is central, the arrangements complete. Parlours and bedrooms expensively furnished and is supplied with hot and cold water, and all modern improvements.”

In fact, the Grand Narrows Hotel was the first commercial building east of Halifax with central heating. Built by local carpenters, the wooden structure boasted 15 elegant bedrooms and two full-length verandahs on the first and second floors where guests would congregate on still summer evenings to take in the last of the day’s light and watch schooners sail past through the Barra Strait against the backdrop of glorious sunsets over the hills of lona.

The hotel’s historic guest registers possess the names of many affluent and distinguished individuals. Alexander Graham Bell’s signature appears quite frequently as he would have stayed overnight at the Grand Narrows Hotel before catching ‘The Blue Hill’, a ferry which took Bell and his traveling companions to Baddeck. He often traveled with his student Helen Keller, who would occasionally be seen swimming in the Strait with her faithful golden labrador, In fact, it was while boating one afternoon with Edward A. MacNeil that Dr. Bell first caught sight of Beinn Breagh, a picturesque point of land projecting into the Bras d’Or Lakes on which he would eventually build his summer mansion.

Malcolm NacNeil, in his autobiography ‘The Rewarding Path’ recalls the Grand Narrows Hotel and his Aunt Josephine who was the manager of the establishment.

An excerpt from his book includes the following passage: “Although only a dinner guest, the Prince of Wales (George), who later became King George V of England, dropped in for dinner one evening, having given Aunt Jo but a few days’ notice of his intended arrival with his entourage of aids, dignitaries and politicians. They found Aunt Jo quite nonchalant and not wanting in equipment or cuisine for such a dignified group. From her storeroom she produced the finest of china, exquisite crystal and from the larder cuisine ‘fit for a king’, and her guests were intrigued by the fact that only at Buckingham had such eloquence in service been afforded them."

Since Elaine MacNeil was a child spending summers with her family in Grand Narrows, it has been her dream to revive the Grand Narrows Hotel. The Grand Narrows Bed & Breakfast currently offers four bedrooms but Elaine’s future plans include renova tion of the third floor and to eventually offer nine rooms, each with a private bath. She also hopes to expand by offering licensed evening dining, lunch, afternoon teas and evening entertainment.

All of her renovations are painstakingly undertaken to ensure the historical integrity of the original hotel while still offering modern day convenience and safety.

Grand Narrows Bed & Breakfast centrally located on the beautiful Bi d’Or Lakes Scenic Drive and is just minutes from North Sydney. Open year round, Grand Narrows B&B is also available for weddings, family reunions, Christmas or New Years parties, and will be offering theme weekends throughout the winter including sewing, murder mystery and cooking.

The Grand Sandwich Cafe is located just down the street and offers a full menu. So why not come to Grand Narrows for a night or a weekend get away from the stresses of work and  routine. Who knows, you may even get to stay in the Bell Room?

For more information, reservations, or if you have stories or photos of Grand Narrows Hotel to share, phease phone Elaine at 622-1330.

Copyright © 1999 The Cape Breton Post - All rights reserved