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Grand Narrows Hotel has long and colourful Celtic Experience

By Rannie Gillis - Cape Breton Post June 1, 2001

“Rannie, have you ever been inside the old hotel at Grand Narrows?”

“No, Ann, I’m ashamed to say that I never have.”

“Well, I was fortunate enough to get a tour of the premises last year — and I must say that I was impressed. You would be surprised at the history that’s contained between the four walls of that building.”

Using her research skills and her love of all things historical, Ann MacLean had come up with the following information with regard to the former Grand Narrows Hotel, which has been newly refurbished and is now open year-round as a bed and breakfast.

When it opened in 1887, it was the finest hotel on Cape Breton Island and the first commercial building east of Halifax to have central heating. An impressive three stories high, it contained 15 luxurious bedrooms, 2 elegant lounges and a spacious dining room. The view from the hotel was spectacular and two full-length verandahs on the first and second floors made it possible for guests to take in the afternoon sun or gather in the evening to watch the glorious sunsets over the waters of the Bras d’Or.

Needless to say, the guest registers from the Grand Narrows Hotel contain many historic signatures. Alexander Graham Bell’s name appears regularly, as he would have had to stay overnight \ in order to catch the ferry to Baddeck.

Helen Keller, who often visited her former teacher at the Bell estate in Beinn Bhreagh, was another frequent visitor. Perhaps the most famous guest, howeverer, was the Prince of Wales, who later became King George V of England!

With the arrival of the railway in the early 1890s Grand Narrows became the ‘hub’ of the transportation system in Cape Breton. Its central location on the Bras d’Or Lakes meant that it quickly became a focal point for people travelling by rail or water. Passenger trains — from Sydney in the morning and Halifax in the evening — passed through twice a day These trains were met, although not on a daily basis, by ferries from various points on the Bras d’Or Lakes. Rail passengers and freight would be carried by ferry to such diverse locations as St. Peter’s, Johnstown, West Bay, Marble Mountain, Washabuck and Baddeck.

By the time of the Second World War the Grand Narrows Hotel had closed, largely due to the vastly improved system of roads and highways that had sprung up throughout Cape Breton. The railways were starting to lose passenger and freight traffic to cars and trucks and a realignment of transportation services was under way.

The Barra Strait, however, would continue to retain its vital importance with regard to the transportation needs of the Bras D’Or Lakes. Named after the first European inhabitants, who came from the Isle of Barra in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, the Barra Strait is approximately 1800 feet wide, with an average depth of 100 feet. This difficult body of water was also the site of one of the greatest construction projects in the history of Eastern Canada. I refer, of course, to the Grand Narrows Railroad Bridge, the longest such span in Eastern Canada!

It was a difficult proposal. The tidal difference (between high and low tide) at Grand Narrows can be as great as six feet. There is also the little problem of strong and often erratic underwater currents, associated with the tidal changes. And, as a final challenge to any structural engineer, there is the seasonal nuisance of often extreme ice conditions in the Strait. It was little wonder that the best engineering firms in the country had shied away from the prospect of tackling such a difficult construction project.

Then Robert Reid came on the scene. A stonemason and construction engineer, he had left his native Scotland upon completion of his university studies. He sailed to Australia, where he soon built a reputation building stone bridges for the Trans-Australian railroad.

Making his way to Canada, he formed a new company which helped design and build the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Alter that he decided to concentrate on his real speciality — building steel bridges and stone viaducts for the many railways that were springing up across the North American continent. Over the next 15 years he left behind a string of massive construction projects in places as diverse as Ontario, Quebec, Texas, and Mexico.

Reid was well aware of the proposed rail crossing at the Barra Strait. He also knew that the major Canadian engineering firms wanted nothing to do with the project. He put in a bid, was successful, and early in 1888 arrived in Cape Breton to begin construction.

Three years later, at a cost of $530,000, the new bridge was finished. Six fixed spans made of iron, ãnI one swing span, had been put in place on top of massive stone piers that extended down to bedrock, some 120 feet b1ow the surfaca The Grand Narrows Bridge, as it became known, gained immediate recognition as a world class state of the art’ engineering achievement!

(Rannie Gillis is an author and avid Celtic historian who contributes a column regularly We welcome your comments on this column or any other material appearing in The Cape Breton Post. You can write do Letters to the Editor Cape Breton Post, 255 George St., P0. Bo 1500, Sydney, N &, RIP 6K6, fax to (902) 562- 7077 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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