Sunday, November 9, 2014

History of the Somass Hotel, 1896-2013 Part I: The First Fifty Years.

History of the Somass Hotel, 1896-2013
Part I: The First Fifty Years

By Glen A. Mofford

The Somass Hotel in 1913 AVM PN03899

The Somass Hotel has been a fixture on the corner of Argyle and Kingsway streets in Port Alberni since the extension of the hotel was completed in 1908. The original hotel on this site was the called the Armour Hotel, a modest two-story wooden structure opened by Victoria businessmen Chalmer and Armour in 1896, built with finished lumber that arrived on the ship, Mischief  from Victoria. By 1902 the hotel expanded north of the original and its name was changed, first to the New Alberni Hotel, and then to the Somass Hotel. A further three-story structure was added in 1908 that faced Argyle Street. That part of the hotel became a familiar landmark over the years, with its distinctive Edwardian style with protruding bay windows as a prominent feature, in later years, it was painted in a light blue.

This article will trace the history of the Somass Hotel in two parts; part I will trace its beginnings, from the opening of the Armour Hotel, the expansions, and to the fire of 1947 that destroyed the main hotel building. Part II will look at the years 1948 until its closing in 2013 and demolition the following year that effectively removed the last vestiges of the familiar hostelry and forever changed the character of lower Argyle Street. 

My wife and I first visited the Somass Hotel in the summer of 2011. We went into the Argyle Pub which was located in the basement accessed from a front door on Argyle Street. We walked down the dimly lite staircase into a small room where we saw two patrons talking quietly at the bar each holding a glass of beer. We sat down at one of the few tables and order a drink. The room had dark wooden paneling throughout that reached from the floor to the ceiling which was covered in a white press-board. There were a few beer signs on the wall, ‘Budweiser’, ‘Guinness Goodness’ and ‘Coors Light’ but other than that it was quite spartan. This was our introduction to the historic Somass Hotel and in spite of the modest size and laid-back atmosphere I was pleased to be a part of its history, simply by being there. What I didn’t know was that the hotel, including the pub, would be closed within a couple of years and demolished.

Inside the Argyle Pub in the Somass Hotel, 2011 Glen Mofford Collection


The Armour Hotel, 1896
New Alberni was a sea of stumps and not much else when Arthur E. Waterhouse of the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company arrived in March 1896 aboard the steamship Mischief from Victoria. Waterhouse was commissioned to build a wharf and a small grocer that would accommodate the needs of the miners in the area. The steamship supplied the tiny port of New Alberni from Victoria and that is how Tommy Armour and his partner Chalmers arrived in the summer of 1896. By August 1 the two enterprising business men had built and opened the first hotel in New Alberni named the Armour Hotel.

The Armour Hotel was “without siding or paint, and contained seven sleeping rooms, dining room, kitchen and (most importantly) a saloon.”[1] A ‘house-warming’ party invited all in the area to attend.[2] This was the original hotel located on a trail that would become Argyle Street and eventually be known as the Somass Hotel. Within a year of opening the hotel saw very limited business and was forced to close. It sat empty for over a year waiting for conditions to warrant a reopening. 

The Armour Hotel in 1897 (British Columbia Archives #A-06933)

The New Alberni Hotel, 1898

In 1898 Waterhouse purchased the Armour Hotel and hired Andy Watson to manage it. A new wing was added to enlarge the original hotel which provided eight more rooms and could now qualify for a tavern license. It reopened on November 30, 1898 with a new look and a new name, the New Alberni Hotel.[3]
 Alberni was growing, due in part, to several new mines opening in the area and road access connecting those mines to the dock went right past the hotel. For a few years the New Alberni hotel was the only game in town for a rest, a good meal, a game of billiards, or a drink. The alternative was a long walk or horse ride six or so miles north to ‘Old Town’ and the Arlington or the Alberni Hotels.
A number of single men made the hotel their home under the care of Mrs. Watson and her sister Mrs. “Doc” Carter as the New Alberni Hotel was “the centre of all activity as the town grew up around it.”[4]

The Somass Hotel, 1902

In 1902 James (Jim) Rollings became the manager of the New Alberni Hotel. One of his first duties was to change the name of the hotel to the Somass. Rollings was a genial host who welcomed new-comers to the growing district. Waterhouse was still the owner but his manager Rollings would go on to open the King Edward Hotel in 1907, just up Argyle Street from the Somass Hotel.

The main Somass Hotel was designed by Victoria architect George Mesher and was built behind the original, along Kingsway Avenue facing the railway depot. It was a magnificent four-story building, well crafted with no expense spared. It loomed over the original hotel which was converted into the hotel-bar and billiards room. 

      Building the main hotel ca. 1902 AVM PN03777       

In May 1906 the first automobile to reach the Alberni Valley was shown off in front of the Somass Hotel. Enterprising Victoria entrepreneur, Bob Hutchinson drove a single cylinder, eight horsepower Oldsmobile automobile from Victoria to Alberni in two stages – Victoria to Nanaimo, then to Alberni.[5] It took him thirteen hours for the one-way journey but proved that automobiles could make it along the rough stage line route.

The Somass Hotel was right across the street from the train station and the New Alberni docks were not much further away. Customers to the hotel came by boat, train and automobile to hunt, fish and enjoy the wilds of the beautiful Alberni Valley. In the Victoria Daily Colonist a large spread was dedicated to the Alberni Valley, “A Visit to the West Coast...New Alberni contains two excellent hotels. I stopped at the Somass hotel, kept by Mr. Waterhouse, and found a hostelry which has been built without regard to expense or pains in order to provide a high order of comfort for its patrons...”[6]

Somass Hotel Extension, 1908

In 1907 Waterhouse began construction of a third and final extension of the Somass Hotel that would give the hotel an up to date modern look. The three-story Edwardian style building would offer guests a grand view of growing Argyle Street below from three sets of protruding bay windows. On July 20, 1908 Waterhouse, and his new manager, Clifford Wise, presided over the opening ceremonies. Wise had arrived after successfully managing the Cowichan Bay Hotel for a number of years.

Building the Somass Hotel Extension, 1907

The Photograph of the building of the Somass Hotel extension (above) was found in the inner wall of a cabin that was being demolished at 312 6th Avenue N. in Port Alberni. The cabin had belonged to Mr. Wiles, a carpenter who most likely worked building the Somass extension. The find was published in the Alberni Advocate newspaper on February 26, 1975.

By 1910 a few local businesses began working out of the main floor of the Somass Extension. On May 24, 1910 W.D. Newcombe opened his realty business there. The Alberni District Orchestra and Dramatic Society held their meetings at the Somass Hotel. In October 1911 Waterhouse was elected the President of that Society. Mr. Waterhouse had done quite well for himself as his dry goods store and grocery, in partnership with Mr. Green, was very successful as was the Somass Hotel.

On February 26, 1910 New Alberni had a name change to Port Alberni. By March 12, 1912 Port Alberni became an incorporated city with Arthur E. Waterhouse mayor-elect.

Prohibition through the ‘Roaring 20’s’

The Somass Hotel and grocery business continued to well, in spite of a worldwide recession in 1914. Customers still found the time and money to stay at his luxurious hotel. But there were a few setbacks.
In November 1916 Miss Sarah Ann Lingard, while working as a housekeeper at the Somass Hotel, had tried to start a fire using a can of coal. It exploded in her hand and burned her badly. She succumbed to her injuries at the West Coast General Hospital a few hours later.[7] Lingard was well respected in the community and had been working at the hotel for the past ten years.

On a brighter note, the Avecourt Girls Club held a dinner and dance for soldiers returning from the war in Europe in April 1917 at the Somass Hotel. A merry time was had by all. The Somass Hotel was a popular choice for meetings, dances and balls. The hotel went through a minor renovation in which were added four new pool tables and an enlarged ‘refreshment room’. By October 1, 1917 prohibition became law in British Columbia and the bar was no longer permitted to sell anything stronger than ‘near beer’.

Somass Hotel and train station, May 1917, AVM PN00140

Prohibition in British Columbia only lasted three years but it signaled the end of the notorious saloon and closed many a hotel-bar and hotel. The Somass Hotel, while still nearly filling the rooms, did feel the adverse affects of having liquor sales revenue cut off. Mr. Wollett was manager of the hotel. The bar room was opened from 7 in the morning until 11 in the evening and closed on Sundays. Patrons clamoured for real beer, especially the loggers and miners. It didn’t take long that real beer and liquors was sold under the table in the bar as customers could not stomach ‘near beer’. Plus near beer cost more to brew. The Somass, King Edward and the Arlington Hotels were each fined in police court for selling liquor and beer during prohibition.

On October 20, 1920 the great experiment with prohibition ended – at least in British Columbia. Eligible voters in the Alberni Valley voted 1192 to 521 to end prohibition in favour of Government Control.[8] In July 1921 Provincial Government run liquor stores opened for the first time in Alberni and on First Avenue in Port Alberni. It wasn’t until April 1925 that beer by the glass, beer parlour licenses were issued. The Kingsway, King Edward, Beaufort and Somass Hotel beer parlours were granted licenses. Only the Arrow View, whose owner spends thousands of dollars building a first rate beer parlour, was denied a license as it was deemed too close to the Kingsway Hotel beer parlour.

In 1925 the Somass opened its beer parlour complete with separate entrances and all the trappings that went with government control. Waterhouse was still listed as the proprietor in the 1925 through to 1937 directories as the hotel continued to do a good business in, “the hub of the fishing and hunting region unexcelled.”

The Depression & the War Years

The devastating effects of the Great Depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929 rippled across North America. The twin cities of Alberni and Port Alberni did not realize the full effect of the economic downturn as the Valley was somewhat insulated by revenue from the logging and lumber industry. Out of town visitors continued to spend their time and money in the Somass Hotel.

In 1939, after forty-one years in the hotel and retail business, A.E. Waterhouse retired. Waterhouse had managed to turn the small unprofitable Armour Hotel into a money-maker. The story of his success is the story of New Alberni. As the hotel grew and developed so did the pioneer town around it. Waterhouse was a true pioneer of Port Alberni and the main character responsible for the huge success of the Somass Hotel.

The hotel had a new owner and T.K. DeMorest became the manager of the “New” Somass Hotel. The depression years gave way to a new challenge as the forces of a war in Europe threatened to engulf the world.

“The New Somass Hotel, T.K. DeMorest, Manager  "Modern and Comfortable with Sensible Rates." In the hotel section of the directory: The New Somass Hotel, Modern and comfortable with sensible rates. Headquarters Port Alberni Tyee Club of British Columbia.”[9]

The mills of the Alberni Valley were busy providing lumber for the war effort. It was a time of rationing and small sacrifices. Beer parlour hours were shortened and as wheat and barley supplies were limited due to the war. The local hotels and their beer parlours continued to do a good business, especially from three shifts of thirsty and hungry mill workers.

In May 1942 the Liquor Control Board, in tandem with the British Columbia Health Association, ordered beer parlour owners to erect partitions to separate unattached men from unescorted women.[10] The reason was that it was felt the mixing of the sexes could led to the transmission of sexual diseases, primarily venereal disease. The port cities of Vancouver, Victoria and Prince Rupert were the first to see the changes but soon afterwards it became the law throughout the province.

The hotels of the Alberni valley complied, some at great expense, and modified their beer parlours with additional rooms or by splitting their parlours up and adding additional bathrooms. This was the age of the separate entrances for Ladies & Escorts and Men that were to last well after the war was over. In fact the laws regarding the separation of the sexes lasted officially until 1964. Some beer parlour owners kept their rooms separate long after the law was repealed. 

In May 1945 the war in Europe ended as Germany and her allies were defeated and on September 2, 1945 Japan officially surrender. World War II was over and economic prosperity followed as the ‘boys’ returned home from the war.

Post War Years and the Great Fire

The Somass Hotel had been managed by Eric Victor Ely since 1942. The Alberni Valley Art Group was founded and initially operated out of space in the hotel.
In 1946 and 1947 two significant disasters occurred.

On Sunday June 23, 1946 a devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake shook Port Alberni and central Vancouver Island. The 1946 Vancouver Island earthquake demolished 75% of the chimneys in the communities of Cumberland, Union Bay, and Courtenay and caused extensive damage in Comox, Port Alberni, and Powell River, on the eastern side of the Strait of Georgia. [11]

The single most destructive natural disaster to effect hotels and especially hotels made primarily of wood is fire. On February 17, 1947 a fire broke out in the main building of the Somass Hotel which destroyed the forty-five year old structure. The fire was devastating as it was less than a year ago that extensive renovations were completed modernizing the hotel and adding fifty new rooms. Manager Ely and his family lost all their possessions to the fire. Woodward’s held a ‘fire sale’ in the remaining structure on Argyle Street while their new Woodward’s building was under construction at Third Avenue and Marr Street in Uptown that opened the following year.

After the iconic Somass Hotel main building was destroyed, the remaining buildings facing Argyle Street were repaired and went under new management. Soon they reopened as the Somass Hotel. The hotel would continue to operate over the next sixty-six years before it would close be sold and demolished. But that story will be told in Part II of the History of the Somass Hotel.


[1] Twin Cities Times, January 2, 1957, page 12. Pioneer Hotel Renovated.

[2] Jan Peterson, The Albernis: 1860-1922, Oolichan Books, Lantzville, BC, 1992, page 130.
[3] Twin Cities Times, page 12.

[4] Twin City Times, page 12.
[5] Arrowsmith Star, August 17, 1976 by Ron Newton.

[6] Victoria Daily Colonist, June 27, 1909, page 3 A Visit to the West Coast.
[7] Victoria Daily Colonist, November 17, 1916, page 4. 
[8] Ibid. Peterson, page 303.
[9] British Columbia City Directories, 1860-1955; 1939-1941 City of Port Alberni.
[10] Robert A. Campbell, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario, 2001, page 57.

[11] See: