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CN Hotel destroyed by fire

By Ken Johnston

Rainy River’s oldest business burned to the ground Monday morning.
Between 7 and 7:30 a.m., Monday Sept. 10, 2012, people noticed smoke coming from the second storey of the Canadian Northern Hotel. Rainy River’s volunteer fire department was dispatched at 7:35 a.m.
After arriving on the scene the department quickly set up a ladder to one of the rooms on the second floor where smoke was coming from a room. They broke the window and began hosing the room down. But it was too late. The fire had apparently spread and it was not long that they realized that they were in for a big battle with it.
Hydro One cut the power to the upper part of town where the CN was connected. Forcing the Northern Lights Credit Union to close and the Rainy River Record to postpone publishing to Wednesday from Tuesday.
Dawson fire departments 1 and 2 were also deployed to the scene. Crews began battling to save the 109 year old structure. As the fire began to get the upper hand calls were sent for Baudette, Minnesota, fire department, and eventually Williams Fire Department to help. But no matter how many reinforcements were called by 10 a.m. it was clear the situation was dire.
Rainy River Fire Chief Gerry Armstrong told the Record at 10:20 a.m. that “We are now just containing it.”
The three homes immediately south of the CN Hotel, Bob Johnston, Bob and Brig McGreevy and Michael Stone and Lisa Holmes, were evacuated around 10:30 a.m.
Fortunately for the home owners, and perhaps more of the community, there was a strong wind, gusting upwards of 30 mph, from the south all day. The wind did play havoc with water from the hoses, often blowing the water shot at the front of the building away from the fire.
Another plus for firefighters was that there were no other buildings on the immediate west, north and east sides, so they could attack it from all directions.
However, around 10:30 a.m., the heat from the giant fire was intense and the crowd of people watching had to move back. It got so hot across the street at the credit union that five of its windows cracked!
No one was in the building at the time of the fire. Both tenants, Fred Foulger and Shane Gulbrandsen were away working. Gulbrandsen said that he had left the building at 4 a.m. and did not notice anything at that time. He did say a white truck went through the parking lot twice through the night, once right around when he left for work. “I thought that was strange.”
Much of Foulger’s belongings were rescued and stored in a neighbour’s garage. Gulbrandsen also had some of his possessions saved but did lose most of his clothing.
Hotel cleaning lady, Susie Armstrong, said that another strange thing occurred to her when she arrived on the scene at 8:30 a.m. expecting to go to work. “Room 6 (where the fire supposedly started) was closed up. We had all the electrical appliances unplugged. The windows were closed. When I got here there was a fan in the window and it was open.”
In recent months the hotel had been experiencing difficulties with former renters having duplicated keys and returning to sleep or party when they had not rented the room. Whether there is a connection or not is under investigation.
There was only one injury reported and it was to a U.S. firefighter who stepped in a hole and injured his ankle.
It became evident late Monday that the main Bell Canada phone trunk running behind the hotel sustained damage as well. Landlines to the lower part of Third and Fourth Street were not working. Bell technicians were busy working on it most of Tuesday.
The early history of the CN is a bit clouded, but it was thought to have been built in 1903. One account said it was built by the Canadian Northern Railway while others say it was privately built and operated as it is today.
The railway story says that when Canadian Northern Railway was bought by Canadian National that the Northern rail line sold off the hotel privately (around 1920) and that is how the hotel managed to retain the CN name.
In early issues of the Rainy River Gazette such as the August 15, 1913 edition a noticed appeared announcing a change in proprietors. The new proprietors were W. Hows and N.J. Spedding. Rates were $1.50 per day and they offered “Fine large sample rooms, the best of food, choicest wines, liquors, cigars, bright clean and cheerful bedrooms. Steam heat throughout, together with electric light and phone.”
In the March 18, 1920 issue of the Rainy River Record Charles Desorcy was listed as the proprietor. He ran it until 1931 when Kate Desorcy took over.
William Popowich was next to own the hotel in 1946. He ran it until 1949 when J. M. Kostiuk took over.
Then it was Phil and Emma Lafond who partnered with Mr. Rivard. In 1953 the Lafonds bought out Rivard.
In 1965 Dan and Edna Genyk ran it until Rene and Dolores Boulet took over in 1969. When they took over the bar was still separated into three rooms. A men’s only beer parlour, a cocktail lounge and a ladies and escorts lounge allowed only the sale of beer in it. However in 1971 the liquor laws were relaxed a bit and they were allowed to renovate and open all three rooms up as one bar; The Diamond Willow Lounge.
They ran the hotel until Brian and Linda Russell purchased it Oct. 22, 1990. The next summer they changed the plumbing from galvanized steel to copper. Being an old building the work never ended. Rooms were renovated, a new rubber roof was put on, the kitchen was completely upgraded. And about 10 years ago they had local woodworking enthusiast Rene Hogue head up the construction of brand new bar.
A few years ago the Russells retired from the business selling it to former Rainy River resident Jean Brumwell who has operated it at arms length from Kenora ever since, employing a manager and several other employees.
There was no word Monday as to whether she will rebuild.
The cause of the fire is under investigation and anyone with information about the fire could earn a cash reward by anonymously calling Crimestoppers tip line at 1-800-222-8477.