June 16th, 2024

Waterton’s new Kilmorey Lodge rises from the ashes

By Delon Shurtz - Lethbridge Herald on December 31, 2022.

Submitted photo The Kilmorey Lodge has opened its doors to tourists this past summer for the first time since 2009, more than 12 years since the iconic lodge burned to the ground.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDdshurtz@lethbridgeherald.com

Thwarted by COVID-19 and mountains of red tape, there were days Lockey Craig wondered whether the Kilmorey Lodge in Waterton Lakes National Park would ever be built.

More than 12 years have passed since the iconic lodge burned to the ground, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the beloved lodge has returned, and opened its doors to tourists this summer for the first time since 2009.

“We are feeling really good about having it back,” says Craig, president of Waymarker Hospitality, which owns several hotels and restaurants in the park. “We feel like, in our organization, and I think in the park, it was really missed. Even during the winter. It was kind of the gateway to the park and kind of the main place for people to be in the winter time.”

It was a frustratingly long and bumpy road getting to this point, however, made worse when COVID hit.

“That certainly was a big, big challenge, trying to build through COVID,” Craig says.

But problems began long before the pandemic hit.

“I must say, we were at a deadlock with Parks Canada for a number of years. I don’t think they had a will for us to rebuild, and hoped that we hadn’t, which was the biggest roadblock. And they were honest about that, ultimately. They told us that.”

After years of back and forth with Parks Canada, Lockey accepted advice to stop fighting and build whatever the government would allow.

“Build whatever they’ll let you build, or it’s never going to happen,” he was advised.

And that’s exactly what he did.

“At the end of the day the current Parks Canada people were great to deal with. (We) got it built and they were very accommodating.”

The lodge was destroyed by a raging fire in January 2009. It was the first business to greet visitors when they entered the village and the second hotel built in the popular mountain community more than nine decades ago.

No one was hurt in the fire, but four guests were forced to flee. By the time park staff got to the site half the lodge was already gone.

High winds common in the mountainous area hampered the efforts of firefighters from Cardston, the County of Cardston and Pincher Creek, yet they managed to protect other buildings in the area, including a cottage only a few metres away.

Although the park fire hall is not manned during the winter, staff used park fire equipment and worked feverishly to prevent wind-borne embers from setting fire to trees north across Emerald Bay, which could have ignited the entire hillside and threatened the Prince of Wales Hotel and employee living quarters nearby.

It’s not the first time the building has burned down. The first was in 1933, and while the cause of that fire remains a mystery, it’s believed a fire in the fireplace may have ignited varnish or some other chemical fumes.

The original structure was moved to the site in 1911 when Arthur Charles Kemmis, a Pincher Creek lawyer, was obligated to have a building on the lot in order to finalize the lease. The building was a three-room, 16-by-16-foot log cabin that had originally been built near Cameron Falls. Rooms in the cabin were not rented at the time; that came later.

Kemmis enlisted in the First World War and transferred the lease to his estranged wife, Ada, in 1916. Ada, who had two young daughters, eventually decided to rent the rooms, but she needed something larger to accommodate the little family, as well as allow for the rental of rooms. The first Kilmorey Lodge, which had 12 bedrooms, was added on in 1926, and was the second rooming house in the village.

After the lodge burned down seven years later, it was rebuilt in 1935 by Doug Oland of Oland Scott Construction, who built the Prince of Wales Hotel in 1926-27. The lodge was then expanded again in 1939.

After years of clearing Parks Canada building regulations that didn’t exist when the lodge was first built, Craig finally obtained a building permit and in 2018 heavy equipment began digging.

Then COVID hit and construction had to be temporarily halted.

Craig had hoped a new, similar lodge would be built shortly after the 2009 fire, but Parks Canada rejected early development proposals when they didn’t meet specific guidelines. Subsequent proposals were also rejected.

Among the many conditions and requirements that had to be met, an archeological assessment for First Nations artifacts was conducted. And while some small artifacts were discovered, such as flakes from stone tools, they are common in the area, not particularly old, and didn’t hold up the building permit.

The new building also requires staff accommodation, which meant building a basement. That created challenges because the basement is below the water level of nearby Emerald Bay.

It was expensive and time-consuming. The elevator pit had to be built above ground then lowered in, because even in January, when the water is typically at its lowest level, water still poured in. In the spring, when the groundwater rises, water will climb three to four feet up the outside of the foundation wall.

“It’s like building a swimming pool and you’re trying to keep the water out,” Craig says.

Despite the necessary changes, the Kilmorey still has some of the feel of the previous lodge, and while it doesn’t look exactly the same on the outside, there are enough similarities to provide a sense that the old Kilmorey has returned.

“It does feel like it,” Craig says. “I think we did a pretty good job of kind of replicating it.”

Craig is particularly proud of the dining room and patio, and their view overlooking Emerald Bay.

“The dining room is spectacular. There couldn’t be a better dining location in Alberta, I would think.”

And that includes Waymarker properties in Canmore and Banff, Craig adds. And perhaps best of all, the patio is in one of the least-windy areas of the townsite, and that’s saying a lot.

“It is quite sheltered,” agrees Toby Farrell, vice-president of marketing, sales and technology for Waymarker.

The new lodge, which officially reopened Aug. 12 and will remain open year-round, is built closer to Emerald Bay with parking on the south side of the building, directly across the street from Crandell Mountain Lodge, which is also owned by Waymarker. The restaurant is larger and located on the north side of the lodge, facing the bay, instead of the old location on the opposite side of the building.

The lodge has 18 rooms – five fewer than the previous facility – which are primarily on the second floor overlooking Emerald Bay and boast vaulted ceilings. Comments from guests have been overwhelmingly positive, Craig says, while those few who didn’t provide positive feedback said the new lodge was just not enough like the previous Kilmorey.

“It was impossible to completely replicate it, but I felt like we did a really good job of that.”

Only one other thing that is missing: Mrs. Kilmorey.

The ghostly spirit, affectionately called Mrs. Kilmorey and who was known to reside in the previous Kilmorey Lodge, hasn’t returned. The kindly, older woman with white hair and a blue floral dress, kept watch over the guests and workers of the Kilmorey Lodge, often from a comfortable chair near the front door. 

“We hope Mrs. Kilmorey will once again take her kindly post watching over the patrons and guests who come through the Kilmorey’s doors,” a statement on the lodge’s web page reads.

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