Old Yellowstone: History of Canyon Hotel

Lodging in Yellowstone National Park has been in continuous development since the Park’s founding in 1872.

The Canyon Village Area has seen some of the most intensive lodging changes in the Park. In contrast to the more historic accommodations at Old Faithful and Lake, Canyon seems positively new.

But for over 50 years, there was another lodging facility in Canyon, one said to rival both the Old Faithful Inn and Lake Hotel: the Grand Canyon Hotel.

The First Grand Canyon Hotel: “Can Make No Claims To Architectural Beauty”

There was initially a tent camp on the site, followed by the first Grand Canyon Hotel (aka Cañon Hotel) constructed from roughly 1886 to 1890.

Postcard of Grand Canyon Hotel; Frank J Haynes; 1886 - 1891

This facility was doomed from the start. After a protracted construction process, including conflict about where to put the hotel, the building’s foundation was shoddy, with poorly plastered walls.

Praise for the design of the facility was tepid, at best. Wyoming historian Tamsen Emerson Hert, in a scholarly article about the Canyon Hotel in Yellowstone Science (“Luxury in the Wilderness: Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon Hotel, 1911-1960”) cites the 1909 edition of Reau Campbell’s Campbell’s Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of the Yellowstone:

The Cañon Hotel… is set upon a hill… so high… that the red roof may be seen from ten miles up the road as you come down from the Lake, [with]… no intervening trees to obstruct the view. The Cañon [Hotel] can make no claims to architectural beauty but what it lacks in that is made up amply when you look from its windows or its veranda over the grandly beautiful landscape of mountain sand meadows with only a white fleck of the foaming water of the Upper Falls dotted in. The comforts within are in keeping with the excellence of all the others of the Park, and who dines at the Cañon dines well, and on the Cañons beds the sleep of the just come[s] with no troubled dreams.

“Spending The Day At This Hotel Is A Pleasure”

Work began on a new hotel in August 1910.  The second Grand Canyon Hotel had all the hallmarks of success for Yellowstone lodging. Legendary Park architect Robert C. Reamer designed the building, and in many ways his design married the two impulses behind the Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel. The use of wood was prominent, and the coloring of the walls and ceiling were appropriate to the landscape. But in terms of overall effect, Reamer was aiming for Lake’s elegant feel, which itself borrowed from the European tradition.

Postcard #213 - Grand Canyon Hotel Lounge; Frank J Haynes; No date

When it opened, the Grand Canyon Hotel was feted as a remarkable achievement. Hert cites a glowing quote from the Livingston Daily Enterprise about the Canyon Hotel:

In the planning and building of the new Canyon Hotel, Architect Robert C. Reamer has surpassed even the triumph which he achieved in the famous Old Faithful Inn. That gigantic rustic structure always looked to me as though it had grown out of the world-old ground where it stands an everlasting monument to the genius and ingenuity of Architect Reamer who contrived and created it.

Reau Campbell took the new hotel into account with the release of a revised edition of Campbell’s Complete Guide in 1913:

In August, 1910, work was begun on the construction of the new Cañon Hotel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, an achievement worthy of note in Park history.

Scores of men and teams dragged away a great expanse of hillside in the work of excavation during the mild fall season, and an army of mechanics followed with the erection of the huge structure until when the snows came all were well housed. Throughout the winter hundreds of men kept up the din of hammer and saw, completing the wonderful interior, while outside in below zero temperature teams in relay after relay conveyed material over the snows in sledges from Gardiner, Montana, 36 miles away.

Rarely, if ever, has a task of such magnitude and under such great disadvantages, been accomplished with such promptness, for with the season opened in 1911 only a few finishing touches were necessary on this—on of the most unique and artistic hotels in the world, with 375 rooms, 75 with private bath, its own electric light and ice plant, cold storage, steam laundry, vacuum cleaning system and electric elevator.

Postcard #218 - Grand Canyon Hotel Dining Room; Frank J Haynes; No date

John H. Raftery, editor of the Butte, MT Treasure State wrote a pamphlet for the Yellowstone Park Hotel Company on the facility, humbly named A Miracle in Hotel Building: Being The Story of The Building of The New Canyon Hotel in Yellowstone Park.”

Raftery praised highly the whole endeavor, from the men involved (“A Task for Titans” reads one section header) to the finished product, especially the lounge:

The Lounge of the new Canyon Hotel in the Yellowstone National Park promises to become a famous favorite with the pleasure-seeking travelers of the world. I think there is nothing like it in Europe; certainly it has no counterpart in America for size, magnificence, spectacular impressiveness and practical comfort combined.

The 1928 Haynes Guide echoed this assessment:

Spending the day at this hotel is a pleasure. A cozy foyer, extensive lounge and capacious dining room are all elegantly furnished and of novel architecture. Adjoining the main building is the lounge, where concerts and dances are held. It is remarkable that so many miles from any railroad, hotels can be so well equipped as to rival the best city hostelries.

“The Great Lady Chose Sudden Death”

So what did in the Canyon Hotel? For one thing, it succumbed to the same problem that doomed its predecessor: by 1956, the foundation of the hotel was found to be unstable.

Further, under the “Mission 66” program (which sought to update visitor facilities in all national parks leading up to the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary), Park officials wanted visitor activity shifted away from the Hotel and toward a new, more automobile friendly area: Canyon Village.

In the fall of 1958, an architectural firm (Orr Pickering and Associates) inspected the hotel and found, according to a memo cited by Hert: “that it was not economically feasible to rehabilitate the building and that it should be abandoned.” On July 23, 1959, Park officials announced that The Canyon Hotel was slated for demolition.

But the planned demolition never happened: instead, the hotel burned to the ground on August 8, 1960.

Canyon Hotel fire, photographed at 2:00 am; Photographer unknown; 1960

The cause of the fire was never determined. On August 10, 1960, the Wyoming State Tribune printed an offbeat assessment of the beloved hotel’s demise, cited here from Hert:

The Great Lady Chose Sudden Death: The Great Lady was outraged. She could not, she would not, accept the indignity of laborious, prolonged, and piecemeal destruction. She chose sudden death. And so Canyon Hotel, the once grand edifice of Yellowstone National Park, a 950-room and superb example of luxurious living in another era, burned to the ground (35).

Such was the life of one of Yellowstone’s great hotels.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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