Past, Present & Beyond – The ill-fated Cargile Hotel

Barbara Roden's tale of one hotel that just couldn't stay standing.

There was once a time when Railway Avenue in Ashcroft boasted three hotels, built to cater to the steady stream of travelers heading north.

Ashcroft was the last station on the Canadian Pacific line before the railroad made a sharp turn and headed east, so anyone wanting to travel north disembarked here. In anticipation of this influx of business, John Barnes – who owned the land through which the CPR would run – built the Thompson River Hotel before the townsite had even been surveyed.

He situated his hotel near where he thought the railway would build its tracks, near to where the River Inn is today, and was probably somewhat dismayed when the CPR put the tracks – and the station and depot – at some distance from his hotel.

Nothing daunted, he dismantled the Thompson River Hotel and moved it to a site on Railway Avenue opposite the station, so that it was the first thing anyone arriving in town would see. It was renamed the Ashcroft Hotel, once the new town had settled on a name, and there are doubtless many readers who can remember its second incarnation (the original hotel burned down in the 1916 fire) on the site of where the Post Office now stands (the rebuilt Ashcroft Hotel burned down in 1974).

A second hotel, called the Cariboo Exchange, was built at the corner of 3rd and Railway, and at some point in the 1890s another hotel was built directly beside it, with the two buildings merging under the name of the Grand Central Hotel. It, too, burned down in the 1916 fire, but was rebuilt, and still stands today.

R.D. Cumming, the editor and owner of The Journal from 1912 to 1938, referred to these two hotels as the “Best” (the Ashcroft) and the “Next Best” (the Grand Central) hotels in some of his humorous “Skookum Chuck Fables”. He fails to mention the third hotel, however (the “Least Best”?), which was the Cargile Hotel, located where the Credit Union now stands.

Cumming’s reticence is probably justified, for if any one adjective could be used to describe the Cargile, “ill-fated” would be at the top of the list, closely followed by “unlucky”, with “unfortunate” (and maybe even “cursed”) not far behind.

The hotel was the brainchild of early settler William Cargile, who took over the running of Hat Creek Ranch in 1881 (many maps of the province still designate that area as “Carguile” or “Carquile”, a misspelling of Cargile’s surname). He had come to the region from Yale, and in 1887 arranged for an existing hotel in that town to be dismantled and shipped by rail to Ashcroft, where it would be re-erected. It had worked for the Thompson River Hotel, after all; what could go wrong?

This was in March of 1887; and as Ashcroft residents know, the March winds here can be a fierce thing indeed. This is especially true during an unusually warm March, when hot air accumulates in the valley during the day and begins to rise during the evening, allowing cooler air to rush in to fill the vacuum, creating windstorms in the process. When the hotel pieces arrived, workmen began assembling them, in a process that must have looked like putting together a 3-D jigsaw puzzle; but they hadn’t quite got round to nailing things in place when the wind struck, knocking the entire structure down like a house of cards. The Inland Sentinel newspaper (Kamloops) reported the incident in a remarkably matter-of-fact way, stating simply that “Mr. Cargile’s new hotel was blown down by a gust of wind last week.”

The whole process began again, and this time the hotel was put together without further mishap. By July 1887 the Cargile Hotel was ready to go. Mrs. Steffen, the wife of a CP railway employee in town, said that the hotel was “expensively furnished and with a good stock of liquor”. She was in a position to know, for she and her husband were two of the first guests when the Cargile opened for business. Not for long, however. In August 1887 a fire started in the hotel’s kitchen, and the entire structure burned to the ground, with almost nothing saved (except Mrs. Steffen’s sewing machine, which was rescued by one of the men fighting the fire).

William Cargile rebuilt the hotel, and all was well until 1892, when the hotel once more burned to the ground, this time with the loss of one person, a man named Thomas Walker. The Cargile was rebuilt again, presumably on the basis that “the fourth time’s the charm”. Either that, or William Cargile was an incredibly determined man, one who wasn’t going to let wind or fire get in his way. Even he, however, could not keep going forever, and in 1894 he died; he lies buried in the Ashcroft cemetery, half-a-mile from the hotel that he managed to keep going despite a string of disasters that would have discouraged many another person.

The Cargile Hotel continued for another 22 years after his death. A Mr. Nelson took it over, and doubtless did the best he could, but the hotel was never as popular as the Ashcroft or the Central, and only seems to have been full when a special event brought larger than usual crowds to town.

In 1916 the same fire that destroyed the town’s other two hotels also laid waste to the Cargile; but while the Ashcroft and the Central were eventually rebuilt, there was to be no such resurrection for the Cargile, no phoenix-like springing from the ashes. It had clung to life for more than three decades, but fire was its eventual undoing. The Central Hotel lives on in fact; the Ashcroft Hotel lives on in memory; and the Cargile Hotel lives on in the dusty annals of history, a part of Ashcroft’s early days that is no more.

Barbara Roden

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