The Imperial Hotel: 23 Armstrong Avenue

Janus is back for a new season, looking at an ill-starred Cranbrook institution.

The original Imperial Hotel in 1904

Jim Cameron

On the morning of Nov. 23, 1912, a few of the out-of-town boys were comfortably ensconced in the parlour of the Imperial Hotel on Armstrong Ave. following a night of carousing.

A young man, known only as “Smith” — 20 years old and a “jolly sort of fellow” according to one of his mates — pulled out a revolver and opened it to show three loaded cartridges inside. He emptied the cartridges on the floor, pointed the gun at the wall and pulled the trigger. The chamber was empty. He placed the gun to his head, remarking to his companions, “Don’t think I mean it,” and pulled the trigger once again. It was at this point that things went south, not just for Mr. Smith, but, in retrospect, for the Imperial Hotel as well.

The Imperial was the newest of the hotels in Cranbrook. Built in the summer of 1904, by Peter Matheson, it was a building typical of its time and purpose: wooden construction, simple, (if not top-heavy) lines with a minimum of decoration, a few windows, a door or two and a first floor verandah running along the width.

Peter Matheson, born in Lac Megantic, Quebec, was an energetic and capable man of 39 years when he arrived in Cranbrook in 1898. He proved himself a proficient carpenter in the construction of houses, did a little prospecting, ran a delivery service and married local girl Margaret Dupont in Apr. 1901. The marriage ceremony went well but, as the bridal party headed up Armstrong Ave. in their carriage, his pals beat a tattoo on tin cans which spooked the horses. Peter and his best man bailed out as the team dashed down the street but Margaret and Luxina McEachern, her maid of honour, remained onboard, eventually leaping off near the Greer residence (most recently the former Stefan’s Hair Studio).

The bride was unhurt, Miss McEachern was cut on the face and badly bruised and the groom suffered a sprained back. “A bad ending to a wedding party” stated the local paper, “may they live to enjoy so much happiness & prosperity as to forget it.”

Perhaps not. Somewhere along the way Margaret Matheson fades from view, to be replaced, in 1933, by his second wife Cora Manners, daughter of a local lumberman. In June, 1902, Mr. Matheson purchased the East Kootenay/Queen’s Hotel on Baker Street which he continued to run while constructing his new lodging house. The Imperial opened in early July, 1904, under the management of William Small, although the interior — with the exception of the bar — was far from complete. When asked why they were spending so much money on a hotel that was off main street Mr. Small replied, “Well, Mr. Matheson say that he has got to spend about so much money this year and he might just as well spend it making the hotel better as any other way, and I suppose that he will keep on till he gets through or his money is all gone.”

As furniture was added, the rooms were rented. It was a busy time for the town and business boomed. The dining room opened in August, promising “the best that the market affords, served in the height of culinary skill”, generally inferring that the meat was cooked and the plates washed.

On December 1, part-time employee John Johnson, upset over his pay, produced a knife and did a little carving on Mr. Matheson’s face and neck before bystanders came to the rescue. Johnson was later captured hiding in a woodshed in the red light district on 6th Ave. The Matheson/Small partnership was dissolved by mutual consent in 1905, with Matheson taking singular control. A large addition was added to the hotel in 1911, erasing what little character there was of the original and, in 1912, we come upon the tragic game of Russian roulette in which, as you may have surmised, Mr. Smith died by his own hand.

In December, 1920, Henry Johnson took a room for the night and was found dead the next morning. An inquest determined he died of a ruptured kidney caused from a fall or a blow. A $300 bank draught he was known to have on his person the night before appeared to be missing. The juror’s inquest ruled “death due to accident, causes unknown.”

On July 27, 1927, 24-year-old Haldis Gartland, staying overnight at the hotel while visiting from Nelson, was attacked in her room by her estranged husband. She fled the hotel through a second story window, cutting herself badly on some sheet metal, but only made it as far as the stairway of the Dominion Meat Market next door (site of the present day Drive Radio building) before her husband caught her.

People on the street stood stunned in the bright morning sunshine as five shots rang out in the darkened stairwell. Haldis was dead, four bullets in her. He saved the final shot for himself. It was, perhaps, Cranbrook’s most horrific public murder. And so, it would appear, the Imperial Hotel gradually fell into public disfavour.

Occasional violence and death plagued many of the hotels of the day but the Imperial seemed particularly cursed. The bar eventually closed as did the dining room. Various businesses rented retail space on the first floor, a billiard hall being the most long-standing. The Imperial became little more than a gradually deteriorating rooming house under various names including the Cambrian and the Windsor Arms. Peter Matheson sold the hotel in 1933 for $3,500, although he continued to keep an apartment there in which he died on June 28, 1945. The building was eventually destroyed by fire over a decade ago. A single foundation and an empty lot remain.

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