To Patrick Reilly, owner and sole proprietor of the stone hotel at the crossroads at Richmond, excited talk arising from teamsters in the dining room about a place called Almonte struck him at first as being due to mere excitement of the brain. One after the other though, the talk of “portagers”, as teamsters were known in the lumber trade, unloosed wild and fanciful imagery, of the kind one might indeed expect from sons of the Gael, but which, Mr. Reilly felt sure, on closer inspection would likely prove to be wildly exaggerated.
For at least two years now teamsters’ talk in Patrick Reilly’s hotel in Richmond had sprinkled the word “Almonte” about, it being the new name of the village that formerly had been called “Waterford”. At first, Mr. Reilly put down frequent mention of the place to mere excitement of the brain, but, as the “portagers”, (as teamsters were known in the lumber trade) persisted, in language alive with wild and fanciful imagery that one might expect from sons of the Gael, Mr. Reilly discounted it, convinced that if Almonte were subjected to close inspection, the talk of the village in the dining room would prove to be riddled through with wild exaggerations.
But it was not until the summer of 1859 that the hotel keeper at Richmond had that opportunity for closer inspection. The occasion was a memorable one: railway builders had started a line from Brockville in 1853, aiming (after they had built a tunnel right under the town itself) to bring a train of cars from the docks at Brockville out into the Grand Trunk yards and send it off towards “some point on the Ottawa” in the kingdom of white pine. In August of 1859 the rails reached Almonte, and the first train from Brockville entered the village.
Mr. Reilly and a friend had determined to see this train arrive: they drove out from Richmond to Stittsville, took the third line of Huntley to its intersection with the Ottawa road close alongside the Rivington homestead, and turned west there for the seven mile drive to the village, new terminus on the frontier of the Ottawa Valley for the Brockville and Ottawa Railroad.
The wonders of Almonte did not disappoint the visitors from Richmond. The imagery on the tongues of the “portageurs”, if anything, was understated. A river named Mississippi, with a falls in fury over a drop of 62 feet made a veritable ‘Little Niagara’. Scenic splendour of the place would undoubtedly attract visitors to the place, and, when you thought of it, the reality was that a man could board a train in Almonte now at 7.00 a.m., travel to Brockville and there get aboard the Grand Trunk train and travel right to Toronto. All in the same day!
Although the river bisected the village, almost all the buildings had been erected on the south side. Not all, of course. Mr. Gemmill’s house on the north bank looked straight across the river to Mr. Shipman’s square-timber making yard.
The tallest structure in the place was Mr. Rosamond’s “Victoria Woolen Mill” which stood, Bastille-like, commanding the gorge where the Mississippi stormed through the rocky gates in spring. Mr. Reilly was told that the year before, 1858, Mr. Rosamond had the audacity to send a sample of woollen cloth from his mill to be entered in a competition at the famous London Exposition “for excellence in manufacturing”, and that his sample had been awarded the gold medal. The village of Almonte would soon be the frontispiece for Upper Canadian manufacturing enterprise, bound to grow.
An iron bridge had been built across the river just above the lip of the falls. He heard from talk in the place that a few years before, the first bridge, a timber structure, had not survived its very first onslaught of Mississippi ice come high water time. Hence, the iron replacement. Mr. Reilly began to think that all the teamster talk he had heard in the hotel at Richmond, and which he had dismissed as mere fanciful exaggeration, now that he saw the evidence with his own eyes of what had stirred the imaginations of teamsters, was in fact, the very truth. If anything, the teamsters had not given full rein to the wonders of the place on the Mississippi.
On the way back to Richmond he was filled with enthusiasm for the place, and let all his enthusiasm bubble out in conversation with Michael Watters.
“Michael,” said he, “This day’s journey has been an eventful one. Has it occurred to you that this village of Almonte is in need of a first class hostelry?”
“No, Patrick, it had not occurred to me at all,” said Michael.
“Just imagine the people who will now be coming and going on the trains of cars. The railway’s going to open up this vast land. It’s as if the country is only beginning to wake up from a thousand-year sleep and is still rubbing sleep from its eyes. Two parallel ribbons of steel are going to bring vast changes. And the village is going to have a first-class hotel on the north side to be ready for people who are bound to come here.”
“You see, Michael, the factors are clear to me now: First, the timber trade is moving further back each year as the white pine stands are cut; second, there’s a change going on from square-timber making for Britain to making sawn lumber for the United States.”
“Yes, I understand,” agreed Michael. “But where does that lead you now?”
“Teamsters will still drive supplies up the Valley in sleighloads each winter, but Almonte is one day’s driving closer to the bush camps than Richmond. And, more than anything else, there’s the first train today! An extraordinary event! I’m going to build a hotel on the north side of the river. There. That’s where the day’s events have brought us.”
Mr. Reilly’s new hotel was built on a stone foundation with solid brick walls. It too was built on the square plan, much alike with the Richmond hotel, with the same generous ten-foot ceiling height. Its front entrance faced out on Queen Street, and a balcony directly over the entrance offered the first patrons of the hotel a first-hand look at the stonework being laid for the new St. Paul’s church for the Anglican congregation of Almonte.
The third floor, with smaller rooms, and ceilings reduced to a mere nine-foot height, had one remarkable attraction — a long staircase that led through a forest of 30-foot long jack rafters to the apex of the roof. There a glassed-in lookout encouraged patrons to spend a few moments in quiet contemplation of the majestic view out over the village to the very heart of the falls of the Mississippi. One could measure for himself the potential of this veritable “Little Niagara”, a falls that measured sixty-two and a half feet overall.
The site of the hotel on the brow of the hill on the north side of the river had something majestic about it, and Mr. Reilly’s square plan, once completed added grace and charm to the site. But to make assurance doubly sure that his hospitality would be welcome to people of the quality, he gave the hotel a name to ensure the royal flavour. On the south wall, between the windows of the third floor, he had the painters inscribe a royal name for his enterprise, WINDSOR HOUSE.
In the era of train travel, with Victoria on the throne of Great Britain, the family name of the sovereign would surely attract people of the quality, and their sense of wonder would be stimulated by excellent accommodation to match the excellent undertakings evident in the village called Almonte.