The Ghost of the Chateau Laurier
Photo at right: Charles Melville Hays
By Paul Doyle
Charles Melville Hays is largely forgotten now, except perhaps by some folk in Melville, Saskatchewan, whose city was named in his honour. He was president of the Grand Trunk Railway, one of the best-known business executives in Canada and when he died 100 years ago on the Titanic, he was eulogized across North America. He was travelling back from Europe for the grand opening of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel, the dream that he didn’t see realized. They say his ghost haunts the place still. You might dismiss such yarns as products of overactive imaginations, but some stories, like that of Patrick Watson, deserve attention. Watson has been a respected journalist and is a former chairman of the CBC. Patrick Watson is not a fanciful man.
Watson recounted two experiences: “I was awakened one night by a sound as sharp as a pistol shot and found that the heavy glass ashtray was cracked neatly in half. There was no explanation for this phenomenon.” The next night, in the same room, there was a loud sound from the bathroom. Watson had placed his shaving kit securely behind the taps. He now found it at the far end of the bathroom.
Watson said “Both of these events, trivial as they sound, were inexplicable and left me quite shaken.”
Charles Melville Hays was born in 1856 in Illinois. He left school at age 17 and started in the railroad business as a clerk. He moved from one company to another, rising through the ranks to vice president of the Wabash Railroad at the age of 33. Hays was a tough man in a tough business. To him, the end justified the means; victory was the only objective in negotiating.
Arriving at the GTR, he quickly reorganized the company and returned it to profitability. When the workforce balked, he fired the leaders. He settled the ensuing strike with a promise to rehire them and broke his word when the workers returned.
With his directors across the ocean, Hays operated with a free hand and didn’t always keep them informed. The architect of free-spending expansion, he upgraded tracks, bridges and rolling stock; he built huge grain elevators and planned a series of great railway hotels of which the Chateau Laurier was the first. Built after his death were the Hotel Macdonald, the Fort Garry, the Jasper Park Lodge and the Highland Inn in Algonquin Park.
Hays then made a decision that would eventually cause the demise of his GTR – he would build his own line, a third railway across Canada. His line ran well north of population centres to Prince Rupert in northern BC.
Hays went to London in early 1912 to meet with his directors. While there, he had fruitful meetings with the White Star Line. The White Star chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, was impressed and invited Hays on the inaugural voyage of the new Titanic. Hays gratefully accepted and ordered his personal railroad car to New York to transport him back to Ottawa for the opening of the Chateau.
The Titanic departed the last port-of-call, Queenstown, Ireland, on April 11, 1912 and struck the iceberg four days later. Hays helped his wife and daughter into a lifeboat; he and his son-in-law drowned. Hays’ body was recovered and he was buried in Montreal. Across the country on April 25, 1912, the Grand Trunk Railway came to a stop for five minutes in memory of Charles Melville Hays.
During his life and in death, there were strong opinions on him.
In 1911, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at a dinner of the Canadian Club of New York, held at the Hotel Astor, said: “Mr. Hays is beyond question the greatest railroad genius in Canada.”
In contrast The Canadian Encyclopedia says “one of Laurier’s ministers described Hays as heartless, ruthless and tyrannical”.
The GTR didn’t last too much longer; had Hays lived it probably wouldn’t have survived in any event. The debt load of his unsuitable railway to the Pacific was unsustainable and the GTR was absorbed into Canadian National in 1923.
Contact: Paul Doyle, email@example.com. And let us know if you have a hotel ghost story.
Canadian journalist Patrick Watson is among those who claim that Hays’ ghost haunts the Chateau Laurier.