It’s always a pleasure to publish an article by Ken Kristjanson. Born and raised in Gimli in a family that has been involved in commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg from the very beginning of the colony, he has a wealth of information about both the fishing industry and the area known as New Iceland.
by Ken Kristjanson
Some years ago I was helping my father straighten up his museum and I came across a magnificent solid brass spittoon. My father said that the fellow he bought it from thought it was from the old Como Hotel. He had enjoyed many a glass of Mr. Shea’s delightful brew in the beer parlour at that hotel. As it was a “men only” establishment, chewing tobacco and snuff were allowed and so there was need for a spittoon
I had forgotten about The Como Hotel, which I saw last in a blaze of glory in 1945. The hotel was built shortly after 1906 when the CPR came to Gimli. It was built across the street from the CPR Station and thereby enjoyed a good business with the travelling public. (It was on Seventh and Centre – the Co-Op Service Centre occupies part of the property today.) It started life as the Icelandic Hotel, then the Gimli Hotel and finally The Como. The provenance of the final name is not clear although I know that the hotel was purchased by Jon Thorsteinson in 1913. He was a former employee of Shea’s Brewery in Winnipeg and he ran the hotel until he died in 1936. My mother remembers Mr. Thorsteinson from when she worked for him in the early thirties.
I clearly remember the last time I went to The Como. Our morning coffee had been interrupted by a loud banging on the door. It was 10A.M. January 1, 1945 – New Year’s Day. The banging ceased and the visitor opened the unlocked door and came in. It was Elie Anderson, the Town Foreman. The Como Hotel was on fire, he said, and he needed every available volunteer to come and fight the fire immediately. The reason for his personal call was because at that time Gimli had very few telephones. We ran outside to see heavy smoke four blocks away.
I was 9 years old and had never seen a big fire. My father said it would be alright if I came as long as I didn’t get in the way. Upon arriving on the scene it was evident the fire, which was later determined to have started in the second story at the north end of the building, was already well established. I took up a position across the street at the CPR Station and I had a perfect view of the chaotic scene in front of me. The volunteers were doing their best with a daisy chain of water buckets from the artesian well on the south end of the property. The Gimli RCAF Station sent their pumper trucks which helped, but as there were no fire hydrants in the town, all they could do was race back the two miles to the base for refills. The fire was raging throughout the wooden structure.
Word came to salvage anything possible. The “men only” beer parlour was located on the main floor at the south end of the hotel. Beer kegs, furniture, anything of value was being frantically hauled to safety and dumped on the parking lot. Soon, word came again from the RCAF Fire Chief to stand down – the situation was hopeless. The gallant volunteers, some with tears in their eyes, could only stand and watch their beloved watering hole go up in smoke.
While nearly transfixed by the flames, I caught sight of a dog team approaching. It was driven by a fellow who was thought of by the boys in town as something of a hero figure. He was 17 or 18, the youngest of a large family. He had quit school early and supported himself by trapping and fishing. With his Errol Flynn haircut and buckskin jacket he was quite a dashing figure. Unnoticed, except perhaps by 9 year old me, he pulled his sleigh up to the pile of rescued full beer kegs. Like a mixed up Santa in “A Night Before Christmas”, without a word he quickly went to work. While I watched, and in what seemed like slow motion amid the chaos all around, he loaded several full kegs on to his sleigh and then gave a loud whistle to his dog team. I caught sight of a huge grin on his face and then in the blink of an eye he sped away.
The hotel burned to the ground that night – it was a spectacular fire. Salvaged items were sold or disbursed, including, perhaps, the spittoon that is now a conversation piece in our home. As far as I know, none of the stolen kegs of beer was ever recovered and no one held to account, although rumors circulated about an impressive, week-long party somewhere in the country.