The Quinsam Hotel. The very name of the establishment evokes a lot of memories for many Campbell Riverites of the past and present. The public outpouring of grief over the recent loss of the “Quinnie” to a fire is a testament to how much of an institution it was in the community. It was an unpretentious drinking establishment frequented by a diverse clientele.
Construction began on the building in 1917, but it came abruptly to a halt when Prohibition was introduced. The builder at the time, Tom Laffin, had counted on liquor sales at the new establishment, so he sold the building, still under construction, to Ken Bergstrom, who completed the project. Prohibition soon came to an end and the hotel was soon a thriving business. In 1923 the Quinsam changed hands again. The third owner of the Quinsam, who purchased the building in 1924, was Jim “The Bishop” English. This colourful local character added a café and barber shop. In an article in the Comox Argus dated July 25, 1929, the hotel is described:
“At a point near where the Island Highway swings close to Campbell River, there has sprung up a settlement which has grown amazingly of late, namely Campbellton, and near to the centre of it is the Quinsam Hotel. It is run by Mr. Jim English, who has expanded it until it has become the chief building in Campbellton.
There were always a large number of loggers coming down the International Timber line, and the hotel was established primarily to cater to them, and twenty two rooms are provided where they can stay in comfort.
Since the building was re-modelled, Mr. English has added to it a café, where an excellent cook provides meals at all hours. Regular meals are provided at reasonable prices and short orders are a specialty. On the other side of the block is the barber shop, where Mr. William McNeil will give the logger or anyone else, modern tonsorial service.”
In a transcript of an Aural History interviewing Darrel Smith, he recounts a story that an unidentified old-timer told him about “The Bishop’s” time at the Quinsam. A three man falling crew was working and first thing one morning the bucker got killed. Later that day, the two surviving crew members were at the Quinsam Hotel and were having a beer or two after a difficult day. The two men thought it was terrible that they were drinking and their poor pal was down at the morgue. With the help of a well-known taxi driver, who approved of the plan, the men went down and dragged the body from the morgue, put him in the taxi, and then propped him up at a corner table at the Quinsam. When the Bishop arrived with beer he said “Hey you friend is drunk!” and the men convinced the Bishop that their friend wasn’t causing any problems so he should just leave them the beer. They then ordered three more beer and the Bishop came over and said “Look, I’ve had enough. I’m not having a drunk like that in this place. I’ll get a bad reputation.” So the men carried their friend out of the Quinsam Hotel, back to the taxi, and returned him to the morgue. The next morning someone came and told the Bishop about the bucker who was killed the previous morning. The Bishop asked when the man had died, and when he was told it had been the previous morning he exclaimed “Like hell he did! He was sitting here yesterday drinking beer!” The superstitious Bishop was apparently shaky for days.
English owned the Quinsam Hotel for over 35 years, and then in 1959, Jack Ross went into partnership with him. Ross knew nothing about the business when he became involved, but was good with numbers and thought the Quinsam seemed to be a good investment. He had received training in wrestling earlier in his life, which proved a useful skill when he needed to break up the frequent fights that would occur frequently in the bar.
Ross kept the Quinsam’s existing staff, but for the first few years he worked the bar himself. In those days the Quinsam was strictly a beer parlour, and in Ross’ opinion, “it was the nicest place to drink”.
In 1961 he bought Crawford’s store next door and expanded the beer parlour and added a café and eight new hotel rooms. With reception staff, waitresses in the café, cooks and extra bar staff, there were now 20-25 people working at the Quinsam.
In a Courier article from March 20, 1963, the new ultra-modern coffee shop is described. The coffee maker, “the only one of its kind on Vancouver Island”, included innovative features such as specially designed single use filters. The new brightly lit décor had both counters and booths covered in “attractive burnt leatherette”. The colour is repeated in “interesting hanging lamps, with sea-green highlights”.
Diana Kretz had her first date at the Quinsam with her husband-to-be Jim in 1964. Jim showed up with his friend Mike Taylor, and Diana was quite surprised to find out that they were taking her to the Quinsam, a place she had never previously been but had been leery of. Although she didn’t know Jim, they had been introduced by her good friend Thor Peterson. “Jim turned up, came down, he was logging in Kelsey Bay, he came with his friend Mike Taylor who had a logging truck at Kelsey Bay. I had a quote “double date”, I had both these guys that I didn’t know, and we drove off in Jim’s car, with my dad looking at me. He met them and all that but we didn’t know each other.” There were separate entrances in those days for “ladies and escorts” and “gentlemen” so Diana and Jim went in one door while Mike entered by another door. “It had little tables with yellow foam table cloth things that I guess absorbed the beer if you spilt. And people drank beer. There was no music in those days, it was strictly drinking beer.”
At the time, laws governing drinking establishments were quite strict. For example, the bar had to close from 6:30pm to 7:00pm, to encourage patrons to go home for supper. The last call of the evening was at 11:30pm and the establishment closed at midnight, and they were not allowed to open on Sundays.
Steve Sandholm recalled a time when a beer at the Quinnie would cost you 20 cents. “You could go to the bar with two bucks and have ten beer.” He continued “They were infamous at the time for the giant jar of pickled eggs and sausage on the bar. They tasted aweful, but after your ten beer they started to taste pretty good. Who knows how long those eggs were in that jar.” Steve described a place that was always packed, and where there was never a dull night, so everyone had a story to tell about the Quinsam. When asked what made the place unique, he described the bar’s heyday when live entertainment was available six nights per week. “It was the only place on Vancouver Island with live music every night.”
By 1967, Jack Ross bought out the business from Jim English’s son Bob. In 1976 he then sold the establishment to Eli Katz. Katz tried to change the name to the “Kerdan”, but the name change was short lived. From 1982 to 1989 the Quinsam was owned by John Jerry, and he started to bring bands in every night. When he sold the business the new owners were John and Bonnie Uzzell. During the years that this hand working couple owned the Quinsam they procured a license to sell liquor and they opened up a liquor store that was attached to the building at the back parking lot. In 2009 it was purchased by the Cape Mudge Band. In 2011 they moved the liquor license to their property at Quinsam Crossing. Live bands continued to play Fridays and Saturdays, karaoke nights were Sundays and Thursdays, and there were daily food specials in the café.
Early in the morning of Wednesday June 28, 2017 the Quinsam Hotel was destroyed by fire. Twenty-six fire fighters worked for five hours using four pump trucks to get the fire out. It was one of Campbell River’s few remaining historic buildings.
By Erika Anderson, from October 2017 Musings