Thursday, 17 March 2011

Hot Times in Ceylon: The North West Hotel

North West Hotel, Ceylon, 1912. From Builders of a Great Land (1980)
After building and operating a couple of hotels in Minnesota, William J. Coffron and his wife, Catherine (Cassie) moved to Ceylon district of Saskatchewan in 1908. Coffron filed on a homestead which was subsequently operated by his son, Billy. Located 110 km due south of Regina, and 50 km north of the Canada-U.S. border, Ceylon had its beginnings – like most prairie towns – with the construction of the railway through the district in 1910. Seeing an opportunity, the Coffrons moved to Ceylon in 1911 and built the North West Hotel. The $25,000 hotel opened on the evening of December 25, 1911; the following day, it burned to the ground.

Fire at the North West Hotel, December 26, 1911. From Builders of a Great Land (1980)
The fire started in a small building next door to the hotel and spread quickly. There was no firefighting equipment in Ceylon, so little could be done to battle the blaze.  “People do strange things in times of excitement and this was evident the day of the fire,” Ceylon’s history book, Builders of a Great Land, states, “Townspeople and hotel occupants carried bedding and mattresses down the stairs and threw china basins and pitchers out of the windows to the frozen ground below.” Mildred Stephenson, the first baby born in the newly incorporated village, was born in the hotel the night of the fire. The Stephenson family lived in the hotel, where Mr. Stephenson worked. Mrs. Stephenson went into labour just as the hotel was being consumed by flames. She was moved into a little shack behind the hotel which was sprayed with water to keep it from burning while Mildred was being born.

Mildred Stephenson (left) with her parents and brothers, n.d. From Builders of a Great Land (1980)
Coffron rebuilt the North West Hotel in 1912 on the same foundation. It had 47 rooms. He and Cassie ran and excellent dining room and the bar was always busy. A story is told about a certain Irishman who had a few too many drinks at the hotel bar and was creating a disturbance. “Mr. Coffron got him upstairs and handcuffed him to the bedstead,” the history book recounts. “Before long, he was coming down the stairs carrying the bedstead with him.”

William Coffron (far right) at the bar of the first North West Hotel, 1911. From Builders of a Great Land (1980)
Lobby of the North West Hotel, 1912.  From Builders of a Great Land (1980)
Bill and Cassie Coffron, n.d.
In an attempt to curtail incidents such as this, the government of Saskatchewan introduced Prohibition in 1915. The bar of the North West Hotel in Ceylon was closed, and in its place the Coffrons set up the town’s first movie theatre. There was no money to be made without the bar, however, so the Coffrons sold the hotel to Martin Gensvein who only lasted a few months. According to the town’s history book, the hotel was then sold to “the Bromptons” who used the hotel as a cover for bootlegging during Prohibition. Could this have been, in fact, the infamous Bronfmans?

The Bronfman family built its huge fortune from the liquor business during Prohibition. The Bronfmans had a string of “boozoriums” or liquor supply depots in communities along the Saskatchewan-North Dakota border from which American customers could purchase liquor. Because Ceylon was located so close to the border, a boozorium was operated somewhere in the town – possibly out of the hotel. Whiskey from the Bronfman family’s distillery in Yorkton was shipped to safe storage in Ceylon and other border towns. Under cover of night, well-armed men in big cars arrived to haul the booze south along well-worn trails to U.S. customers. 

Ceylon bank vault after the robbery.
Booze begat violence.  On September 27, 1922, the residents of Ceylon were awakened by an explosion.  A gang of five or six bandits had blown open the vault of the Bank of Montreal and stolen about $7,000 in cash, securities and bonds. They then hopped into a get-away car, fired a rifle into the air “as a parting shot of glee and triumph,” and sped south through the Big Muddy and down into the States. All the while, apparently, a Montana sheriff was fast asleep in the Coffron’s hotel. One theory is that the thieves knew the bank’s vault would contain the proceeds of the illegal liquor trade going in in the area at the time. The culprits were never apprehended. A month later, on October 4th, Paul Matoff, a brother-in-law of the Bronfmans who ran the boozorium at Bienfait, was killed by a shotgun blast at close range during an altercation while loading a shipment for some American customers. By 1929, public pressure led to the Bronfman’s export business being banned from Saskatchewan.

The Ceylon Hotel today.From www.saskschools.ca/~pangman/communit/rmtown/ceylon/
© Joan Champ 2011



View Larger Map

2 comments:

  1. I live in Ceylon and I can attest to the fact that time has not tamed the Wild West as many may think. The hotel is still a thriving concern. One thing to note though is that the address is not Railway and Main. It is one street over on First Avenue and Main

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment Franklin. It's good to know the hotel in Ceylon is still going strong. These old, small-town hotels are community centres in their own way. Many of the hotels in Saskatchewan were built on Railway and Main, but of course not all. Plus, a few towns didn't follow the cookie-cutter mold and gave more imaginative names to their streets. Still, I thought it was a good title for my blog!

    ReplyDelete