BOWDEN — The town’s once proud Main Street hotel that for decades welcomed train travellers and grain producers is now just a memory.
The Bowden Hotel caught fire just minutes into 2022, forcing an emergency response from more than two dozen regional firefighters who for more than 15 hours bravely battled the blaze amidst bitter cold.
“There was smoke coming back to town and I thought, ‘what on earth is on fire? It stunk so bad.’ And I saw it was the hotel,” said longtime resident Sandy Gamble, who was just returning to Bowden after spending New Year’s Eve out of town.
Gamble left town again on New Year’s Day and when she returned hours later the smouldering remains had been bulldozed, leaving just a heap of concrete, twisted wires and metal in downtown Bowden at the corner of Highway 2A and 20th Street.
“It’s pretty much gone now,” she said.
The Bowden Hotel, according to local history buffs, was originally built in 1904 and burnt down the first time in 1925. It was rebuilt and opened again in 1930. The building was abandoned in 2015.
“I worked there for a long time. Used to be the place to go many years ago. We had some of the best bands come to play there too,” Bowdenite Donna McMillan Kjorsvik shared in a Facebook post on New Year’s Day.
The fire-ravaged hotel drama began when Olds RCMP received a complaint of a fire at the abandoned hotel just minutes after midnight on Jan. 1. Upon arrival, the structure was said to be completely engulfed in flames.
“We had flames and smoke showing from the northeast corner, and they (firefighters) did their attack and got the flames under control,” said Insp. Scott Tuton of Red Deer County Protective Services. He said up to 25 firefighters from Innisfail, Olds, and Red Deer County, including members from the Bowden station, were part of the response.
“As far as I know, it took four or five hours to get everything under control and knocked down to where at least there are no flames still going,” said Tuton.
While firefighters battled the blaze, Menno Sietzema, public works supervisor for the Town of Bowden, was called to handle traffic control and establish roadblocks around the stricken structure. He was also tasked with monitoring the local pump station on the east side of town to ensure it could handle firefighter water consumption, especially for a ladder truck that required at least 500 gallons of water a minute.
“The ladder truck from the Olds Fire Department showed up and we got ready to set up, hooking up all the hoses to it,” said Sietzema, who arrived on scene at about 2 a.m.
“The flames were really not that high. There was a lot of smoke. It seemed the flames were more underneath the roof. More smoke than anything, and low flames.”
Firefighters were still on scene at 3 p.m. on Jan. 1 — 15 hours after the initial call. The pioneer building was still smouldering. Streets were blocked off to motor vehicle traffic as Innisfail firefighters continued to hose down the exterior of the building to put out hot spots.
“We want to have room for our excavator and we still got flames and they’re still working with hoses, so we’ve got to keep everybody back,” said Tuton, adding no cause to the blaze has yet been established.
And then at around 5 p.m. the decision was made to have Innisfail’s Howell's Excavation knock down the old Bowden Hotel.
“It was structurally unsafe, and it was (demolished) to reduce the hazards,” Gary Leith, chief of the Innisfail Fire Department, whose crews, working in shifts, remained on the scene until 5 p.m. on Jan. 1.
Dusty Howell, owner of Howell's Excavation, said his company arrived at the scene at about 4:30 p.m. and that following an inspection, the decision was made through Tuton to demolish the building.
“We did an overview of the site, a walk around. I helped him do a little bit of investigative stuff as we were trying to figure out where the fire had started,” said Howell.
“Once that was complete, they wanted me to knock the entire structure down so there was no chance of it falling down on its own while they decide what they are going to do for the remainder of the clean-up.”
He said the demolition was completed by 10 p.m.
Sadness and the road ahead
Sietzema said he inspected the interior of the hotel last fall, and the building had deteriorated badly since its final closure six years earlier. He noted anything of value inside — there wasn’t much except for a pool table and an old jukebox — was destroyed from the fire and subsequent demolition.
Sietzema added the building had also been vandalized many times since being abandoned.
“All the suites had been ripped apart. If somebody had bought it, it would have been a lot of money to fix it all up. It would not have been worth it,” he said, adding some locals are sure to be sad over the building’s inglorious end.
“Yes, they had memories of what had gone on in the bar, a lot of drinks. But on the other hand, this was bound to happen any time. Everybody is surprised it took this long by being vacant.”
Meanwhile, the town was already looking into ways of tearing down the structure even before the New Year’s Day fire.
Gamble, who is a town councillor and chair of the Bowden Historical Society, said the problem was establishing ownership, which she said was “murky” at best. Following last year’s aborted plan by Okotoks-based developer Kyle McCowan to turn the hotel into affordable housing, mayor Robb Stuart said one lien was taken off the Bowden Hotel but another was placed by the Canada Revenue Agency.
“We don’t own it so it isn’t ours, and of course we can’t do anything like that,” she said, adding the municipality has been in discussions with Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Devin Dreeshen over the past month on what they could do to move forward with the derelict old building. “He was trying to assist us in trying to find out how it could be demolished because it was full of asbestos.
“We were trying to work on it to have it torn down,” she said, adding the ultimate demolition of the Bowden Hotel is not a huge loss for the community.
“It’s just been an eyesore for a long time.”
Gamble said she hopes there will be a full report to council at its first regular meeting of the year this month (Jan. 10) that will offer more details on the fire, especially the cause of the blaze.
The Olds RCMP investigation into the New Year’s Day blaze continues.