This article appeared in Campbellton Magazine in 2014 and we are posting it here today as a tribute to the Quinnie that burnt down last night.
article by Catherine Gilbert
An enduring symbol of old Campbellton, the Quinsam Hotel was built almost one hundred years ago, and is one of the few remaining heritage buildings in Campbell River from this time period. It has survived through several owners and several eras, and continues to be a popular gathering place and unpretentious drinking establishment.
Affectionately known as “the Quinnie”, the hotel was under construction in 1917 but had an inauspicious beginning; it was the same year that Prohibition was enforced. Since the builder, Tom Laffin had counted on alcohol sales to support his investment, he sold it while it was still under construction and dubbed it ‘the White Elephant’. He only needed to wait a couple of years – Prohibition was short lived and ended in 1920. Ken Bergstrom completed construction on the hotel, and was soon doing a roaring trade.
The third owner of the hotel, and one who had a colourful reputation was Jim English. He was known about town as a character, and was nicknamed ‘the Bishop’. English wasn’t new to the hospitality business; he had been operating a bootlegging business out of the Fisherman’s Lodge in Oyster River, and he used the proceeds to purchase the Quinsam in 1923.
In 1926, he added a café and barbershop. An article in the Comox Argus dated July 25, 1929 gives a delightful description of the hotel as it was then:”
At a point near where the Island Highway swings close to the 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 of 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 NcNeil will give the logger or anyone else, modern tonsorial service.”
English owned the bar for just over 35 years, then in 1959, Jack Ross went into partnership with him. By this time English was no longer actively participating in the business, but he continued with his bootlegging – buying cases of liquor from the liquor store to sell to the customers who couldn’t get there before the 6:00pm closing time. Ross remembered that English wore special pants that could carry and conceal his bottles, and he would walk down the middle of the street selling his wares.
When Jack Ross bought the bar, he knew nothing about the business but was looking for some independence and a way to make money. He was good with math, and after reviewing the financial figures for the ‘Quinnie’, thought it would be a good investment. He soon found out that he possessed another useful talent. He had received training in wrestling while living in Edmonton, and this came in handy when he had to break up fights, which were a common, if almost daily occurrence. His son-in-law Bruce Izard said that Ross was friends with the then famous wrestler Gene Kiniski who would come to the hotel to see him, but Kiniski couldn’t have a drink in the bar as so many fellows would challenge him to a fight. Ross and Kiniski would have to meet in one of the hotel rooms to have their visit and share a drink.
When Ross took over the Quinsam, he kept the existing staff but worked the bar himself for the first few years. He found that he like the bar business; “I could BS a lot” he said. He had many regulars and made a point of knowing his patrons and calling them by name. In those days, the Quinsam was strictly a beer parlour, and in his opinion, “it was the nicest place to drink”.
It wasn’t long before he decided to expand and in 1961 bought Crawford’s Store next door. The beer parlour went from 125 to 200 seats, the cafe was added onto, and eight new hotel rooms went in above. With the need for reception staff, waitresses in the cafe, cooks and extra bar staff, he had between 20-25 people working there.
The majority of his clientele were mill workers on their way home and loggers. Women were allowed in the establishment but could only come in through the front entrance, and there was a separate entrance for men. One day a woman came in asking if he had found any teeth the night before, and when he said ‘no’, she replied, “Then I must have left them in the Willows.”
Laws governing drinking establishments were quite rigid at that time. One of the most challenging liquor laws to abide by was having to close the bar from 6:30 to 7:00pm; the idea being that patrons would go home for supper. Ross said that it was often difficult to convince them to do so. The tap was cut off at 11:30pm, and the establishment closed at midnight, and the bar was not allowed to be open on Sundays.
By 1967, Jack bought out the business from Jim English’s son Bob. They were busy years. Ross and his wife had six children and at one point he became President of the Rotary Club. A couple of his children worked in the bar and his oldest went on to study hotel management and to run the Arbutus Hotel in Courtenay.
While Ross owned the Quinsam, he said that only men served in the bar, and in those years there was no entertainment.
He sold in the Quinsam in 1976 to Eli Katz who changed the name to the ‘Kerdan’. Katz had the idea that there should be entertainment in the form of dancing girls, so he put plywood over the pool table to make a ‘stage’ for them. He sold the hotel to an insurance adjuster who did away with the dancers and lost money. Katz went on to purchase the Douglas Hotel in Victoria.
John Jerry owned the Quinsam from 1982 to 1989 and one of the most significant changes he made was to bring in bands to play every night except Sundays, until the laws changed and Sunday opening was also allowed. Some bands would stay for as long as two weeks if the patrons liked them. On his time as a bar owner Jerry commented: “If only the building could talk.”
Jerry sold the business to John and Bonnie Uzzell. Their daughter Crystal said her father John was a very hands-on owner, and despite having a manager, would do every job from clearing tables to getting behind the bar. Her mother Bonnie worked more behind the scenes and looked after the books and other details. It was a family affair, and Crystal and her husband Mike Modras operated the café for many years. During the years the Uzzells owned the Quinsam, they procured a licence to sell liquor and opened the liquor store that was attached to the building at the back parking lot. Crystal has fond memories of all the regular customers, who were very supportive when the family lost John Uzzell to a tragic accident in 2001. His wife Bonnie sold the business in 2009.
It was then purchased by the Cape Mudge Band. General Manager Blair Wells says that the only change the Band made was to move the liquor store and its licence to their property at Quinsam Crossing in 2011. Other than that, the hotel has remained the same, with live bands playing Fridays and Saturdays, karaoke on Sundays and Thursdays, and daily food specials. The café is still a popular spot for breakfast and lunch.
As Blair Wells says, “It’s a one of a kind place, not a cookie cut like so many of today’s pubs.” It could be this sense of uniqueness and the feeling that the Quinsam retains ties to the past that keeps people coming. Today’s patrons enjoy the old fashioned ambience the ‘Quinnie’ provides – like a place where time stands still.