In 1853, William Wellington Connor, prominent Bayfield Orangeman, militia officer and entrepreneur, purchased the northwest corner of Cameron and Main streets. He built one of the village’s first hotels and called it the Royal Exchange. Despite its grand name, it was little more than a log cabin where weary travellers could get a night’s rest, a meal and perhaps a stiff drink to revive flagging spirits. From those humble beginnings, the site would evolve into the Ritz Hotel, one of Bayfield’s most renowned resort destinations.
The Royal was an ‘exchange’ because it was attached to a livery near the hotel where tired horses could rest or be exchanged for fresh mounts to maintain the carriage’s speed of passage. A long pole over the hotel, visible to both highway travellers and perhaps lake voyagers, announced the Royal’s location. However, with its Spartan accommodation, the Royal was unable to attract the burgeoning tourist traffic, particularly of American visitors, arriving on the Canadian shore of Lake Huron in the post Civil War era.
The Point Farm Hotel located two miles north of Goderich opened in 1874. It drew some of the U.S and Canada’s wealthiest and famous people. They included General William Tecumseh Sherman and future Presidents Chester Arthur and James Garfield. If Bayfield was to capitalize on the increasing summer tourists who spent the season in the area, it required better hotel accommodation.
Another bit of local lore holds that W. W. Connor failed to get a liquor licence for the Royal so he decided to build a bigger hotel to meet the licencing requirements. Whether it was liquor or the need to attract tourists, the old cabin was moved in 1878 and a new summer hotel, the Queen’s Hotel, was erected on the site with Henry McCann as its first proprietor.
The Queen’s was an imposing two-storey frame structure with a wide verandah wrapped around both stories. A mansard “tower room” over the centre entrance increased the building’s height and gave the hotel an excellent observation point for guests. Dave Gillians, in For the Love of Bayfield (2012), said the Queen’s Hotel became “one of the most elegant summer hotels on Lake Huron.”
The Queen’s went through a series of proprietors for the next 20 years according to the History of the Village of Bayfield (1985). The high turnover in owners indicates that business was never as brisk as anticipated. As a summer inn, the hotel was unheated and so accommodation was limited to a single season. In May 1897, the Clinton New Era reported that the Queen’s had opened for another season under the proprietorship of James Pollock who promised to renovate the building with the ambition of making it “one of the best hostelries in Western Ontario.”
After Pollock’s death in 1898, Irish immigrant Henry Darrow married Pollock’s widow and took over the management of the hotel. He had the advantage of obtaining, in 1900, a year-round liquor licence to keep the hotel’s bar open during the winter months. Darrow, a noted fiddle player, turned the Queen’s into a centre for the village’s social life. Lively parties held there were reported in the local papers.
In 1902, Darrow retained ownership of the Queen’s but sold the hotel business to a “Mrs Murray” for $200. Mrs. Murray ran it as boarding house and “dispensed with the bar.” Later, the Ferguson family purchased the old hotel and used it as private residence. It operated at various times as a hotel/boarding house until 1923 when the News Record announced that Martha Ritz, of Stratford, had purchased the old Queen’s hotel from Darrow for the purpose of fitting it out “for the tourist trade this summer” and changed the name to the much more fashionable Ritz Hotel indicating 1920s style and class.
At 43, the newly-widowed Martha Ritz must have been a woman of means. She capitalized on the new mobility that travellers had in the automobile by adding a restaurant for guests passing through the village. She re-furnished the hotel’s 13 rooms and made extensive interior renovations to rid the hotel of its aged Victorian look.
In 1925, Martha Ritz married local lake sailor, 40-year-old, Thomas Bailey. The two of them kept house at the Ritz for the duration of the hotel’s life. Under the Baileys’ management, the Ritz became a high-class hotel as guest names appeared weekly in the social columns of the Clinton News Record. Regular visitors hailed from Michigan, Ohio and upstate New York, as well as the Canadian cities of Toronto and Montreal. Typically, they stayed for a week and, in many cases, guests rented rooms for the entire summer to take in the lake airs and village’s quaint charms.
The Baileys were obliging hosts, going so far as to break the law for the comfort of their guests. Under the Canada Temperance Act, alcohol sales in Huron County were forbidden, but Mrs. Bailey was cited at least once for violating the liquor laws. On Christmas Eve 1937, police walked into her hotel “and seized beer” from Mrs. Bailey who claimed that she was just “treating her friends.” In 1941, Thomas Bailey was fined $25 for serving liquor at the bar. Illegally providing alcohol in dry Huron County did nothing to hinder the Ritz’s popularity with the public. One can only speculate at how much alcohol was doled out from the Ritz on V-J Day in August 1945, when a large gathering of locals gathered at the intersection between the Ritz and Little Inn to celebrate by dancing in circles, singing “God Save the King” and honking car horns all day long.
On Saturday, Aug. 30, 1947, a catastrophic chimney fire destroyed the venerable old hotel. Lacking a fire department, Bayfield citizens improvised a bucket brigade which “worked heroically” to douse the fire. All 35 guests and staff members escaped without injury. It was noted that suitcases, furniture, bedding and valuables were tossed out of windows including, according to legend, a pillowcase stuffed with the Baileys’ savings. The dramatic conflagration was even captured by a rare colour 8mm home movie camera. One of the results of the fire was that the village council voted to establish the Bayfield fire department to combat like infernos in the future.
Undaunted, work commenced on the “New Ritz” in December 1947, which opened in April 1948 just in time for the summer season. The two-storey structure, built by F. C. Kalbfleisch and Son of Zurich, was described in the News Record as “simple in design, a two-storey frame building 70’x30” and covered in white “shingle siding and a red asbestos roof.” The New Ritz also contained a lounge, bar, spacious dining room decorated throughout in “pastel tints.” The New Ritz remained a popular destination for summer motorists and local organizations like the Bayfield Lions’ Club.
However, an affluent post-war Canada meant that families of relatively average means could buy cottages and summer trailers along the lakeshore. No longer did families rent a hotel room for a week or a season. The New Ritz Hotel was a victim of this new prosperity. The 1966 summer season was the last year the New Ritz took in hotel guests. In advancing years and declining business, the Baileys closed the New Ritz after the 1966 summer season. Martha died in 1974 at age 94. Thomas Bailey died in 1979, also aged 94.
After the hotel’s closure, the New Ritz went through a series of owners and business ventures. Currently, the New Ritz is the home of the Virtual High School. The Ritz Hotel property can justly claim to be the Village of Bayfield’s first tourist spot. A tradition of hotel hospitality that lives on in Bayfield.