Drink Up, Dress Up: The Glory Days of the Pinecrest Hotel

The infamous brawls of the Pinecrest Hotel in Fort Smith would whirl their way through the muck and mud of the unpaved roads, occasionally rolling past Lorraine Tordiff’s white picket fence or into her yard.

But for the most part, the commotion had kept itself off her veranda and outside her front door; that is, until one foggy fall night.

“It was quite entertaining, and a little bit scary actually, because at that time my father had passed, so there was just mom and three girls in a big old house,” she says.

“This guy just sort of burst into our house,” Tordiff recounts. “So my sister Ida got up and my brother’s friend Jimmy Kennedy was there as well, so they both wrestled him out the door — he was quite drunk anyway. Ida gave him a shove over the door jam, and he sat on his bum and slid all the way down to the gate. We thought it was the funniest thing.”

It was a rough time, but an optimistic one, too; where a young woman could order her first drink in a proper lounge  — separate from the burly, dirty men in the bar next door — and be escorted home to bed before the regular dust-ups would happen in the parking lot outdoors.

The Pinecrest and its legendary action is long gone, the classy airs of the cocktail lounge and its dark, polished floors vanishing well before the building was condemned in 2005 and later demolished.

But in the glory days of the town once fated to be the capital of the Northwest Territories, the Pinecrest was the bustling centre of social activity, a haven for traveling boat hands and local colour, visiting politicians and busy construction workers in the late 1950s and ‘60s.

“It was very classy for our little town,” recalls Tordiff, who celebrated her 21st birthday with a pink lady — her first drink ever — ordered by her newlywed husband at the Pinecrest in October 1966.

Tordiff, born a Cumming, grew up in a large old house with her brothers and sisters just a block away from the two-storeyed, L-shaped hotel on the corner of Fort Smith’s main street that is now an empty lot. She remembers being a young woman when construction crews overran the town in the late ‘50s, building the “new” Joseph Burr Tyrrell elementary school, the road from Bell Rock Estates to Fort Fitzgerald in Alberta, and even the St. Joseph Cathedral, located conveniently across the parking lot from the Pinecrest.

“The property next to us was a ball diamond and the federal day school was further behind. There wasn’t an awful lot between us and where they built the Pinecrest Hotel,” she says. “They built the hotel, and the first thing they finished was the bar. So there used to be quite a lot of street fights in front of our house or coming down the street, guys fighting.”

It was a rough time, but an optimistic one, too; where a young woman could order her first drink in a proper lounge  — separate from the burly, dirty men in the bar next door — and be escorted home to bed before the regular dust-ups would happen in the parking lot outdoors.

Several lifetime bans

Among the Pinecrest’s most loyal patrons was Tordiff’s uncle Gabriel Bourke, known better around town to this day as “Uncle Gabe” — the namesake of the community’s friendship centre.

The late Bourke was famous for his love of the drink as much as his jovial demeanor and powerful physique. Poet and journalist Tapwe Chretien would write in a 1978 issue of Northern Breed magazine:

“The North is not without its living legends. Now in his seventies, Gabriel Bourke of Fort Smith, better known as ‘Uncle Gabe,’ is probably one of the most colourful personalities in the North. He’s well known for his mischievous humour and feats of strength.”

Uncle Gabe on the cover of Northern Breed in January 1978

Uncle Gabe travelled everywhere by dog team, including the bar. Legend has it that all he had to say to his team of dogs — dubbed Whiskey, Scotch, Rye, Rum, Beer and Wine after some of his fond favourites — was “liquor” and they’d head on over to the store to buy a bottle.

His six-pack of canines would also take him to the local watering hole at the Pinecrest, where he’d park them outside along with the construction crew trucks that would run all night.

Such is how he received what is rumoured to have been the first of several lifetime bans from the hotel.

“Uncle Gabe used to bring his dogs to the bar. Like you park your vehicle, he’d go and park his dogs and they’d just sit there and wait for him. One day, I think it was on a dare or a bet maybe, he was dared to bring his dogs into the bar. So he did,” Tordiff says. 

“The story is, some guy held open the door and he drove his dog team right into the bar and all through the bar, and as a result he was barred out for 99 years. However, he was a good patron so they did let him back in,” she says.

“His dogs did pretty much whatever he told them to do. He was a character.”

Though Bourke lived the equivalent of several blocks away from the Cumming residence, Tordiff says she could often hear him whistling and singing in the morning as he went about his work. And he was a hard worker.

“He used to enter these competitions where they’d pack hundred pound bags of flour on guys’ backs and see how far they could carry them. He always won — and he was an old guy,” she says.

“He was such a happy guy. I suppose that’s why they named the Friendship Centre after him — because he was so friendly.”

Gabriel Bourke, right, and his friend Moise Nadary in a 1978 copy of Northern Breed magazine

Capital dreams dashed

Apart from its legendary bar, the Pinecrest was also home to Mr. Wong’s Chinese restaurant and a number of other small businesses, like a pharmacy and seamstress’ shop. Wong’s was a hot spot for those below bar age, who would head there after a movie at the old Park Theatre — also no longer in existence — for chips, gravy and a coke, or Tordiff’s favourite, the “Mexican hat”: a scoop of ice cream and a drizzle of syrup on a donut.

“Mexican hats in a Chinese restaurant,” she laughs.

Back then, the Northwest Transport Company Ltd. (NTCL) shipping headquarters were also located in Fort Smith. There was always a stirring when the NTCL boys would be back in town in spring after a long, dreary winter.

“You could almost count the minutes from when the first NTCL truck rolled into town to when the girls would be walking up and down the street in their Sunday best,” Tordiff recalls.

The original manager, Mr. Amiro — known better as “Footsie” for his big feet — kept the establishment squeaky clean and without mischief, as much as possible.

“When he was around, he took care of business very well,” Tordiff says.

Over the decades, the hotel changed ownership several times. Though the bar always remained a hotspot for townspeople and the visiting Aurora College students — the birthplace of table dancing, if you ask some locals — the hotel itself became more of a low-income housing option in the 1990s and 2000s. Due to a lack of upkeep and violation of fire codes, the building was officially shut down in December 2005 by the NWT Fire Marshall.

But for Tordiff, memories of the hotel will always centre around its glory days, when the small South Slave town was still dreaming big city dreams, for better or worse. That all changed when Yellowknife was named the territorial headquarters and Fort Smith given the weaker title of “educational capital” of the NWT.

“I really think that it probably was built because we thought we were getting the capital,” she says. “Just as everything else in the community kind of changed when that happened, I think that did too…All of the focus was in Yellowknife and I think the Pinecrest kind of suffered as a result.”

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