Saving Alexandra Lodge

Shirley and Ken MacKinnon have taken on a bold task: to revitalize a run-down Fraser Canyon landmark and turn it into a bold new space for the community.

By Grace Kennedy | March 4, 2022 |5:00 am

Shirley and Ken MacKinnon were in the upstairs loft of Alexandra Lodge when the door creaked open downstairs.

“Oh, somebody’s down there,” Shirley said, interrupting Ken. She brushed past Ken, skirting the teetering piles of wood, boxes, and furniture, and quickly went down the stairs.

Ken continued pointing out the new beams holding up the sagging ceiling—essential for the new roof the couple was installing. A short while later, Shirley came back up holding a pink-striped box of donuts.

“A man came to drop off some donuts and he wanted just to say hi to us,” she said, laughing a little.

“Who’s that?” Ken asked.

“Just a guy that knows what we’re doing.”

For the MacKinnons, it’s not an uncommon occurrence to have strangers show up uninvited to their home. It comes with the territory when you buy one of the most famous—and run-down—buildings in the Fraser Canyon.

Shirley and Ken MacKinnon, and their five chihuahuas, are the new residents and owners of Alexandra Lodge. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The new lodge owners

The Alexandra Lodge is located on a 12-acre property in the Fraser Canyon, sandwiched between the Fraser River and the Cascade mountains, and bisected by both the Trans Canada Highway and the CN rail line. The two-storey building had been home to a bustling tourism venue for nearly 100 years before it fell into disrepair. Today, the property is home to a handful of dilapidated cabins, two cemeteries, a couple of creeks, a heritage trail, and one lodge filled with old mattresses, children’s dresses, boxes of records, and tarnished mirrors, held up by rotting floorboards and sagging walls.

The MacKinnon’s hadn’t intended to buy the broken-down old building, not at first. The couple had spent the last two decades renovating their Maple Ridge home into a place they loved. But with retirement looming, and both Shirley and Ken self-employed and without pensions to rely on, they began to look for a property that could bring them some income in old age.

Shirley found the Alexandra Lodge first.

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“I’ve actually followed the lodge for eight years,” she said. She would see it when she drove along the Trans Canada between Yale and Boston Bar, a red building sagging a little on its foundations. It hadn’t been a hotel for more than 15 years, but she could see its potential. She kept tabs on the property, following as it sale signs came up, then down, and then back up again.

Ken didn’t know it existed until a year ago.

“I would tell Ken about it, but he didn’t really get it,” Shirley told The Current. Ken chuckled in the background.

The house had been beyond their price range, but the real estate market had other plans. Last year, they were able to sell their house in Maple Ridge and purchased the Alexandra Lodge. They wished they could have sold their house for more—if only to have more cash to restore the lodge to its former glory. So far they have enough for a new roof, and to get the rest of the renovations off the ground. But once that money’s gone, “all of our extra earnings are going into the lodge to restore her,” Shirley said.

The goal is more than just creating a dream home for the MacKinnons. It’s to bring the lodge back to its former glory, and help revitalize a forgotten section of the Fraser Canyon.

The first roadhouse on the site of the current Alexandra Lodge was built before 1858. 📸 Public Domain/BC Archives

The history

Built on Chapman’s Bar near the Spuzzum First Nation, Alexandra Lodge has long been a resting place for travellers moving through the Fraser Canyon.

A roadhouse has sat on the site since 1858, the same year that gold-seeking foreigners and the Nlaka’pamux nation shot at and killed each other in the Fraser Canyon War. The third settler structure to be built in the area, the lodge was situated along the Tikwalus Trail, a route used by the Nlaka’pamux people to travel through the canyon and later appropriated by the Hudson’s Bay Company. (The trail would also be called the First Brigade Trail, as “brigades” of horses and men travelled along it.)

Two years after the Cariboo Road had begun to be used for wagons passing through the Fraser Canyon, innkeeper William Alexander and property owner Louis Waigland built a new lodge near the original roadhouse.

But the lodge’s real heyday came in the 1920s and ’30s, when a hotel chain bought the lodge and enlisted Lily Clegg and her husband Henry to operate it. The chain started a renovation in 1926 to expand the building, taking advantage of the new automobile craze that revived the region.

Lily, the proprietress, was a straight-cut woman who was once seen stirring soup with ash over an inch long dangling off the end of her cigarette. She ran the lodge with white linen tablecloths and filet mignon on the menu; King Prajadhipok of Siam (now Thailand) stopped at the lodge in 1931 on his Canadian-American tour.

A postcard showed Alexandra Lodge at the height of its popularity in the 1930s, including the many small cabins on the property. 📸 Public Domain

After Lily’s death in 1947, the lodge began its gradual decline. In 1952, the lodge moved several feet backwards after the Trans Canada Highway was established. A concrete foundation was built six feet away from the lodge’s original location, and the existing 1920s building was placed on top. The foundation wasn’t built high enough, and water seeped through the ground, rotting the bottom of the lodge.

It remained a cornerstone of the community, however. Shirley and Ken have heard the stories already: families who would come during camping trips to fill their RVs with water from one of the property’s creeks, a couple on their honeymoon whose marital endeavours led to a bouncing baby boy nine months later; a woman who would stop at the lodge to rest while riding her bicycle to school in Spuzzum.

In the 1970s, the province awarded the lodge its heritage designation, but that didn’t help the lodge get the money or visitors it needed to remain open. The lodge passed from owner to owner. Eventually Dorine Hooper, famous for her cinnamon buns, closed the lodge in the mid-1990s. Lacking the money to restore it, the lodge fell into disrepair.

Alexandra Lodge was sold, rebought, and sold again. Now, it is in the hands of the MacKinnons—a couple that lodge enthusiasts hope will be able to restore the building to its former glory.

“It has a huge history,” Shirley said. “We don’t even know a lot about how it ties in with the First Nations’ history. That’s all stuff we have to learn.”

Left: Ken MacKinnon examines a new creek running through the Alexandra Lodge property during November’s storms; Right: Ken MacKinnon sweeps snow off the roof of the lodge to prevent it from collapsing in January. 📸 The Historic Alexandra Lodge/Facebook

The first six months

The MacKinnons expected a few hurdles when they purchased Alexandra Lodge. They didn’t expect the natural disasters.

In August of last year, the couple moved onto the property with their RV and their five chihuahuas. Permitting delays with Heritage BC meant they wouldn’t officially get possession for several months, but they prepared to enjoy their first few days lounging in lawn chairs. Then, the fires came.

“We were sitting in lawn chairs in the first couple days we were here, and we had ashes with embers coming down on the property,” Shirley remembered. “That was our first experience. That was scary.”

The Fraser Canyon was peppered with wildfires throughout the summer of 2021, as the tinder-dry landscape ignited at the merest hint of a fire. Despite fires that destroyed towns 60km away, the MacKinnons and their new property survived to the fall, when changing weather removed the provincial state of emergency.

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The next crisis came in November, when floods and landslides closed all highways into and out of the Lower Mainland, cutting the lodge off from Hope. One of the two creeks on the MacKinnon’s property swelled into a small river, escaping the bounds of its creek bed and pouring over the highway. The couple called the Ministry of Transportation, which had to divert the water to prevent it from destroying the highway.

“That creek would have taken out that highway,” Shirley said. “Nobody would have got through to Boston Bar.”

Then came the avalanches. Highway 1 had been reopened to the south, but heavy snowfall over the winter holidays closed the road yet again. Avalanche warnings were issued on either side of Alexandra Lodge—marking the first time the area had needed avalanche control for 25 years.

The MacKinnons’ friends were worried the couple could be trapped. They didn’t have the same concern. Instead, they were more focused on saving the lodge—both from natural disasters and the inexorable march of time.

Ken MacKinnon has been completely renovating Alexandra Lodge’s kitchen. Here, he walks on a board laid over an open pit, with the original log wall exposed. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The restoration

Saving her will be no easy task. Alexandra Lodge has been slowly deteriorating for years. Ground water rotted out the floors and some walls. The roof was mossy and sagging. Paint was peeling both inside and out. Ken has begun the renovations—although snow, ice, and highway closures have put a pause to the exterior work. But construction on the lodge’s interior continued, revealing new history as Ken peeled away crumbling drywall.

“We’re going to show you a wall in here that ages the lodge by 30, 40 years,” Ken said, walking towards the edge of the main foyer room. A step down through a doorway leads you into another room, connecting the upstairs loft area with a downstairs bedroom and bathroom. Ken had removed the moulding drywall and exposed the wall’s underlying structure. With it gone, you could see vertical wood planks and a filled-in window frame.

Ken MacKinnon peeled away drywall to showcase the exterior lodge wall that had been hidden underneath. 📸 Grace Kennedy

“This building we don’t have a lot of history on, but… I know a lot more about it than I did three months ago,” Ken said. “This was supposed to be a new build in 1926. Actually, this was a renovation in 1926.

“This wall here is the original siding,” he continued. “So when the government and everybody else was looking at the lodge previous to this, the drywall was in place. They couldn’t see any of that.”

Other new openings show what could be the original siding from the 1926 version of the lodge. Ken and Shirley aren’t sure—the wood panels are green rather than whitewashed, and they would need to date the wood to have any real certainty. But it’s an exciting moment for the couple, and the lodge’s new extended community.

Shirley has started an Alexandra Lodge Facebook page where she showcases their work and the lodge’s history. Through it, they’ve discovered a broad community of people engaged with the lodge’s past and enthusiastic about its future.

“We never realized how much people love it,” Shirley said. “And it’s because we’ve been here that we’ve heard all their stories. So we want to embrace it so the community can still access it.”

Ken and Shirley MacKinnon still have a long way to go before realizing their dream of revitalizing Alexandra Lodge, but aren’t worried about the amount of work they have before them. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The future

There are a few things Shirley and Ken know for sure. The upstairs floor of the Alexandra Lodge will be renovated to become their new home. The historic kitchen, and the old metal stove, will be refurbished and turned into Shirley’s art studio. And the lodge will be open to visitors for as long as the couple lives there—which they said will be for the rest of their lives.

The couple said they want to open the front portion of the lodge as an art gallery and gift shop, displaying the work of local artisans to travelers. They may also turn part of the 1926 addition into a one-bedroom suite, allowing for an artist-in-residence-style program.

The historic cabins on the property, now sinking under the weight of their rotting roofs and sidings, may be restored to allow for vacationers to spend time at the lodge. The MacKinnons hope to build a public picnic area with a composting toilet so people can rest on their way to the rest of the Canyon. (There is a rest area near Alexandra Bridge just two kilometres south, but accessing it for northbound traffic can be dangerous.)

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There are complications on those paths: zoning constraints, heritage constraints, financial constraints. (Although the couple has set up a GoFundMe to help with some of the latter.) But at the end of the day, the MacKinnons say they’ll figure out the best future for themselves and for the Alexandra Lodge—because the lodge is guiding the way.

“Alexandra is going to tell us what to do, and what it wants and what it needs,” Shirley said. “If we work on a permit and they say no… that’s the property telling us what we can’t do.

“We totally believe we are meant to be here,” she continued. “We’re meant to be part of what’s going to happen next.”

And what will happen next? Right now, a lot of renovations. Wind whistles through the exterior siding to the inside of the building. Drywall is peeling away from the walls. Snow is piling up under the gaping hole in the lodge’s kitchen floor.

“People look at it and say ‘Are you crazy? What are you doing here? Your floor is missing,’” Ken said. “But it’s only a floor. I’ve built hundreds of decks and kitchens and bathrooms.

“What scares most people doesn’t scare me,” he continued. “What scares me is I’m old and I only have so many years to get it done.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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