The story of an inn crowd
The newly acquired records of the historic Hotel Kenney, a Rideau Waterway landmark for 123 years, are being hailed as one of the most significant regional collections in the Queen’s Archives’ collection.
When fourth-generation hotelier, Joseph Kenney, Arts’63, and his wife Linda (Crump), Arts’65, NSc’65, sold the Hotel Kenney last year, they donated a substantial piece of Eastern Ontario history to the Queen’s Archives. The gift, which includes the historic hotel’s register, a collection of photos, correspondence, and assorted memorabilia, reveals a rich and colourful history. “This is one of the more significant regional collections we’ve ever acquired,” says Paul Banfield, MA’85, the University’s chief archivist.
Knowing the significance of the Kenney’s donation, Banfield invited retired Queen’s archivist George Henderson, Arts’59, MA’64, who has knowledge of the hotel’s history, to catalogue and list the materials, which fill more than 50 boxes. Henderson kindly volunteered his time and expertise. He was delighted to do so. “The Kenney collection is an invaluable resource for the study of Canadian social history, the Rideau Canal and tourist patterns during the last century,” he explains.
Built in 1877 by Joe Kenney’s great-grandfather, Thomas Bartlett Kenney, of County Wexford, Ireland, the Hotel Kenney is located at scenic Jones Falls Locks, on the Rideau waterway, about 30 km north of Kingston. The business has been owned by four generations of Kenneys, and as a result much of the building’s original look and character remain intact.
Letters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, period photographs, registers, various artifacts, and even some old restaurant menus tell the story of the hotel and the guests who stayed there. In the early years, steamboats carrying both passengers and provisions between Kingston and Ottawa passed by 24 hours a day. A common cargo in the early years was cheese – locally produced cheddars especially – which was one of the few ways to preserve milk back then. The boats also carried apples, parts for agricultural equipment, and all type and manner of other cargo. Steamship travelers, tourists, and crew routinely stopped for meals and rooms at the hotel.
Over the years, the Hotel Kenney played host to countless famous guests. Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter, was among them. She once described Jones Falls as “by far the most beautiful spot in all of Canada.” U.S. President William Howard Taft, who was in the White House from 1908 to 1912, was a regular guest. Taft, a rotund Republican hailed from Ohio, and in those days the trip north was arduous, so when he came he tended to stay for a while, even bringing his own bed with him to accommodate his 6-foot, 340-lb. frame.
Joe Kenney loves to recount the Taft stories his grandfather told him. “Taft was a little large to sit in a fishing boat” Kenney notes. “So my grandfather used to carry a big, old stuffed chair down to the dock, and the President would spend long, happy days fishing from the comfort of that big easy chair.”
Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, who was born in Ottawa in 1943, spent part of her honeymoon in 1967 at the Hotel Kenney, enjoying complete anonymity. The Kenneys and their staff were sworn to secrecy.
Joe Kenney also recounts a time when, by pure coincidence, the Canadian presidents of Ford Canada, GM Canada and Chrysler Canada all happened to be with their families in the dining room at the same time, albeit at different tables. All the men were boating on the Rideau waterway and had stopped at the hotel for a stay.
Other guests from far and wide have made the hotel their summer vacation home, and have returned year after year. One couple from Cleveland, Ohio, came each year for 25 years. After moving to Sacramento, California, they have continued coming all the way from the west coast. For 50 years now, they have been enjoying a summer stay at the Hotel Kenney.
Joe Kenney notes that over the years there have been discernible changes in the patterns of visitors. Originally, many of them were crew, travelers, and tourists from the steamboats. Around the time of WWI, the hotel was popular with fishermen and their guides. After WWII, the guests were mostly well-to-do Americans, many of whom were boating on the waterway. In fact, until about the 1960s, as many as 90 per cent of the guests were Americans. Nowadays, more Canadians visit – especially Queen’s alumni. They come on day-trips, or on boating, fishing, hiking, and sight-seeing expeditions. Some just come from the big city to enjoy the peace and quiet and the scenery.
Generations of memories and the legacy of the old hotel are now secure in the hands of Queen’s Archives, a resource for which the Kenneys and two of their three children – Jeffrey Kenney, Artsci’93, and Martha Burbank, Artsci’90, Ed’91 and Leigh Ashworth, who attended the University of Waterloo – have a special fondness.
Says Kenney, “We’re very pleased that the hotel’s papers, registers, and photographs will now be safely preserved and made available to scholars rather than just collecting dust on our shelves. Not only were the many hours I spent working alongside with George Henderson and Paul Banfield to catalogue everything pleasant, they were a fine learning experience.”