Monday, 29 December 2014

North Portal: "Roughs Come in from Dakota"

Grandview Hotel, North Portal, c. 1910 Source
The border town of North Portal was a wild and wooly place in the early 1900s, due in large measure to the sale of alcohol to residents of North Dakota, a “dry” state from 1889 to 1932. Sales of liquor flourished in North Portal from 1903 when it was founded, until 1915 when Saskatchewan implemented its own prohibition laws. Things picked up again during the Roaring Twenties when American rum runners used North Portal as a distribution centre for illegal liquor. The town boasted two hotels located only a few feet from the Canada-US border – the Union Hotel and the Grandview Hotel. It also gained notoriety as a town with a high crime rate for a community its size.

North Portal in the winter of 1911; Grandview Hotel on left. Source
Located on the Soo Line Railway, North Portal attracted many shady characters from south of the border. In 1906, for example, Corporal Hogg of the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) was called to one of the hotels in town to break up a disturbance. The hotel was full of cowboys led by a gun-toting “notorious bad man” named Monaghan, aka Cowboy Jack. Police records state that in the process of arresting Monaghan, the following property was damaged: “door broken; screen smashed up; chair broken; field jacket belonging to Corporal Hogg spoiled by being covered with blood; and the wall plastered with blood.” Monaghan, or Cowboy Jack, is reported to have remarked that if Hogg had not confiscated his gun, another death would have been recorded in Canadian history. Source

It was into this fray that Louis Kill and his family arrived in 1906. Kill, a German-born representative of the Standard Oil Company, had immigrated to Canada via Minnesota and South Dakota with his wife, Anna, and their children. By 1921, Louis Kill was reported to be “one of the most widely known citizens in southern Saskatchewan.” Source  

In 1907, after a year with the oil company, Kill decided to take over the Union Hotel in North Portal,
Union Hotel, c. 1910. Source
built in about 1900. Unfortunately, however, Kill’s application for a liquor license for the hotel was unsuccessful. During the hearing of the provincial liquor commissioners, the chief license commissioner stated that, while Louis Kill was, as far as he knew, “of good character,” he doubted whether he was a suitable person to manage a hotel in North Portal which was frequented by “a hard crowd.” In a newspaper story, “Roughs Come in from Dakota; Dry Americans Need Careful Handling at North Portal,” the chairman noted that there had been a good deal of trouble in North Portal. “It is right on the line of a prohibition state and people – the very worst element, I am told – come over the border for liquor,” he stated. “We would like to see a man who could handle these people.” The commissioners decided to deny Kill’s application and to hold an inquiry on local conditions at North Portal. Source

Undeterred, Louis Kill bought the hotel at Alameda, Saskatchewan, about 50 kilometres north of North Portal. He and his family operated the hotel for about three years. The 1911 Canada census shows Kill, age 54, and his wife Anna, age 50, as the hotel proprietors in Alameda. Their 23-year-old son Edward worked as the hotel’s bartender. Annie (25), Vincent (15), and Sylvester (13) as well as four domestics also lived in the hotel.

Opportunity knocked once more for the Kill family due to yet another violent incident in North Portal. In 1914, William Hetherington, owner of the three-storey Grandview Hotel, was convicted of manslaughter in death of Pat Murphy, alias Kelley, alias Denver Blackie. The crime had been committed during a drunken brawl in the bar of the hotel at the end of August. Source Shortly after Hetherington’s sentence to two years’ imprisonment, Louis Kill returned to North Portal and bought the Grandview Hotel.

Baseball game in North Portal, 1914, with Grandview Hotel in background. Source
In 1916, the year after Prohibition was implemented, the Canada census records Louis and Anna Kill living in the Grandview Hotel with their unmarried daughter Anna (30); their 1-year-old granddaughter Ethel; and sons Edward (38), who was no longer working as a bartender, but instead working at the local hardware store; Vincent (20), a clerk for the railway; and Sylvester (18). Also living in the hotel were two chambermaids.

By 1921, Louis Kill had retired from the hotel business.  In the early years, he had made considerable money at the Grandview Hotel. With the passing of bars in Saskatchewan due to Prohibition, however, hotels had become “white elephants.” The Kill family moved to Sacramento, California where daughter Frances and her husband Charles H. Hecht now lived.

Throughout the 1920s, the Grandview Hotel became the centre for illegal liquor trading as well as gambling, apparently attracting some notorious gangsters from Chicago, including Al Capone – incognito. Legend has it that some of the big-winning gamblers never left the Grandview. A sign beside the hotel once told of guests who disappeared after cleaning up at the gambling table, leaving their belongings – and their train tickets – untouched in their rooms. It is rumoured that they may have ended up at the bottom of the hotel’s 60-metre-deep well. Source: Winnipeg Free Press, April 8, 1989

© Joan Champ 2014


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