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Downtown of yesteryear: Good enough for the queen, the Nickel Range was once the first name in northern luxury

Our favourite chronicler of downtown Sudbury’s past, Bruce Bell, is back and this time he’s leading us on a stroll through the iconic Nickel Range Hotel, where a king, a queen and a Hemingway all rested their weary heads

It was the summer of 1969 when my parents felt I was old enough to start hanging out unaccompanied in downtown Sudbury. I grew up in Northern Heights, a quiet suburb in the north end so the thought of going downtown was a thrilling one.

At 16, I remember the Nickel Range Hotel at that moment in time had a reputation as a rough and tough place where a lot of biker gangs hung out, and any respectable teenager should stay clear of. So, of course, I made a beeline to Sudbury's most famous hotel.

The reputation the Nickel Range had in 1969 was not the reputation the hotel always had, far from it. When it was first built in 1914, the hotel was the last word in northern luxury and with its elegant facade — complete with a French-style canopy entrance — all topped off with an enormous hanging cornice that would become the hotel's signature feature.

So plush was the Nickel Range that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stayed there in June 1939 when they visited the city.

Before that in 1923, famed writer Ernest Hemingway stayed at the Nickel Range while researching a story for the Toronto Star on mining speculator Alfred Coyne.

The hotel, originally owned by D. M. Morin, who made a fortune in mining, decided to name his new hotel the 'Nickel Range' inspired by the idea of the Sudbury's bright and promising future.

When the hotel first opened in 1914 at a then staggering cost of $75,000, the Sudbury Journal newspaper said "the building is throughout a magnificent structure built in the Renaissance architecture style with a lobby in stone cornices in the Doric treatment, and dining room in the ionic style".

One of the employees at the time of the new hotel's opening was 16-year-old elevator operator Alvarez Rouleau, who would one day buy the Nickel Range and along with his sons Maurice, Jean-Paul and Raymond, the family would run the hotel for the rest of its existence.

It was Maurice who befriended a young Alex Trebek, whose own father was a pastry chef at the Nickel Range in the 1940s.

The Nickel Range Hotel defined downtown Sudbury and the city itself.

The name alone was as Sudbury as you could get: we were the Nickel capital of the world, after all and many a parent, including my own father, made a living mining nickel.

In those first years, you would enter the hotel through a revolving door after walking up several steps from the sidewalk. Then after whirling your way through the front door, you still had to walk up several more steps into the lobby.

In my day, the revolving door was replaced with large glass doors each having enormous wooden handles that always reminded me of two huge spare-ribs.

Originally, the impressive lobby had wooden floors, grand columns touched with gold leaf, hanging lamps and a striking wooden staircase leading up to the mezzanine floor where the dining room was located.

Once upstairs, you would enter the imposing dining room through beveled glass doors just off the mezzanine.

The dining room, too, had wooden floors and the same impressive columns topped with stunning little light fixtures.

It must have been quite the occasion when the hotel first opened. For now Sudbury, with its reputation as a hard-drinking, fist-fighting, rabble-rousing town, had a grille room done in the style of Louis XVI.

By the time I discovered the Nickel Range in the late 1960s, most of these elegant touches were long gone as a more modern post-war look enveloped this once elegant Edwardian hotel.

What I remember most about Sudbury's most iconic hotel was the Matador Room, a great place for steaks and cocktails.

Even though by the late 1960s the hotel itself was starting show its age, the Matador was still a happening place with its striking matchbooks sporting a matador and bull on its cover.

The only time I ever saw the hotel's main dining room I seem to recall it still had a painted mural of an 18th century Georgian street scene on the wall and its original Edwardian Ionic columns were painted blue.

When the hotel first opened, downstairs was given over to the kitchen and the so-called 'sample rooms' where travelling salesmen could display their products in a more private setting.

When I first discovered the hotel in the 1960s, the downstairs was a hair salon called 'My Fair Lady' and next to that was the men's barbershop, but I believe the kitchen was still there also.

The hotel's barbershop had a direct access from Elm Street through a door just next to the main hotel's entrance.

The downstairs also shared the space with the hotel's coffee shop, where bikers hung out on a Saturday afternoon.

In 1967, a then unknown band named Steppenwolf were booked into the Nickel Range when passing through Sudbury.

The band would become known for the song “Born to be Wild” in 1968, a tune that would become extremely popular with bike gangs all over North America. At the time, Sudbury had its fair share, including the infamous White Lightning gang that hung out in the Nickel Range coffee shop.

I discovered the Nickel Range Hotel the same time I fell in love with detective novels and movies like “The Big Sleep” and “The Maltese Falcon”.

In order to feed my new obsession, I decided to start up my own faux detective agency as a joke.

I found an 'office space' that even had a door with a glass window just like Philip Marlowe had except mine was on the top floor of the old Silverman's department store on Elm. They had no idea I was there.

It was in part of the store that was abandoned years previous.

I would sneak upstairs through a Do Not Enter door (which I discovered on a previous visit) and there at the end of a long hallway was my so-called office.

I even had a few cards printed up, 'B&B Detective Agency Just ask Around'.

It was all for fun, of course, however someone did ask around and wanted to hire me to find someone who she thought was tailing her.

My 'client' was a sex worker and asked me to meet her in her room at the Nickel Range. 

I had never been inside any of the bedrooms at the Nickel Range up to this time, so this was going to be a whole new experience.

I remember the hallways being very dark, with a smell of beer wafting up from the lounge downstairs.

The hotel rooms still had their transom windows above the doors, for in the days before air-conditioning, this allowed for airflow.

If I ever wanted to be a Raymond Chandler character, it was now.

I knocked on the door and was told to come in. 

So there I was, 16 years old, alone in a hotel room with a chain-smoking, gin-drinking prostitute, who was handing me a fist full of crumbled bills to find a man she said was a do-gooder from the Sally Anne.

My first question was, what's the Sally Anne?

“The Salvation Army,” she said, followed by, “You sure you're a detective?”

I never did find him because I never looked, and I never took her money, yet I couldn't believe that I took my detective mania that far.

It was a side of Sudbury that was completely foreign to me, a kid from the suburbs who wasn't even sure what a prostitute actually was. 

Years later, I would grow to understand the sometimes sad and lonely plight of sex workers and would write two plays on the subject with a better understanding of what she must have been going through.

I wouldn't say the Nickel Range at this time was as frightening as the Frontenac Hotel on Durham, or the Ramsey on Elm or the scariest of them all, the Queen's on Borgia, but to a 16-year-old these old hotels still held a great amount of fascination as I wondered just what was going on in their rooms.

Next door to the Nickel Range was a slim, white four-storey building that always reminded me of one of those buildings you'd see on the canals of Amsterdam.

Home to the American Raw Fur Company, the main floor became the Ladies and Escort entrance to the Nickel Range's ladies lounge (when Ontario segregated the sexes in bars) and the upper floors, when I was there, were converted into apartments with charming sun rooms overlooking Elm Street.

Next door to this building was the former Sudbury Star building.

The Sudbury Star began life as a daily in January, 1909, under the banner “The Northern Daily Star” and later with acquisition of the North Bay Nugget, it moved into its new building at Elm and Frood.

By 1935, the owners of the Star founded CKSO, Sudbury's first radio station and its newspaper building on Elm became a busy place for people coming and going.

All of this activity had a huge effect on the Nickel Range and surrounding area, with employees having liquid lunches at the Matador, or walking the two blocks to the Richmond Room at Kresge's or any of the restaurants that were springing up in that part of downtown.

I always thought when the Sudbury Star moved from Elm to Mackenzie Street in the early 60s it marked the beginning of the end for the once vibrant downtown core.

The old Star building on Elm was demolished to build the Odeon Theatre that sadly lasted less than 25 years.

I remember when the two theatres of the Odeon opened in 1969, with 'Anne of a Thousand Days' starring Richard Burton and Canadian actress, Geneviève Bujold.

That night was a really big deal with full page ads and a glittering opening night shindig following.

The Nickel Range Hotel was a cornerstone for downtown Sudbury especially for everything west of Elgin Street.

Newer and flashier hotels like the Ambassador and the Sorrento were being built in the 1960s out in the suburbs, but the old ones downtown still held on as drinking lounges.

There was talk in the 1960s of renovating the Nickel Range to install a rooftop patio and a larger ballroom, but money worries and heavy debts ended that dream.

The hotel once described as “the best hotel between Winnipeg and Toronto” while rough around the edges, still held a place in the hearts of Sudburians.

Sadly, the hotel closed and by June 1975 an auction was held selling off hundreds of mementos, before it was ultimately demolished in 1976.

The Nickel Range was only 62 years old, and astonishingly it has been gone for 45 years, but to many of us, its silhouette on our memory is ingrained forever. 

The Nickel Range should have been renovated into a first-class hotel or condo as it was a historic landmark hotel. Much like the Royal York Hotel is to Toronto or the Plaza is to New York City, the Nickel Range was to Sudbury.

It should still be standing with a few historic plaques mounted on its exterior, one to Hemingway's visit, another to the King and Queen, one to Alex Trebek and another proclaiming “Steppenwolf played here!” This list could have been endless.

The Nickel Range Hotel was an iconic, historic, defining and symbolic local treasure.

Oh how I wish it was still standing as there really isn't much left of the Sudbury I once knew as a 16-year-old out to discover his city for the first time.

Bruce Bell is a former Sudburian, now living in Toronto. He shared his memories of Christmas in downtown Sudbury back in the 1960s and 1970s back in December 2020. You can read that story here. In January, he reminisced about SS Kresge’s, which you can read here. In February, Bell took a stroll through the old Sudbury Woolworth's location. And in March, he took us on a tour through the old Zellers store.


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