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Timeless Tales: Oxy a gathering place for more than 130 years

The Occidental Hotel, an Old City Quarter pub, opened its doors for the first time 130 years ago

The Occidental Hotel has been a Nanaimo watering hole for more than century and it still has that neighbourhood pub flavour.

The Occidental pub and hotel was built in 1886 at the corner of Selby and Fitzwilliam to cater to the E&N Rail traffic by proprietor Samuel Fiddick, who had previously mined for coal in the area and travelled to the Cariboo with gold fever, according to The Fiddick Family History, written by Walter John Meyer.

The two-storey building was designed by Victoria architect John Teague, who was also behind the character of Victoria City Hall, and Canada’s Historic Places registry says the substantial and “handsome” Occidental Hotel spoke to the mood of prosperity and possibility prevalent in the 1880s by the completion of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway and expansion of the No. 1 coal mine. It was also the first business to take advantage of the opportunities of the nearby train station, a block away.

The hotel and pub has changed hands multiple times since the Fiddick estate sold it in 1906, including to city councillor Jerry Hong, and has undergone different renovations.

Deborah Steck, bartender, puts a folder on the bar counter in between ringing up drinks. It’s some of the history of the pub collected by John Cass, a Nanaimo historian, and it says there used to be a bar and billiard room, sitting and dining room on the first floor and 13 bedrooms on the second. There was also a third storey to the building at one time.

Al Cormons, born and raised in Nanaimo, said in 1921, after prohibition, the government brought in new rules for liquor licences, which required so many rooms in order to have so many seats, so the owners had to build a third floor.

The addition was removed in 1989, photos from the Nanaimo Archives show.

Cormons said generations of family went into the pub. His own family, who used to own the Commercial Hotel, used to go to the Occidental on their days off. He took his seat at the pub for the first time in 1958, underage at just shy of 17 years old. He still remembers the day he was found out.

He had only been known as Al at the Occidental, but one day the owner, who knew his dad, asked the bartender the last name of “that young Al with the big laugh” and learned it was Cormons’s boy.

“I had a little 10-cent glass, that was half full and he always called me Al eh and he says ‘Cormons, finish that off and get the hell out of here until you’re old enough to come in here and I’ll know when you’re old enough to come in here because you’re the same age as my nephew’ … Game was up,” he said, laughing.

He recalls stuffed animal heads on the wall and that there was an old restaurant in a corner done in ’50s style.

Today, the hotel lobby has been converted into an office and worn, green carpeted stairs lead to a second floor that’s a skeleton of its former self. Chairs and dusty dart boards, ducts and file boxes occupy the space now, but there are remnants of the past, like stairs that rise to the ceiling – likely the gateway to the third floor.

Steck says it’s not the people who pay the mortgage who really own the place, but all the people who’ve worked there, or been patrons of the pub for all these long years.

“Besides its architectural significance … this is really one of the few neighbourhood pubs that still has that feel of the old-time pubs here in Nanaimo. A lot of people come in here for that very reason,” Cormons said.