19th Century

The Grand Narrows Hotel B&B was built in 1887 to coincide with the new Inter-colonial Railway accommodating passengers from both rail and ferry.

The hotel's developers were Grand Narrows merchants, Edward A. MacNeil and Hector Francis McDougall. Hector Francis McDougall was also the local Member of Parliament while Sir John A. MacDonald was Prime Minister and he lobbied for the extension of the Intercolonial Railway through the centre of Cape Breton and the communities of Grand Narrows and Iona. The Parliamentary legislation for the railway extension was proclaimed in 1886, and soon after McDougall and MacNeil began the construction of the hotel to serve the needs of train travellers to Cape Breton that would stop in Grand Narrows because of the new railway line and train station. The hotel was finished in 1887, four years before the railway was completed.


The hotel's historic guest registers boast the names of many prosperous and distinguished people.

One of the hotel's early guests was Sir John A. MacDonald. Legend has it, that MacDonald committed to building a railway bridge across the Barra Strait when he declared from the front verandah of the hotel "That is where the bridge shall go." The seven span steel Grand Narrows railway bridge was completed in 1889, it was the longest rail bridge in Nova Scotia and the first locomotive crossed the bridge on January 1, 1890, with none other than Governor General Lord Stanley (of the Stanley Cup fame) himself driving the engine of the train across the new bridge. The hotel served as an important stop-over for the many people who traveled by train through Cape Breton in that era.

Many luminaries graced the halls of the Grand Narrows Hotel over the years, including frequent guests Alexander Graham Bell, Casey Baldwin and J.A.D. McCurdy, the early aviators. Also recorded in the registry are visits by Gilbert Grosvenor, Hellen Keller, Sir Charles Tupper and American Presidents, William Howard Taft, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt.


Prince Albert of York, later crowned King George VI (Elizabeth's father), is believed to have stayed at The Grand Narrows although his signature remains elusive. The storey is told by the MacLennans and the MacNeils of how the young prince was part of a landing party at Grand Narrows. This would have been in his early days as a Navel Officer when he spent the first six months of 1913 sailing throughout The West Indies and Eastern Canada. Legend says that Josephine herself prepared the royal meal and with the finest bone china and silverware brought out, served up a meal fit for a king!

20th Century

The Hotel prospered for over three decades before falling into disrepair and finally closing up shop in 1933, eventually being abandoned for over ten years. The older generations from Iona and Grand Narrows still remember the old dilapidated building being occupied by the hobos who travelled the rail lines. It is remarkable that during that period, there was virtually no vandalism and furnishings and valuables remained undisturbed. From 1946 to 1948, a Montreal firm, Intrusion Prepakt Ltd, leased the building to house workers who were repairing the bridge piers. Several years ago, Elaine and Terry enjoyed a pleasant visit from a tourist who told them the story of how she was born in the hotel during that time.

The hotel remained nonviable for a further period of time and after having stumbled upon it one day while waiting for the ferry to Iona, Clarence MacLennan, Elaine's father, purchased the property from Edward MacNeil's daughter in 1956 intending to use it as a summer home, which they did for 40 years!

Elaine, having spent all of her childhood summers at Grand Narrows, purchased the property with her husband Terry MacNeil from her family in 1998 with the intention of restoring the looming structure. And that they did...new roof, walls, ceilings, windows, electrical and plumbing. The original rooms on the second floor were reorganized to incorporate ensuite bathrooms, some quite large and luxurious, and this resulted in four modified rooms.The third floor is currently in the final stages of renovation and will soon be opened with five ensuite bedrooms. Terry, the greatest handyman of all, milled the wood for the new window trim from trees on the property! Their daughter Christina, also very involved with the 20 year renovation, still assists with coordinating rentals, and welcoming well know guests.

The Grand Narrows would like to Thank all the McNeils for that significant work! They saved it.


The Grand Narrows Hotel is an eleven bedroom, ten bathroom Edwardian estate with a large kitchen, large dining room, 3 large entertainment rooms and 2 full length verandahs overlooking the beautiful Bras d’Or Lakes.

The architectural value of the building, as recognized in its municipal designation is in its Second Empire style characteristics. Its symmetrical design, central doorway with transom and sidelights with surrounding trim, two-over-two windows with surrounding trim, clapboard siding, two storied verandah, eave brackets, and mansard roof with dormers all reflect the Second Empire style, here executed in wood. The building is a good example of the Second Empire style and it was uncommon to find a building in this high Victorian style in rural Cape Breton when it was built.

The building retains its original interior wood trim, doors, staircase and floors as well as its original mechanical systems. The hot water central heating system and hot and cold running water were state of the art in Cape Breton in 1887, as the building boasted being "the only hotel east of Halifax with central heating and hot baths." Water for the hotel was supplied from a spring fed reservoir on the hill behind the property and pumped into a tank in the cellar. From there, hot water from the boiler and cold water was pumped up into wooden barrel tanks in the attic and then fed by gravity to the rooms upon demand. The same spring still feeds the hotel water supply.

21st Century

For the first decade, while undergoing the grand renovation, the building was generally a work site and more recently the MacNeils operated The Grand Narrows as both a Bed&Breakfast and vacation rental mostly during the summer months.

I was fortunate to happen by the neighbourhood one day in the summer of 2018, just as Clarence had done 60 years prior. My friend Fulton and I were offered a quick curiosity tour of the building by Christina, who happened to be there tidying up. We learned that it had been for sale.....Hmmmmm.

The sale was completed in July 2019, and happily, the MacNeils are enjoy their retirement nearby and remain close to the community.


David Strang, with thanks to The Beaton Institute and HistoricPlaces.ca