Well below ground level was a mineral-rich sulphur spring. Now, for those of you who weren’t alive in the nineteenth-century, mineral springs were highly-sought after.
Physicians across North America vouched for their healing capacities (mend everything from injury to disease!), and they became popular places for social gatherings (not unlike the Roman baths of the even more distant past).
So the discovery of sulphur springs in Preston was a major boon to the small, new settlement.
Many towns have gone through sudden booms only to have a sudden (or gradual) bust come later on: for example, during the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City, Yukon was briefly the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg; now it’s not even the largest city in the Yukon.
Between 1835 and 1855, Preston experienced rapid growth, with new shops, homes, and several hotels opening along and around Fountain Street, due in no small part to the sulphur springs.
Impressive Press for Preston
Enter: Robert Walder. Robert’s father had purchased property on Fountain Street to rent out; it provided a modest income, but Preston’s population had declined between 1860 and 1870.
When Robert’s father died in 1877, and Robert inherited the property on Fountain Street, he had bigger things in mind. Robert saw the success of other nearby establishments (like the Kress Hotel, which was the first building in Preston to have a telephone).
And on a trip to California, he’d fallen in love with a certain luxurious property called Hotel Del Monte, which stood along Monterey Bay.
Robert discovered a spring of that sweet (but stinky) sulphur water on his property, and he set to work designing a brand new luxury resort for Preston. He named it the Del Monte Hotel, and it opened for business in 1888.
Robert was a brilliant marketeer, and in no time the Del Monte Hotel in Preston was drawing wealthy guests from far and wide: it was the place to be at the end of the nineteenth-century, and it drew the highest of high society (such as Lord Stanley, Canada’s 6th Governor General, famous for a certain Cup).
Coupled with new electric railway service to Galt, Preston was again on the rise.
Spring Turns to Fall
Wisely, Robert Walder sold the hotel when it was still incredibly popular, in 1903.
The new owners named it Preston Springs: an accurate name, and the one it’s known by today. But all was not well, financially. The property changed hands several times, and after the outbreak of World War I, the Preston Springs Hotel was ruined.
The building was boarded up and abandoned. Which might sound familiar to Cambridge residents today, but there are still a few twists and turns remaining in our tale.
Sulphur Springs: They’re Good for Your Health!
With the financial backing of the prominent Kaufman family in Kitchener (yes, the Kaufman family who built the Kaufman Estate), two brothers (Gordon “Gordo” and Edwin “Sir Wins-a-lot” Haigmeier, both doctors from Hespeler) purchased the dilapidated Preston Springs Hotel in 1921 and set about restoring it.
But it would no longer be just a luxury resort; no, its mineral waters were to serve a remedial rather than social purpose, in a medical spa. Preston Springs was now to be known as Preston Springs Hotel and Sanatorium.
Preston Springs Hotel and Sanatorium became one of the premier health facilities in the continent, and it offered numerous types of treatment, many involving baths in the facility’s sulphur springs.
Famous guests in this period included Lucy Maud Montgomery and Babe Ruth. But the good times (if you can fully call them that at a Sanatorium) were not to last, just as the interwar period was not to last: World War Two broke out, and again Preston Springs went into decline.
It served briefly as housing for the Galt-based Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, and after the war, several buyers tried their best to recapture the glory of Preston Springs Hotel’s past.
Decades went by, and Preston Springs went through multiple owners and attempts at revitalization (including a stint starting in the 1970s as the Preston Springs Gardens Retirement Home). But by the 1990s, its fate seemed sealed: Preston Springs Hotel was to be relegated to the past.
The building has stood vacant since 1990; in 1992, it was recognized under the Ontario Heritage Act as a site of historical and architectural value.
So: Is It Haunted?
Well, it’s certainly had its fair share of long-forgotten souls trudge through its hallways.
Let’s look at the Haunted House criteria checklist: is it abandoned? Check! Is it old? Check! Was it a Sanatorium? Check! Did anyone die here? Probably. Was it once beautiful, but is now kind of creepy? Check!
Years of neglect, vandalism, broken windows and boarded-up doors, and possibly well-meaning but ultimately destructive ‘urban explorers’ who’ve made messes (or spookily left a window open that was definitely closed last week) have cast a mysterious pallor on what was once a world-class resort.
So: is it haunted? Yes, but not in the supernatural sense of the word. It’s haunted by the memory of what it once was, and it now stands at the recently construction-free intersection of Fountain and King like some lingering spectre of the past: out of place, impossible to miss, and perpetually still.
The Preston Springs Hotel is a large building, in a well-trafficked part of Cambridge, and it’s recognizable to just about anyone that lives in the city or passes through regularly. It has the potential to be quite beautiful, and quite popular, but it’s not without its pitfalls.
Most prominently: it would take a lot of money to restore and repair the property, and there’s not really anywhere to park. So what’s to be done? One of the ideas on the table is converting the property into affordable housing units.
The City of Cambridge has shown a willingness to invest in the iconic building, with potential funds coming from the Heritage Conservation Reserve Fund. Quite recently, Mayor Doug Craig has said that figuring out what to do with Preston Springs, and how to do it, is a priority.
The Cambridge City Council ruled that wooden fences be put up around the building, not only to deter future trespassers, but also as part of their efforts to maintain the building and encourage Paul de Haas, the present owner, to work towards some future purpose (part of the Toronto-based Haastown Group, Paul de Haas purchased Preston Springs in 2012 for $1.2 million).
For over a century, Preston Springs Hotel has stood sentinel across from the Speed River, right at the head of King Street. And for nearly three decades, it’s stood empty, somehow both forgotten and unforgettable, both uncared for and utterly unique: a lifeless reminder of Preston’s history.
What’s next? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of a small slice of the Waterloo Region’s history; coming up next week, we’ll be looking at the Waterloo Historical Society!
Written by Will Kummer