‘A very busy place’

Wawa motel had rich history, provided sterling memories

Northern Gateway Hotel opened in 1962 on Highway 17, about two kilometres from Wawa and a stone’s throw from the Wawa Goose monument. Photo provided

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The Pine Wood Inn has a long history in Wawa.

Though it’s operated under different names and has been vacant for several years, last week’s fire, that reduced the hotel to it’s metal frame, brought back memories for many current and former residents.

When the final section of Highway 17 was completed in 1960, connecting Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa, it brought many travellers to the area that had previously only been accessible from the east by train or plane.

The number of visitors or simply those passing through spawned the need for many motels to spring up in Wawa in the early 1960s.

One of the new hotels was the Northern Gateway Hotel which opened in 1962 on Highway 17, about two kilometres from the community and a stone’s throw from the Wawa Goose monument.

The hotel, which was originally owned by Jack Bing Fong and a couple of local investors, had 60 motel units between two buildings, a dining room, restaurant, gift shop and lounge.

It soon became a place of employment for many Wawa residents.

Eileen MacKenzie recalls working in the gift shop in 1968-69, which also acted as a bus stop for Greyhound and Northern Bus Lines.

“We also managed the switch board for the hotel rooms and other areas (restaurant and bar),” she said. “It was the old bell switchboard where we had to plug in and to transfer calls we had to plug in and flip certain switches.”

Dianne Belair, who worked in the office and kitchen, described it as “a very busy place.”

The hotel was not only attractive to tourists but proved to be a popular hot spot for the town folk as It’s been said many of the town’s decisions were made at the hotel.

Kaireen Morrison remembers attending a New Year’s Eve party in December 1962. “We ate in the restaurant booths, and I had a wonderful time.”

She added that she obviously kissed the wrong person that night as she ended up with mononucleosis and was out of commission for six weeks.

There was a large hall in the basement that was used for several wedding receptions, dances and stag parties.

Rodger White, who celebrated his 21st birthday in the lounge in 1965, was also in a local band called The Downbeats. “We played a number of dances there in the basement.

At some point, the hotel name was changed to the New Era Motor Hotel and a third separate building of hotel rooms was added to the property.

“It was a very nice place and the lounge was first class,” said Brian White. “Me and some buddies spent many hours there drinking Pepsi when the drinking age was lowered to 18 in 1971.”

White, who had his stag party there in 1974, said the hotel was also the site for many winter carnival events including a wine and cheese.

Niels Nielsen and his uncle Eric Christiansen took over the hotel in 1983 and the name changed to the Pine Wood Inn.

The pair continued to operate the restaurant, gift shop and bar while turning the back section of the hotel into housekeeping units.

“We finally had enough because it was 24/7,” said Nielsen about selling the hotel around 1989.

According to Nielsen, the hotel was sold to the owner of the Caswell Motor Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie.

It was than leased to a Newfoundland company who used it to house workers who were working on the power dams in the area for a year and a half.

Nielsen recalls that in the early nineties, it was reopened for a very short time as a hotel but did not operate very long before being permanently closed down.