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Beyond the charred remains of Comox’s oldest licensed taproom Add to ...

A building burned to the ground and people stood around crying.

All day long, they came to a familiar intersection in downtown Comox that now looked impossibly altered. They shook their heads at the smouldering ashes, gaped at a space on which a two-storey building had stood for as long as anyone could remember.

The next day the owner, George Kacavenda, whose three children have all worked in the family business, stood alongside a chain-link fence erected around the blackened ruins. He told a television crew that he felt he had been at a funeral, so often had so many offered their condolences.

The Lorne Hotel, built in 1878, destroyed once by fire and rebuilt, once again had been razed.

“People have said it’s like losing a friend,” said Kay Bukta, curator of the Comox Archives and Museum.

The Lorne was a “comfortable, worn-in shoe,” the woody interior like visiting a friend’s well-stocked rec room. The kitchen served up burgers, the bar poured libations, and trigger-fingered, Baby Boomer know-it-alls flocked to Name That Tune Thursdays.

While no one is likely to go thirsty for long in Comox, and while it is not unheard of for regulars to carry an unnatural affection for a drinking hole whose charms might otherwise go unnoticed, it must be acknowledged the Lorne has been more than just another taproom. It has a history and at the heart of that story is a romance.

The first hotel in what is now Comox was opened by Joseph Rodello, who owned land flanking what would soon become the steamboat landing. He built a store on one side and a hotel named the Wharf on the other. The proprietor promised customers would find his bar “supplied with the best of wines, liquors and cigars.”

The Wharf, renamed the Elk, was later leased by John Fitzpatrick, an American. A carpenter by trade, he decided to go into business for himself, buying a plot of land uphill from the dock, where he built a large farmhouse as a home with extra rooms for boarders.

He named his establishment after the recently appointed Governor General, the 33-year-old Marquess of Lorne, who was married to Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter.

(Having served alcohol on the same site for 133 years, the hotel claims to be the oldest licensed hotel in the province. The Six Mile Pub, a roadhouse outside Victoria, claims the title of B.C.’s oldest pub, the founder having purchased a license in 1856 after being fined 2 pounds, 10 shillings for serving beer illegally.)

Four years after opening, Mr. Fitzpatrick, bereft at the death of his wife, sold the establishment to Samuel and Florence Cliffe.

The couple had met two decades earlier while emigrating from England aboard the Silistria. After a long voyage from Liverpool, the ship docked in Victoria on Nov. 17, 1862. The passenger list published by the Colonist newspaper includes S Cliffe, then a young man, and Florence Harmston, a girl of six accompanied by her parents.

Samuel went off to seek his fortune in the gold fields, though he would have greater success in selling the coal grounds at Cumberland to the magnate Robert Dunsmuir. He renewed his shipboard friendship with the Harmston clan, marrying the daughter.

The Colonist carried a brief item noting the arrival of five new settlers at Comox in 1886. “Nearly all the settlement turned out to a grand dance in the Lorne Hotel on Thursday evening and a ‘right royal’ time was had dancing from dewy eve till early morn,” the paper noted. “Mr. S. Cliffe makes a genial host.”

Later that same year, the famed German-born anthropologist Franz Boas stayed at the Lorne. “The small rooms are warm and we are well taken care of,” he wrote his parents.

The Cliffes had 15 children, many of them born in the room that would later serve as the ladies’ parlour.

Prohibition left the hotel in a dire state, but the business was revived after being purchased by another family. It has been owned by Mr. Kacavenda for 15 years.

Many hope he rebuilds at the corner of Comox Avenue and Port Augusta Street.

“It was important to know you could walk down the street and the Lorne was going to be there,” said Ms. Bukta, the curator.

Comox without the landmark Lorne is a forlorn place.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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