When Leo Martel bought a house in Keno City in the ‘80s, he planned on eventually retiring in the small, end-of-the-road community. But when his livelihood was taken away with the closure of United Keno Hill mine in 1989, he, like many others, moved away to find work.
More than a quarter-century later, the 63-year-old’s dream of returning to the community full-time came true with the opening of Keno City Hotel this spring. But although he’s retired from renovating homes in Whitehorse, Martel’s work in Keno has just begun.
Martel and his brother Marc acquired the hotel eight years ago and Martel has spent every summer since fixing the 1920s-era property.
“It was in very poor condition when I got it,” he said. “The building was sitting on the ground and just rotting away.”
Martel has already done a lot of work on the foundation and made repairs to the floor and roof of the bar, but did little in the way of modernizing the decor.
Entering the wood-paneled bar with its black and white photos and paraphernalia-smattered walls is like stepping into the past, and it’s not surprising to learn that some people think the hotel is haunted.
The 10 rooms upstairs have been cleaned up but otherwise left “as-is,” and come with names like Miners’ Room and Ghost Room.
Martel’s next project is re-insulating some of the walls. He isn’t counting the nickels and dimes going into the ongoing renovations but said it’s “a substantial amount of money” and a labour of love.
“Nobody would spend that much money on an old building like this – in their right mind, of course.”
His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the community.
“Nobody thought they’d see that place open again,” said Mike Mancini, who has known Martel since their mining days and shares Martel’s passion for keeping the community, which has a summer population of just 25 people, open for business.
Mancini has been running the Keno City Snack Bar – and making its famous pizza – for 19 years, and thinks the hotel is a great addition to the community. “Business is definitely up,” he said, attributing some of that to the special events held at the hotel this summer.
Businesses in Keno rely primarily on tourism, which has some locals worried about the impacts of an Alexco mine that is gearing up for operations on the community’s doorstep.
“During the winter time and next summer it might become a real big issue,” said Martel, who is “a little worried” about the potential noise levels.
“For people (who) enjoy the silence, it will be over. Put it that way.”
Martel said his hotel gets “next to nothing” in spinoffs from the mine because the camp has its own kitchen and is “dry,” making Martel’s bar off-limits.
But despite this potential threat to tourism, Mancini said the community has more businesses now than it has had in a long time. And rumour has it that an art gallery and a bakery might be opening next season.
Tracy de la Barre and Dirk Rentmeister finished their third season operating Silvermoon Bunkhouse in Keno and are “pretty jazzed” about the new businesses springing up.
De la Barre said they can all work together to bring more people up the road. Keno “being able to offer a variety of accommodations options is a great thing,” she said.
The size of the hotel and the bar venue also means the community is able to host bigger events than before, chimed in Rentmeister. The Yukon Chamber of Commerce annual general meeting was held there in July.
It was a big summer for special events in Keno, starting with a pig roast for the hotel’s grand opening on June 21 and ending with its first “Keno Gras” on Labour Day weekend.
When a Dawsonite decided to rent the hotel and throw a party for a friend’s birthday, the community decided to add to the festivities by organizing its own version of Mardi Gras, complete with costumes and a parade.
“It’s been a long time since Keno’s seen that many people all at once,” said Martel, estimating that more than 100 people were out. He said the community plans on making Keno Gras an annual event and hopes they’ll come up with other ideas to draw more visitors up the Silver Trail.
While Keno has yet to develop a winter tourism market, Martel plans to stay open this winter while he lives in the hotel and continues doing work on it. That may sound like a lot of pain for little gain, but Martel is determined.
It has to do with his unconditional and unexplainable love for Keno. “My life is going to end here. I don’t want to do anything else but work here.”
Karen McColl is a freelance writer who has spent more time outside Whitehorse than in it since moving here in May.