A Railway Tycoon’s Summer Escape
If you’ve never been to Minister’s Island, then you HAVE to go! I’ve been dying to get back to this beautiful gem of an island just outside of St Andrews. I snagged the opportunity to visit recently, as one of the local business owners invited for a tour.
Minister’s Island is the home of Covenhoven, the summer residence of Sir William Van Horne and his family. The house has 50 rooms, 17 of which are bedrooms, 11 are bathrooms and there are 11 fireplaces. Van Horne was the second president of and the driving force behind the Canadian Pacific Railway. He stands to the left of the man driving the spike in the famous photograph below. You can read more about the history here.
Van Horne’s “cottage” was built in the 1890’s. The family would come by train from Montreal in June and stay into the fall. But you can visit for a few hours, tour the home and barn, explore the walking trails, and comb the beach. Just be sure to leave before the tide comes in or you’ll be having a sleepover with whatever spirits may linger there.
To visit the island, you must follow the schedule of the tides. Therefore the daily visit times vary. Check www.ministersisland.net for more information. When the tide is out, you can drive or walk across the ocean floor to the island. It’s about a kilometre across the bay.
As you can see it was a damp, foggy morning when I visited. I didn’t mind. It lent an eerie quality to the premises.
The house belonged to the Van Horne family until the 1940s. At one point it was bought by a group of Americans who hoped to turn it into a hunting lodge. That didn’t work out very well and it was sold it to another individual who decided to auction off the contents in the 70s. The provincial government put a stop to it on the third day of the auction but many priceless treasures were already sold off. The property was bought by the government but the house sat unattended for many years. It opened for tours in the early 90s thanks to a group of people who could not stand to see the historic sight fall to ruins. They have been working hard to restore the property but there budget is limited so it’s a slow process. The property is now a provincial and federal historic site. Original furniture pieces have been donated back to the Van Horne summer residence by generous individuals.
The Bath House
An example of Van Horne’s ingenuity, the bath house was built along the rocky shore as a place to change for swimming. A pool was dug out of the rocky coast and it would fill with water as the tide came in. The ocean pool water would heat in the summer sun.
You enter the bath house on the upper level which offers panoramic views of the coastline. Follow the spiral staircase down to the change rooms below and then you can exit from the lower level directly onto the beach.
The focal point of the great room is this fireplace made of sandstone quarried from the shore below the bath house. The pillars on either side are gold leaf mahogany from Italy.
This was Van Horne’s study, where his creativity flowed onto canvas. His art supplies were stored in the ornate cabinet on the left. This incredible dining set was originally located in the great room.
Van Horne only slept about four hours per night, so he would use the rest of the night to paint. Therefore many of his paintings are of night scenes like the one below. His art can be seen throughout Covenhoven.
The servants quarters were up the back stairway, but the butler and head cook had the more prestigious staff rooms just off the kitchen.
A windmill powered a water pump to facilitate the indoor plumbing and a gas plant (the small building to the right) supplied the light source of the house.
A huge barn housed prize winning cattle and horses.
Milk was piped underground from the barn to the creamery pictured below.
On Ministers Island you will also find Reverend Samuel Adams’ charming house which was built in 1790. He is the island’s namesake.
Now don’t you want to plan a trip to Minister’s Island? There is so much more to see. And make sure you stop in to see me at the shop (224 Water Street) while you’re in town. I’d love to hear what you think of Van Horne’s little cottage by the sea.
See you soon,