The Haven Covenhoven

November 1, 2004 by Valerie Knowles

PHOTOS: John Woodruff, NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA--PA021681; Communications new brunswick; NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA--PA213804

PHOTOS: John Woodruff, NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA–PA021681; Communications new brunswick; NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA–PA213804

Sir William Van Horne’s summer residence included the house (top) and a windmill; Sir William Van Horne vacationing in Cuba in February 1910.

In 1890, the legendary railway baron Sir William Van Horne stopped off at the resort town of St. Andrews in the southwestern part of New Brunswick. He had come to negotiate a railway lease, but while soaking up the sights of the Loyalist town he fell in love with the beauty of Passamaquoddy Bay and its islands, so much so he decided to build a summer home on Minister’s Island, just around a point from St. Andrews.

Since this American-born Canadian was a man of awe-inspiring energy and versatility, it would be no ordinary summer home. Indeed, the house and its numerous outbuildings would become a showcase for its owner’s wide-ranging talents and interests—and there were many, ranging from horticulture, paleontology and stock-breeding to art collecting, painting, Japanese and Chinese porcelain collecting, model ship collecting and architecture.

At the time of his visit, Van Horne, then aged 47, was at the pinnacle of his railroading career. Ambitious, able and fearless, he had begun this career as a telegraph operator with the Illinois Central Railroad. Absorbing everything he could about railway operations, he had risen rapidly in one Midwestern railway system after another before being lured north of the border in late 1881 to become general manager of the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway in January 1882.

In this capacity, Van Horne completed the building of the CPR’s main line from Lake Nipissing to the west coast in 1885, five years ahead of the original schedule. Three years later, in 1888, he was appointed the railway’s president.

The daunting challenges that had to be overcome in pushing through the construction of the line and the huge demands made upon him as a business tycoon and president of Canada’s leading railway had exacted a heavy toll, however. It’s therefore not surprising that this middle-aged human dynamo now sought a quiet refuge from the outside world, a place where he could seek creative renewal.

Minister’s Island seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Not only is it relatively isolated—visitors reach it at low tide by crossing on the natural gravel bar that links it to the mainland at the end of Bar Road—but it offers delightful scenery and superb views.

Named after its first owner, Rev. Samuel Andrews, the island is a 500-acre strip of verdant land located about a half-mile offshore in Passamaquoddy Bay. Nestled in the protective crook of land that forms the bay, the island boasts a salubrious climate that allows lilacs to bloom three weeks longer than they bloom in Montreal and lilies to bloom three weeks earlier. No doubt this was a selling point for Van Horne, who was an avid gardener.

In any event, Sir William, whose year-round home was in Montreal, began acquiring his Minister’s Island property piecemeal, starting in 1891. That year, he bought 150 acres at the most southerly end of the island from the Andrews family. Five years later he bought 250 acres from Henry Pultz Timmerman and his wife. Lady Van Horne would acquire the island’s remaining 100 acres in 1926.

Once he had acquired his parcels of land, Van Horne set out with his customary zeal to design a summer home that would be named Covenhoven in salute to his lawyer father, Cornelius Covenhoven Van Horne, and his Dutch ancestors. The house the railroading general designed was a modest building made of red sandstone quarried from the island.

When unidentified problems arose with its construction in 1898, however, he had to seek outside assistance. This was provided by a young, up-and-coming Montreal architect, Edward Maxwell, who hastened to Minister’s Island to rectify the problems.

The following year, Van Horne decided to enlarge the house and once again he called upon Maxwell, this time to design a wing that would harmonize with the main part of the building. After more than one attempt, the architect produced an acceptable plan that called for a house that was large and bulky like his client, i.e., an enlarged dwelling triple its original size.

Among the wings added to the original structure was an L-shaped wing that included a studio and a magnificent dining room on the ground floor. In due course, the impressive dining room was furnished with Persian rugs, English furniture, pieces from Van Horne’s famous Japanese pottery and porcelain collections, paintings by Old Masters and numerous landscapes executed by Van Horne, whose work is represented today by six paintings in the National Gallery.

Over the years the mansion underwent further additions and modifications, all closely supervised by Sir William who as an amateur architect had helped plan the Banff Springs and Chateau Frontenac hotels. Especially close to his heart was the wing that contained a nursery for his only grandchild, his grandson, William. And while Sir William was devoted to his family he was particularly fond of young William, who lived with his parents, Bennie and Edith (née Molson), his grandparents, their unmarried daughter, Adaline (affectionately called Miss Addie) and Van Horne’s sister, Mary, in the Montreal mansion.

No effort or expense was spared when it came to indulging young William. In 1910, when he was three, his grandfather demonstrated his love in a remarkable way. Heaving his large frame onto a ladder in the Covenhoven nursery, he painted a charming frieze of romping Dutch children attired in traditional costume. Below it he added the inscription, “Painted for Master William Cornelius Covenhoven Van Horne in commemoration of his third birthday, 29th July 1910, by his loving grandfather, Sir William Van Horne.”

As he painted the frieze, Van Horne must have given thought to the time when he was growing up in frontier Illinois. In those years—the 1840s—his family was so poor the talented youngster could only produce drawings on the whitewashed walls of the family homestead.

Besides helping to design the original main house, Van Horne may also have designed some of the other buildings on the property, one being the massive barn that was the centrepiece of the Minister’s Island operation.

Three storeys in height and built on a stone foundation, this building featured a high, shingled roof with flared gable ends (a Maxwell trademark), vents, two huge grain silos topped by dovecotes with conical roofs and an elevator. In addition to housing Van Horne’s thoroughbred horses, it also provided a home for hens, turkeys, sheep and a prized herd of Dutch belted cattle, so-called because this breed has a large band of white over the shoulders.

Over the years this herd won many show ribbons, some from the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. It was a source of great pride to Sir William, who researched the breed and even sought out new stock when making one of his periodic junkets to the United Kingdom on business.

Since Van Horne was determined to make the estate as self-sufficient as possible, he had water pumped by a windmill, assisted by kerosene-fired engines, from an artesian well to the main house through a network of pipes. An adjoining plant supplied carbide gas for lighting and cooking: carbide pellets were dropped into water and the resulting gas was collected and piped from the plant into the family home.

Recourse was also had to an abundance of home-grown vegetables and fruit. The fruit, which included peaches and nectarines and every conceivable variety of grape, was grown in extensive greenhouses heated by solar energy.

After he retired from the presidency of the CPR, in 1899, Sir William threw himself into the building of the Cuba Railroad, an ambitious enterprise that spawned sugar plantations and hotels. This daunting undertaking posed many challenges, not the least of which was fundraising, a perpetual headache. Nevertheless, Van Horne still found time to hold down scores

of company directorships, oversee a Manitoba estate and immerse himself in a myriad of details relating to Covenhoven’s operation.

Since this estate employed one head gardener, four assistant gardeners, one head stockman, one assistant stockman, three teamsters, a weir manager, a farmhand, a head field hand, poultry hands, carpenters, plumbers and painters as part of its outdoor staff alone, it was essentially a medium-sized business.

As such, it required the services of a paid manager as well as the frequent attention of Van Horne, who would be called upon to deliver the final word on a wide range of questions ranging from the breeding of livestock to the grading of turnips.

One of Van Horne’s favourite pastimes at Covenhoven was painting. He had a habit of painting quickly, believing that rapidity of execution made for inspired art. With his customary bluntness he once declared, “There is no place for intellect in art. Art is wholly a matter of feeling…. All the great artists who acquired temporary fame but subsequently lost the esteem of the world were intellectual.”

Often the self-taught artist retired to The Tower, located at the southern tip of the island, to paint realistic, somewhat ethereal landscapes that had been inspired by the primeval woods, meadows and shores of Minister’s Island. On other occasions he sketched outdoors, sometimes in the company of the well-known American Romantic artist, George Innes, Sr. or G. Horne Russell, a Canadian artist noted chiefly for his portraits of prominent Canadians.

The round two-storey stone tower was itself an attraction. Its top floor boasted a spacious glassed-in studio or lounge, its lower floor a remarkable solar-heated swimming pool carved out of bedrock at the water’s edge. After their cool dip, swimmers could climb a circular staircase to the upstairs lounge and warm themselves in front of its large fireplace.

If they were so inclined, visitors could also study pieces of Sir William’s fossil collection, arranged on the marble top of a mammoth table. Many of these artifacts probably dated from his childhood, when he first developed his consuming interest in paleontology, an interest that led to a collection containing nine previously unclassified specimens.

Sir William always claimed that one of the island’s chief attractions was its relative inaccessibility from the mainland. Still, he couldn’t be long without the company of stimulating friends. Besides, he loved to show people around his estate.

Covenhoven therefore welcomed all kinds of guests—leading Canadian and American businessmen, railway barons, Japanese royalty, retired generals and spinster friends like Maud Edgar, principal of a Montreal private girls’ school which Van Horne supported. Most visitors came by train but others, like General Leonard Wood, Van Horne’s American friend and onetime governor of Cuba, arrived by yacht.

At Covenhoven, guests were lavishly entertained. Dutch wagons, beach wagons, surreys and buckboards would bounce them across the island on sightseeing tours and transport them to the shore for bathing parties.

At mealtime, in the spacious dining room, there would be sumptuous repasts featuring fresh produce, meat and fowl from the estate. For those interested in more than meals and conversation there would be games of poker and ping pong with Sir William and other guests, badminton, lawn bowling, strolls along the island’s 12 miles of paths and roads, and perhaps a sketching trip.

An invitation to Covenhoven was certainly one that you didn’t want to turn down.

After Sir William’s death in 1915 and that of Lady Van Horne in 1929, young Addie maintained the family estate. She died in 1941, bequeathing the property to her niece, Beverley Ann, who sold it in 1961. It passed through several hands before being designated a protected historic site by the province of New Brunswick in 1977. By 1982, the province completed the acquisition of the entire island.

Today, the main family residence, Covenhoven, the old stone house, once occupied by Rev. Samuel Andrews and his family, the original gardener’s cottage, carriage house and automobile garage, the gigantic livestock barn, the farmhands’ boarding house, the windmill that once powered the island, and the tower where Sir William loved to paint are all that remain of the once magnificent estate. And even the family residence is but a shadow of its former self, because after it was sold in 1961, it was stripped of most of its furnishings. Only recently has it begun to regain some of them, either by donation or by purchase.

In early 2003, a private citizens’ group, The Van Horne Estate on Minister’s Island Inc., was formed. Composed of volunteers, it seeks to restore Covenhoven to some of its former glory and to educate the general public about this unique chapter in Canadian history.

Minister’s Island will never again know the splendour of Sir William Van Horne’s day. If the group succeeds in its mission, however, Minister’s Island will once again provide a revealing snapshot of the titan’s many talents and vitality.

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