|Area||2.8 km2 (1.1 sq mi)|
The 280-hectare (690-acre) island stands several hundred metres offshore immediately northeast of the town and is a geographical novelty in that it is accessible at low tide by a wide gravel bar suitable for vehicular travel.
Minister’s Island became famous in the last decade of the nineteenth century as the summer home of Sir William Van Horne, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. By the time of Van Horne’s death in 1915, the island had been transformed into a small Xanadu, sporting a sandstone mansion furnished in the most lavish late Edwardian manner, manicured grounds, scenic roads, greenhouses turning out exotic fruits and vegetables, as well as a breeding farm producing prize-winning Clydesdale horses and Dutch Belted cattle. It was the most spectacular of many palatial summer homes in St. Andrews, which since the creation of the St. Andrews Land Company in 1888 and the arrival of Van Horne in 1891, had become a watering place of note on the Canadian east coast.
Consquamcook or Quanoscumcook Island had been inhabited by Passamaquoddy Indians centuries earlier, traces of their occupation evidenced by the presence of shell middens. Today the Minister's Island Pre-Columbian ("pre-contact") shell middens are designated as a National Historic Site and commemorated by a cairn.
The Island did not see white residents until the arrival in 1777 of John Hanson and Ephraim Young. Traces of early European buildings were excavated in the 1970s. Having received location tickets in recognition of their service in the Revolutionary War (Hanson fought with Wolfe in Quebec), Hanson and Young set out from Salem, Massachusetts in a whaling boat and eventually found their way to St. Andrews, the first Loyalists to arrive in the area. At that time St. Andrews consisted of little more than a trading post operated by two trappers from Saint John, along with a mainly ceremonial native presence. Having decided to settle on Consquamcook Island (or Chamcook Island, as it later was called), they cleared fields, raised families, and for a few tough years were forced to subsist almost entirely on shellfish and what they could bring down with their guns. With the arrival of the main United Empire Loyalist influx to the area in 1783, there was some concern that they might be ousted from their island by the new settlers, so they petitioned Governor General Carleton in Halifax for title to the Island but were informed that a prior application had been received from Samuel Osborn, Captain of the warship Arethusa, then stationed at St. Andrews for protection of the refugees. There is a legend, probably true, that Osborn was forced to use his ships cannons in some sort of not-so-friendly target practice to persuade the squatters to leave the premises. There is another story that Osborne, in cahoots with the Town’s new rector, Samuel Andrews of Connecticut, got Hanson drunk and persuaded him to sign over his property to the Minister. This is certainly not true. as Hanson and Young had in fact no legal title to the Island, and the deed transferring the Island from Osborn to Andrews is dated 1791, seven years after the two unfortunate settlers had left the Island.
Neither Osborn nor Andrews seemed particularly attached to the Island. Though Andrews built a small stone cottage there, still standing today, though in bad repair, he put the property up for sale in 1798 but apparently had no takers, as it was still in his possession upon his death in 1818. After that it passed to his son Elisha Andrews, the town’s Sheriff, then to Elisha's son Marshall, and finally to Marshall's son Edwin. Edwin Andrews and his father Marshall were still living there in 1889 when the celebrated William Van Horne, newly appointed President of the CPR, arrived in St. Andrews on a tour of inspection of the New Brunswick Railway, a new addition to the CPR's rapidly expanding system. Van Horne was impressed with the town and a few years later, in 1891, purchased 150 acres (0.61 km2) from Edwin Andrews and began construction of Covenhoven, his summer home.
Covenhoven was originally quite small, built of red sandstone quarried on the Island and only about 80 feet (24 m) square, but over the years Van Horne continually expanded it, employing the assistance of Edward Maxwell, a Montreal architect very much in vogue at the time and still considered of the country’s most interesting designers, especially in his various CPR commissions such as the Chateau Frontenac. Eventually it comprised about 26 main rooms underneath three pitches arranged serially, an unusual style. Van Horne was an avid as well as knowledgeable collector of antiques, especially oriental pottery and paintings, and a painter himself of not inconsiderable skill, at least for an amateur. The walls were hung with about 80 works of art, some valuable, though the most priceless of his paintings, his Rembrandts and Murillos, were reserved for his Montreal home. Many of these paintings were Van Horne’s own compositions. A common theme was birch trees, but others included various landscapes of the beautiful scenery available from the shores of his island. Eventually, the province of New Brunswick acquired 21 of Van Horne’s own compositions and today they still adorn the otherwise bare walls of Covenhoven.
Around 1898 Van Horne also had Maxwell design a huge barn in his trademark chateau style. It was one of the largest in the Maritimes and certainly one of the most beautiful, resembling more a Norman castle than a home for brute beasts. With this barn Van Horne in his typical large way launched into the breeding of Clydesdale horses and Dutch Belted cattle. Minister’s Island became a nursery for his even larger operations in East Selkirk, Manitoba. Nearby stood several large greenhouses as well, turning out the very best English grapes, peaches, nectarines (the first to be seen in the area), cherries, and English cucumbers. The produce of the farm, which included pigs, geese, ducks, chickens and turkeys, not to mention the various fruits and vegetables, was shipped by night train to Montreal throughout the year, and in this way the Van Horne household in Montreal was provided with its own tailor-made supermarket. Aside from being a rail boss of the first calibre and a knowledgeable farmer, Van Horne was also an expert gardener, and his grounds became famous for their extensive parterres of flowers and orchards, and miles of manicured roads skirting the scenic shores of the Island. Though not one of Canada’s most philanthropic individuals, Van Horne did generously open up his Island to all visitors, who were invited to tour the grounds almost without restraint. This became a local tradition for tourists, and Minister’s Island—or Van Horne’s Island, as it was known in his own day—was much remarked upon by visitors and was also considered a must-see for visiting dignitaries.
Sale and recovery
Minister’s Island was inherited by Sir William’s daughter Adaline, his true heir in many ways. Like him she loved the Island, loved cattle, and maintained the property in pristine condition until her death in 1941. After that it was managed by the Royal Trust Company of Montreal on behalf of the Edith Bruce, wife of Adaline’s deceased brother, Richard Benjamin Van Horne, and his granddaughter Beverley Ann, born in 1932. Throughout the forties and fifties there were continual requests for cost-saving measures by Mrs. Bruce, the gardens and greenhouse operations were scaled back considerably, and eventually tenants were found to occupy it for the summers of about 1949 to 1953. But when Beverley Ann came of age, she showed little interest in maintaining or restoring the Island, which must have been quite expensive to operate. The herd of Ayrshire cattle were sold off in 1955, the Island stood vacant for some years, and finally in 1960 it was sold at a low price to a group of American business out of Tiffin, Ohio. The mainspring of these men was Harold Hossler, a general contractor. He and his associates formed the Van Horne Island Club and drew up plans to turn the Island into a playboy’s paradise, with Covenhoven as a Club House, the tower bath house as a lounge, a golf course, trap and skeet shooting, yachting, and an airstrip. These plans did not come to fruition, however, owing to the high cost of operating the Island, making improvements, such as installing electric lighting, and the generally out-of-the-way character of the Island’s location, not to mention the fact that it was accessible by vehicle for only part of the day on account of the tides. After 12 years and a lot of money, the Van Horne Island Club had been host only to friends and families of the Club members, and sold out to a real estate developer by the name of Norman Langdon, of Belfast, Maine.
Mr. Langdon had dreams similar to the Hosslers, but in the end, after the expenditure of $300,000 (by his own estimation) he was in approximately the same economic situation as the Van Horne Island Club had been. Negotiations with the Province of New Brunswick to purchase the Island were going nowhere, and finally in 1977 Langdon auctioned off the contents of the house and Island at an event that drew a great deal of media attention. Many considered Minister’s Island a national treasure, as Sir William Van Horne was so closely connected with the unification of the country under Confederation. And the Van Horne home in Sherbrooke Street, Montreal, had been torn down in 1973 to make way for an office tower. Many now felt the injustice of this loss and did not want a similar outcome for Minister’s Island. The Province did attend the auction and picked up some artifacts but as far as the house went it was too little too late. After two businessmen took out an option on the Island itself during the auction, the Province felt something drastic had to be done and declared the Island a protected site, which meant that the prospective owners, Michael McPherson and Alexander George, could not even plant a garden without provincial approval. They declined to exercise their option on the Island and Langdon was forced to renegotiate with the province. The Province purchased the Island in 1977 with the exception of one outstanding lot, which was finally picked up in 1982. Since that time Minister’s Island has been declared a National Historic Site on account of its aboriginal artifacts and its Van Horne associations. Some renovation and restoration has been done and summer tours have been fairly regular since that time, but the Island is now quite a faded version of its former splendor and major fundraising is required to restore it.
Van Horne Estate on Ministers Island Inc
A non-profit Canadian charity, Van Horne Estate on Ministers Island Inc. was formed in 2004 with the express purpose of managing and restoring the Island and the estate. In 2006 the Island became accessible by ferry as well as by vehicle. Restoration of the unique stone bathhouse and the innovative windmill-pump house was completed in 2008.
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- This article is summarized from Minister's Island: Sir William Van Horne's Summer Home in St. Andrews, by David Sullivan. Pendlebury Press Limited, 2007.
- "The Minister's Island Site: Stratigraphic Analysis and the Separation of Cultural Components"
- Minister's Island Pre-contact Sites. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- Commemorative Integrity Statement for Ministers Island
- Minister's Island. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Minister's Island.|
- Minister's Island: Sir William Van Horne's Summer Home in St. Andrews
- Official Website of Ministers Island