A walk in the park: Minister’s Island (ghost edition)

 Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

MINISTER’S ISLAND, N.B. — There are ghosts at Covenhoven. I heard them.

The spirit of Van Horne is intimated in each surprising twist of architecture, but it’s Benny and Billy and Beverly Ann whose influence is most clearly reflected in each peeling corner of wallpaper, flake of paint and neglected gable. Phantom guests wander the boathouse and their shadows drop shallowly over the dry pool.

I heard the ghosts first while standing in the mansion’s foyer. William Cornelius Van Horne’s bedroom was behind me. The president of the Canadian Pacific Railway at the end of the 19th century—a prankster and brilliant businessman—didn’t sleep much and so he chose for his summer-home bedroom a room just off the grand entrance, where he could slip outside without disturbing his wife, children or house servants.

I had turned to look at one of the few pieces of artwork in the house that wasn’t painted by Van Horne himself. Rather than by him, it was of him, present as the last spike was driven into Canada’s proud transcontinental railroad. With him, among other famous railway men, is philanthropist Donald Smith driving the spike; Sam Steele of the NorthWest Mounted Police; Tom Wilson, purported to be the first white man to see Lake Louise; and Sanford Fleming, who looks rather like St. Nick and is the inventor of time zones.

The Last Spike. Library and Archives of Canada.

The ringing in my ears, like metal wheels sliding to a halt on metal rail, only lasted a moment, but it raised gooseflesh up my sunburned arms. No one around me seemed affected.

Obediently I followed my tour group to the grand dining room, set with CP dining ware of the time. I hung back to take a few pictures and to peek into the butler’s pantry, one of the few rooms that hasn’t been altered and assaulted by post-Van Horne owners. Then, through a side door and up a flight of narrow stairs, the decay becomes heartbreakingly obvious.

Covenhoven is built on Minister’s Island, a lovely piece of forested and grassy rock that is accessible by driving one kilometre on the ocean floor at low tide. In Van Horne’s time it was a working farm with award-winning cattle and Clydesdale horses. It has fallen into grievous disrepair.

Through the servants’ quarters, past bare rooms that echo softly and into a hallway with a frosted skylight never designed to withstand a Canadian snowfall, I stepped into Van Horne’s wife’s bedroom. The blue, peeling paper is original to the home—it clings to the upper wall with ancient glue, battling gravity.

Mrs. Van Horne’s large closet has a tall shelf for her many hats. “She was a very tiny lady,” our guide said, “but there was no stepstool in this room. Turns out she had a butler who was more than six feet all.”

I thought I heard quotation marks around “butler,” but maybe I was hearing things, because there was that sound again, the high-pitched steel-on-steel that I felt as much as heard. I hung back to stare out her window at the expansive lawn and sliver of Fundy before following the group down the hall to the east wing of the home.

And here is where everything falls apart: not the wood and plaster, but the family itself, from the very foundation and through the next three generations, which is when the story ends.

Van Horne himself appears to have been a steady, good-humoured man. In 1920, five years after his death, biographer W. Vaughan wrote: “He was tall and massively built, and carried himself with the native dignity of a courteous, high-bred gentleman. His head was of noble proportions; his eye clear and penetrating; his features refined, mobile, and expressive of his moods. In conversation his face was constantly lighted up with a merry twinkling smile. His laugh was hearty and jovial.” He wasn’t prone to temper, especially when “silence and sarcastic utterance would suffice.”

His son, Benny, was equally jovial, and like his father in other ways: he was an artist, he loved to sail, he worked on the railroad. He married in line with his social status, to Edith Molson, with whom he gave Van Horne his most beloved grandson. Although Covenhoven was bequeathed to daughter Addie, Benny, Edith and sweet Billy spent summers with her and their mother.

But Benny carried a demon on his shoulders: drink. He hadn’t spent much of his youth in his rooms here at Covenhoven, but he died here, at 51. The cause was cirrhosis.

Billy was the darling of the family. His grandfather painted carefree scenes in his Covenhoven bedroom for him and furnished him with—of course—metal train sets. His aunt Addie spoiled him and his Boy Scout troupe rotten. He grew into a handsome daredevil, taking to the sea and air. He collected motor boats and yachts and, in the 1930s, was a pilot for an Ontario company. And upon his shoulders, he carried Benny’s demon.

His time at Covenhoven was marked by drunken parties, antics on motorcycles, hunting excursions and other dangerous behaviour. He left the wreckage of cars at the bottom of cliffs around Minister’s Island, yet it was his wife who, after a party in the village, died when her car was driven off a cliff. In the vehicle with her was a man whose relationship to her was never publicly explained.

Billy would carry on and remarry, but his antics continued and upon Addie’s death in 1941, Billy’s daughter Beverly Ann was named heir of Covenhoven. Billy died five years later of a short illness that was probably cirrhosis.

Pictures of Beverly Ann show a sweet little girl with a big smile and bigger bow. Motherless as a toddler and orphaned at puberty, the world seemed against Beverly Ann from the beginning, and indeed she made scandalous headlines from the time she was just 17. One might have hoped that she’d settle down on finally taking up residency at Covenhoven when she turned 21. But perhaps one should have looked at her family history and known better. She used the property as her father and grandfather had: as a party home that was a haven for drugs and drunks.

Beverly Ann shot a man to death at a party at her Laurentiens home in 1960 and, though she was acquitted of murder, her public story mostly ends there. She appears to have died in Florida in 1998, leaving no heirs.

Twisting down the east stairs, I found myself back on the main floor, following the group into the billiards room. But my heart wasn’t in it any more. My heart was with the ghosts of Benny and Billy and Beverly Ann, who couldn’t find happiness in this beautiful home.

The last room in the house has dark wood shelves and warm painted walls. Summer light pools on the hardwood floor and dust carouses in the sunbeams. This is the room where Billy died. This is the room where his funeral was held.

And at that moment, for the third time, I heard the feedback, the steel-on-steel ringing in my jaw and ears. I let my breath out and turned away, walking the few steps to the outdoors, the saltwater air and manicured grounds, blinking in the sudden light.

The ghosts weren’t so obvious on the outside, but they were not gone, especially not on that summer day. There’s nowhere they’d rather be.

(Click the first photo below to start an awesome slideshow with lots of neat stuff about Covenhoven. Then scroll down for our stroller-wheel rating of the adventure.)

four wheelsone wheel

Minister’s Island scores the ever-elusive five stroller wheels out of a possible five on my completely arbitrary parks scale. This provincially run park has everything: history, walking trails, adventure and even ghosts. It is dog- and kid-friendly (kids are allowed inside Covenhoven; dogs are not) and, best of all, has the greatest staff we’ve ever encountered. While I took the complete tour with a guide, Melani hung out on the front lawn with the dog and Jilly. Even with all that grass to run around on, a 2-year-old is going to get bored eventually. The staff, who had already made a great impression back in St. Andrews, where they have a stall to promote the island, headed off potential toddler and canine drama by hauling out a rocket toy for Jilly to play with and offering water, biscuits and attention to Mischou. There were kid-size chairs on the veranda and coffee and ice tea for the grownups. The staff were friendly, knowledgeable and seemed to be having as great a time as we were.

It costs $10 for each person over 8 to visit Minister’s Island. This money goes to preserving and rebuilding Covenhoven, which is an important part of Canada’s history. You can make a separate donation here.

I’ve barely scraped the surface of Covenhoven’s history. Huge thanks to our tour guide, whose name I forgot to write down, and to these two websites especially, which provided me with far more information than I can begin to share with you. I encourage you to go check them out for yourself:
Old St. Andrews, Dictionary of Canadian Biography

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