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

The madmen of York County Gaol

york county jailFREDERICTON, N.B. — As anyone who read the previous entry (wherein I spent a few days taxiing a herd of children in a minivan) might suspect, I spent part of my time in Fredericton in jail.

Not just any jail. A bread-and-water jail.

But let me go back to the beginning. No, let me go an hour or so after the beginning, once bad weather had scuttled our plans and we broke up about 40 fights. We needed out of the house and we needed out fast.

We chose Science East because of its reputation, because our three borrowed children knew and loved it and because it was downtown, so I could reasonably expect to find a coffee shop nearby. All I had to do was get my crew there safely and ditch them. That was the plan right up to the moment we stepped onto the grounds and my eyes caught the small lettering on the museum’s front wall:

“Former Fredericton Provincial Jail. Built 1840-1842.”

Well, wasn’t that interesting. Science in a jailhouse? How delightfully unique (Stanford prison experiments aside).

york county jail doorway The granite walls are three feet thick. They are cool and imposing and arrested only for narrow windows, some of which are still barred. Stamped tin ceiling tiles remain in place, adding to the sharp acoustic quality of the open floors. Iron doors on the basement level are propped open as they never would have been when this was a working jail, right until 1996. These doors led to the yard, where many men were hanged. It’s a playground now, but the fence is still topped with barbed wire. Don’t want those science brats escaping, after all.

Upstairs, ornate iron doors are flung open. Children swing on them or pass through them as though they were never used to contain miscreants, murderers and madmen. And what a list of villains!

How about the Bannister boys, who were hanged in 1936 for the “beating, shooting and burning of a house to kidnap a baby”? Or Lina Thibodeau, the last woman sentenced to death in Canada, in 1954, for the slaying of her husband?

The Monster of the Miramichi, Allan Leger, was held at York County Jail in the late 1980s. The serial killer’s trial was the first time DNA evidence was used in Canada to secure a conviction. Leger is now housed in Ste. Anne des Plaines prison. His cell in the basement of York County jail teaches visitors about DNA and other forensic evidence.

york county jail execution doorEveryone’s favourite inmate is the Lunar Rogue, the dashing early 19th-century confidence man and thief who could barely be held to his cell and who created intricate marionettes out of straw and imagination. In a wonderful twist on the shoemaker’s elves, Henry Moon stole coats, then posed as a tailor who could fit and sew a coat overnight. He lived a charmed life till he was found out and then, incarcerated, lived a life nearly as charmed.

The Lunar Rogue simply could not be contained. As though he had some sort of prankster deal made with Loki, he was constantly slipping his bonds. His jailors chained him by the neck, wrists and ankles. He could barely feed himself, yet he was found unshackled and grinning most mornings. He faked a near-death and escaped, living for some time in a stolen house in the boondocks. He was incorrigible, of course, and was incarcerated again within months; when he tasted freedom the next time, he ought to have fled across a border, but the Lunar Rogue was some sort of mad.

The petty thief and con man was rearrested and sentenced to death. Chained, locked, almost certainly feared, the Lunar Rogue used nothing but his hands, straw from his mattress and maybe tools loaned by Loki to create lifelike marionettes to which he gave personalities, entertaining his jailors and eventually putting on performances for the public. Rather than the rope, miraculously he was granted a pardon. Did Loki whisper something in his ear? Finally, the Lunar Rogue appears to have gotten the point—he left New Brunswick, leaving nothing behind but the legend.


Fredericton, four car seats and a minivan

morell park new brunswickFREDERICTON, N.B. — Sometimes the call in the middle of the night isn’t a prank or wrong number. Sometimes it’s exactly what you fear a call in the middle of the night will be.

That call came just before midnight at our hosts’ house. They have four kids, so the phone doesn’t ring after dark. I lay on a mattress on a floor in the living room. Jilly was breathing evenly beside me; I was holding my breath as quiet words were spoken on the second floor. Footsteps on the stairs. Down, then up. Down again. Melani, who had been in the kitchen, came to the archway and said quietly, “Can I talk to you?”

In a rare peaceful moment, the girls watched a thunderstorm together.

“Is everything okay?” I said, stupidly. She was backlit, so I couldn’t make out her face, but I’m sure she raised an eyebrow. I followed her into the kitchen, where she told me that our host’s grandfather was critically ill in Toronto. She had to go to him, of course, but she couldn’t get on a plane, last minute, with four children. She could manage the baby, but … Of course we’ll stay, I said. Of course we will.

Now, I don’t regret doing it, because it sure took a load off our hosts, and I really love these children, who are six, four, and two and a half just like Jilly. But, well, I’m not very good with kids, if you must know. They like me well enough. Most of them love me. They also smell weakness, like round-faced sharks smell blood. Without Melani there to wrangle them properly, they would have eaten me alive.

We had planned to spend about 24 hours in Fredericton. We were there for four days. Like I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, you have to stay flexible when you’re roadtripping. There might be bumps in the road, but you’ll discover the most awesome things, like …

We uncovered beautiful little hidden beaches, a darling town centre, splendid architecture and a fantastic science museum. Of couse, we also discovered I’m not the type to handle with grace four kids, four carseats and a minivan. At least now we know.

Life’s a trip, indeed.

Go tell it on the mountain

STEEVES MOUNTAIN, N.B. — I was testy because I hadn’t wanted to drive all the way to Fredericton anyway and when Melani asked me to take an exit off the Trans Canada in the middle of nowhere even though there was clearly no gas station to stop at … I did not say “I told you so.” Even once. I just kept driving.

After a bizarre cloverleaf, we found ourselves on a small highway without much going for it. “Just pull over anywhere,” Melani said in frustration after a few miles, as though by saying that a flat, safe section of road would appear by magic. And then, you know, because that’s how it works, a flat, safe section appeared. And there was Jesus.

It’s got nothing on Thunder Mountain, but tiny Prayer Mountain certainly lifted our spirits.

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That time we didn’t run out of gas

TIDNISH, N.S. — Well that drive wasn’t any fun at all.

We left late, because Trevor, as president of his Venturer company, had to stick around for one last meeting before they get their act together for Adventure 14 in Newfoundland next week.

It’s a ten-hour drive to the edge of Nova Scotia, and we had to do it in one shot because of a cabin rental in Tidnish. I haven’t driven through the night on purpose for at least a decade, but I figured if I took a nap, I’d be up for it.

And to be fair, things were pretty good for the first four hours. We passed Quebec City around one a.m. and half an hour later I started thinking about fueling up. We had an Esso gas card, so when we stopped at Timmies across the road from a brightly lit gas station, we determined that the nearest Esso was in La Pocatière, only 20 minutes up the road. My gas light had just come on and Joe the Truck is ridiculously fuel efficient, so I wasn’t in the least bit worried.

Even when we got to La Pocatière and the gas station was closed, I wasn’t worried. We were on the T-Can after all, and there’s always a service centre just around the bend.

Unless you’re in far eastern Quebec, I guess. The arm on my fuel indicator dropped from almost empty, to empty, to below empty. I brought the car down to 70 km/h, used cruise control and flipped my blinkers on when I saw trucks in the rearview, so my slowness wouldn’t surprise them.

Then finally—a sign! We got off at Saint-Pacôme and eagerly drove to the promised station. It was three a.m. The pumps were set to open at 5:30.

“We could just wait here,” I said mournfully. “Sleep a couple hours?” We decided to wing it. We have a lot of faith in Joe.

esso quebecSomehow in the night the towns got father apart, and farther from the road. When we finally arrived at an Esso in Saint-Pascal, I decided we’d stay till it opened. We had driven more than 40 kilometres with the gas light on. We slept a little, and watched the moon, looking like a chewed-off fingernail, rise.

A lady stared at us suspiciously as she headed to work just after five. The bread-delivery truck arrived at the grocery store next door a while later. Just before six, a man biked past us, not giving us a second glance. Melani took my phone to look up Saint-Pascal’s Esso, which I hadn’t once called a bed and breakfast. “It opens at eight,” she sighed. “Guess we could have checked that out a little sooner.”

“What do we do?”

She knew better than to answer that. There was no right answer. We’d been in the car for eight hours. We were about seven hours from our destination. “Car probably won’t even start,” I grumbled as I turned the key and Joe loyally rumbled to life. We were off again.

The last stop was Saint-Alexandre-de-Kamouraska, more than 20 kilometres away. The fuel arm was as low as it could possibly go, lower than I’d ever seen it. Low enough it’d need therapy to recover.

I parked at the pump and pulled the key out. It was just after six. An hour later, a slightly surly twenty-something filled my tank and sent us on our way.

If you think I’d learned my lesson and it wouldn’t happen again during the next seven hours on the road … well, you’d be awfully wrong. It’s happened twice since, but I think I’m getting the hang of this Maritime thing, where they think you’re smart enough to keep your tank relatively full, especially if you call yourself an experienced roadtripper.

I guess there should be a moral to this story. And that’ll be, umn … let’s see. The moral is: drive a Santa Fe. Those suckers will get you at least 60 kilometres on an empty tank of gas.