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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The failed marriage of rail and sea

henry ketchum

TIDNISH BRIDGE, N.S. — Meet Henry George Clopper Ketchum, a guy with a dream.

While this 1800s railway man laid track and made a name for himself as far away as Brazil, his heart was in the Maritimes and the problems specific to transportation in this part of the world.

One of the biggest problems, to his engineering eye, was the transport of goods between the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the mouth of the rest of the world. It’s that Nova Scotia was in the way, separating the two bodies of water with 17 miles of land. How to reconcile cargo ships and rail freight?

With pure Maritime ingenuity, that’s how. Ketchum devised a system whereby a cargo ship would be sailed onto a portion of track which would then be lifted hydraulically to meet the rail on land. The ship would be pulled by two engines across the 17 miles from Fort Laurence to Tidnish, then lowered by the same means back into the sea to continue its journey.

The plans were met with applause when presented in 1875 and Ketchum started drawing up blueprints. Those blueprints were stored in Saint John and were set alight during the Great Fire of 1877. Ketchum took a deep breath and started over. He financed the survey for the project and presented the results to Minister of Railways and Canals Charles Tupper, a fellow Maritimer who would enjoy a brief stint as prime minister not far into the future. The government agreed to subsidize the project so long as it was completed by 1889.

chignecto marine transport railwayKetchum got to work in 1888. The project attracted 4,000 immigrant workers and at least two churches. The flow of the Tidnish River was diverted. Bed was dug and track was laid. Then, in 1890, the project started to go off the rails, when financial troubles in Europe filtered down to the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway. Ketchum asked the government to extend their subsidy, but they had already moved back the deadline a year and it was not going to happen again.

Work stopped in 1892, a heartbreaking four miles from completion. Ketchum and his successors tried to revive the project, but to no avail. All that’s left is some rail bed, Tidnish Bridge and Ketchum’s grave overlooking the would-be dock.

tidnish bridge

ASL, oralism and Alexander Graham Bell

A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.
A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.

BADDECK, N.S. — There’s a lot more to this Alexander Graham Bell fellow than telephones.

He was a lover of science who laid a fatherly hand on the shoulders of flight in Canada with the Silver Dart and broke the hydrofoil speed record in 1919.

From his summer retreat in Baddeck, far from the bustle of his home in Washington, D.C., he conducted scientific experiments and became an integral part of the region’s society and history.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the life of Bell—arguably the most famous communicator—is his work with the deaf and his attempts, while educating them, to keep them from forming any sort of community of their own.

Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.
Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.

The crusade started with Melville Bell, who was married to a deaf woman. He invented Visible Speech, a series of diagrams to show the deaf which muscles to contract and how to position their tongue and throat. The theory was that, using Visible Speech, a person could learn to speak any language, whether they had heard it spoken or not. Asked to lecture on and teach Visible Speech in his new home in the U.S. in the early 1800s, Melville sent his son, Alexander Graham, in his stead.

The younger Bell considered sign language an abomination and devoted his life to its removal from society. According to PBS.org, Bell called ASL “essentially a foreign language” and argued that “in an English-speaking country like the United States, the English language, and the English language alone, should be used as the means of communication and instruction at least in schools supported at public expense.”

He also showed great concern that deaf people were forming societies outside the mainstream and feared their numbers would grow. Unlike many believers in eugenics, he stopped short of demanding a ban on intermarriage of deaf people, but he clearly thought it was not a good idea. There were three things he did fight to do away with: sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools where community and fellowship formed among deaf people. Bell “mainstreamed” children by separating them from their deaf peers to assimilate them into hearing society.

Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.
Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.

The point is not to demonize Bell. While his ways appear backwards now, his intention was to forward mankind through science and education. He encouraged his wife, Mabel—a deaf woman—in her work to establish a public library in Baddeck, a home and school association and, most importantly for the modern feminist, a “club for young women to promote the acquisition of general knowledge.”

Considered the most important American in the history of oralism, he used the profits he made on that other little invention, the telephone, to further the promotion of speech and lip reading over sign language. The deaf community fought back with a series of films in the early 1900s distributed by the National Association of the Deaf. In one of them, association president George Veditz says, “As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs.”

The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada in Baddeck, N.S., is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through Oct. 20. Entrance ranges from $3.90 for a youth to $19.60 for a family. The site is free with an annual national parks pass.