Sir William Van Horne
The Man, the Mystery, and the Magic
Sir William Van Horne began his railway career as a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railway in 1857 and worked his way up from ticket agent to train dispatcher, then Superintendent of Telegraphs and finally to Division Superintendent. He was successful in rebuilding and consolidating several US based railways and in 1881 he was enticed to undertake the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In September 1885 Van Horne became CPR Vice-President. Within four years he was elevated to the position of President. He became Chairman of the CPR Board in 1899 and he resigned in 1910.
Van Horne was flamboyant, outspoken and multi-talented. His interests were legend as was his sophistication. He had a passion for art and he dabbled in architecture. Incredibly, while the CPR's contract with the government dictated completion of the road within a decade, Van Horne - through sheer determination - found ways to finish it in five. Even more remarkably, once Van Horne had completed the CPR, he operated it and, despite the economic malaise for most of the 1880s and 1890s, made it into a paying proposition. Surely, the Canadian Pacific's role as an instrument of Canadian nationalism would have followed a different course, had Van Horne not been at the helm.
Van Horne purchased part of the island in 1890. He continued to buy other parcels with the last piece being purchased by his daughter Addie after Sir William's death in 1915. He constructed a summer estate on the site which included Covenhoven - a 50-room summer home with walls constructed from sandstone cut from the shore, a windmill, leading edge gas plant, carriage house, garage, circular bath house and farm buildings. The centrepiece of the agricultural buildings is the livestock barn, a massive two-story timber structure with a hipped gable roof, which was home to Van Horne's thoroughbred horses and prized herd of Dutch belted cattle.
In its day, the Island and Van Horne's activities were a major tourist draw for St Andrews and played a major role in the economic development and support of the region. Indeed he was single-handedly responsible for attracting many of his wealthy friends who came and made St Andrews their summer homes and established St Andrews as Canada's first and oldest seaside resort. Van Horne's engagement of Edward Maxwell, the renowned Boston and Montreal Architect in the creation and design of Covenhoven and the large agricultural barn set the stage for Maxwell's shaping of many of the magnificent buildings in St Andrews that charm visitors and tourists today.
Given its connection to the very roots of Canada, Ministers Island is a story well worth preserving for present and future generations. It's a story worth supporting financially given its potential to pay back in increased local pride, tourism and economic development.
Van Horne - the Artist & Musician.
In his time on the island Van Horne practiced his skills in the arts being both an excellent violinist and artist in his own right. The Bathhouse on the Island was his artistic retreat serving as a studio and source of inspiration. Van Horne was a serious collector and had a passion for art. Through his business travels he collected works of Velazquez, Hals, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable and Turner as well as many modern works. In addition to his painting, Van Horne was recognized for his collection of and expertise in Japanese porcelain and pottery.
The majority of his art collections now reside in the Montreal Museum of Fine arts with a smaller number still residing on the Estate on Ministers Island.
It's our hope that we can build upon the current works on hand and use the island as a staging ground for a wider collection of travelling exhibits from both the past and the present.
The centrepiece of Van Horne's agricultural buildings is the livestock barn, a massive two-story timber structure with a hipped gable roof, which was home to Van Horne's thoroughbred horses and prized herd of Dutch belted cattle. The historic barn was designed and constructed in 1899 by Edward Maxwell and Sir William Van Horne. The barn is an integral part of the Island summer estate and reflects the importance Van Horne attached to both architecture and agriculture. Its most prominent features are the two twin silos that are capped with conical roofs and Maxwell's signature asymmetrical ventilators, giving them the appearance of renaissance turrets. When originally constructed, they were clad with wood shingles that have deteriorated over the last 115 years and in some areas, have been replaced with metal sheeting. Given that the barn is a major feature of the Van Horne Estate its loss would be catastrophic to the historic and cultural value of the island. We are therefore currently engaged in capital fund raising activities to conserve and restore the silos and the barn.
With the restoration of the barn we anticipate that we can proceed to open up more areas of the barn to the public and develop the experiential elements to the Van Horne story. This will allow for greater use and enjoyment by residents and visitors to the region.
With increased safe and useable common space it will be possible to provide a wider range of offerings for the venue such as agricultural displays; artisan workshops, interpretative displays, experiential learning for youngsters and community events such as weddings, barn dances, as well as cultural events and celebrations.