Minister’s Island is 690 acres in New Brunswick’s Passamaquoddy Bay. It is only accessible at low tide over a wide, gravel bar that gets completely submerged twice a day under the famous Bay of Fundy tides. The Passamaquoddy people (Pass-uh-muh-KWAH-dee) lived on the island for thousands of years, calling it Qonasqamqi Monihkuk. The island gets its current name from Samuel Andrews, an Anglican minister and Loyalist who built a house here in 1790. A century after that, William Van Horne, visionary builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, decided that this was the perfect location for his summer estate.
William Cornelius was a do-it-yourself, get-er-done kinda guy. With the help of Montreal architect Edward Maxwell, he designed and built a summer “cottage” between 1892-1901 and called it Covenhoven. It had everything one might need in a little summer place: 17 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, 40-seat dining room, Steinway piano, Spode china, brass beds and monogrammed linens – extravagant, late Edwardian elegance and lavishness on a grand scale! Nice.
In its heyday this remarkable island landscape was a going concern and a hive of activity. Servants took care of the family and their guests while farmers and groundskeepers maintained one of Canada’s largest greenhouses (which took 25 tons of coal to heat in the winter). There was an assortment of impressive barns and vineyards, a windmill and a gas plant. A breeding program turned out purebred Clydesdales. There was a dairy for fresh milk, which, along with the local eggs, mushrooms and peaches, would be shipped to head office in Montreal when the boss had to attend meetings. The Van Horne family lived on Minister’s Island from June until October and wintered in Montreal, travelling in Sir William’s own private railway car.
The exterior of the home and the bathhouse are made of sandstone quarried from the shoreline below the bathhouse. The depression in the beach, the result of the quarrying, was used as a salt water swimming pool.
After the death of Sir William Cornelius Van Horne in 1915, the estate was maintained by the family until the 1940s, but it was always very expensive to maintain and slowly became less vigorous without the inspiration of its founder. In 1958 the asking price for the island was $80,000. It was finally purchased by the Province of New Brunswick in 1977 (for ten times that amount) and eventually designated a National Historic Site.
These days Minister’s Island exists in a kind of “faded splendour”. Schemes have been hatched, committees have been formed and governments have pledged resources and good wishes, but a definitive direction on what to do with the property has not been established.
Today the island is supported by a band of dedicated volunteers. It is open to visitors from June to October, but if you go to Minister’s Island, please mind the tides. Whether you are thrown off a panicking horse, get your car stuck in the mud or wonder into the sea through a thick fog, as recently as 2004 people have lost their lives attempting to beat the tide crossing the bar. Govern yourselves accordingly.