The Park House, one of Canada’s most in­ter­est­ing build­ings

The Goderich Signal-Star - - HISTORY - Huron His­tory

If the walls could talk, the Park House would be one of the most in­ter­est­ing build­ings in Canada. Built about 1839, the Park House has sur­vived fires, storms, the Aug. 21, 2011, F-3 tor­nado and has hosted some of the town’s most dis­tin­guished vis­i­tors. It is not only the town’s old­est build­ing but one its most leg­endary.

It was con­structed in the late 1830s for Canada Com­pany Com­mis­sioner Thomas Mercer Jones for his wife El­iz­a­beth Mary Stra­chan, the daugh­ter of Bishop John Stra­chan of Toronto who was the most pow­er­ful­man in the prov­ince at the time. Built by the “some­what no­to­ri­ous” Cap­tain John Long­worth, the el­e­gant res­i­dence was the most sub­stan­tial build­ing in Goderich and served as the Canada Com­pany’s head­quar­ters. In an ef­fort to repli­cate gen­tile English so­ci­ety in the wilderness, Mrs. Jones staged gala events at the res­i­dence.

In 1852, the Canada Com­pany dis­missed Jones and the res­i­dence be­came the Bank of Up­per Canada’s agency. The bank moved about 1858, ac­cord­ing to “Mem­o­ries of Goderich.” By 1862, the Grand Trunk Rail­way owned the prop­erty and sur­round­ing sta­bles and con­verted it into an inn called the Mait­land Ho­tel.

The pro­pri­etor, Ed­ward Hosker, ad­ver­tised the Mait­land Ho­tel as “most pleas­antly sit­u­ated on an emi­nence 120 feet high, over­look­ing the Harbour and Lake Huron” sur­rounded by “good or­chards, gar­dens and ru­ral walks.” Bed and meals could be had for $1 per day. Al­though Hosker de­nied it, in 1865, The Huron Sig­nal ac­cused him of ty­ing up his wa­ter pump to force guests into pur­chas­ing beer and other in­tox­i­cat­ing spir­its at the bar. The Mait­land may also have been the ho­tel that U.S. Con­sul, Thomas Fit­nam, in 1866, sus­pected of be­ing in­volved in smug­gling op­er­a­tions.

In the Au­gust 1872 elec­tion cam­paign, Prime Min­is­ter Sir John A. Macdon­ald spent three nights at the Mait­land Ho­tel. On his first night, a torch light pa­rade marched the Old Chief­tain down West street to the Mait­land where he dined with 60 in­vited guests and passed the evening in “con­ver­sa­tion and song” un­til af­ter mid­night.

In 1873, J. J. Wright ran the ho­tel for a sea­son while he re­built the Point Farm Ho­tel de­stroyed by fire the pre­vi­ous year. When Wright re­opened the “new” Point Farm in 1874, the Mait­land Ho­tel was aban­doned. The town re­al­ized the need for a sum­mer ho­tel to at­tract the grow­ing Amer­i­can tourist trade.

In April 1875, Mayor John Dav­i­son called a pub­lic meet­ing to de­bate the mer­its of buy­ing the prop­erty sur­round­ing the Mait­land for a sum­mer ho­tel. Op­po­nents of the scheme were con­cerned that the pres­ence of Amer­i­cans in Goderich might harm the town’s mo­rals. Oth­ers would only sup­port the park bylaw if it­was run on tem­per­ance prin­ci­ples. On April 25, the town held a ref­er­en­dum. A “small ma­jor­ity” sup­ported as­sist­ing the in­vestors in the sum­mer ho­tel scheme by pur­chas­ing the prop­erty now know­nas Lions’ Harbour Park.

A grand sum­mer ho­tel was built on the park land be­side the old Mait­land Ho­tel un­der Cap­tain Ed­ward Marl­ton’s pro­pri­etor­ship. Lit­tle is known of the Sum­mer Ho­tel but it was in­tended to ac­com­mo­date 200 guests. It had at least two tow­ers, mar­ble fire­places and fine fur­nish­ings to ri­val the Point Farm’s splen­dour. Marl­ton resided in the old Mait­land Ho­tel on the prop­erty ad­join­ing the park. In March 1879, the sum­mer ho­tel was dubbed the Park House and ad­ver­tised it­self as “de­light­fully sit­u­ated” and “most con­ve­niently” lo­cated for steam­boat trav­ellers.

On Nov. 7, 1880, fire razed the Park House. The Sig­nal called the fire “a scene of awe­some grandeur” as “flames burn­ing from the huge struc­ture lit up the sky for miles for miles around” (the fire was seen in Ex­eter). The wooden struc­ture was “laid in ashes” with “not a stick stand­ing, only a heap of ashes.” It was only with dif­fi­culty that the fire brigade saved the old Mait­land from the flames.

The fire’s cause was a mys­tery and ru­mours abounded. In Detroit, in April 1881, a no­to­ri­ous lo­cal scalawag, Charles Malton, made a deathbed con­fes­sion claim­ing that some­one had paid him $100 “to ap­ply the brand” to the orig­i­nal Park House.

The fi­nan­cial loss of the fire was in ex­cess of $10,000 and could not be re­placed. The Sher­iff seized the old ho­tel in Fe­bru­ary 1881. In May, Cap­tain Gre­gor McGre­gor pur­chased the old ho­tel which be­came known as the Park House with the in­ten­tion of op­er­at­ing it as a sum­mer re­sort. Capt. McGre­gor promised that “al­though ac­com­mo­da­tion will not be so great as last year, ev­ery ef­fort will be made to se­cure the com­fort and ease of trav­ellers.”

Even though McGre­gor hosted Sir Hec­tor Langevin, the Min­is­ter of Pub­lic Works, mazy dances, and fra­ter­nal lodge func­tions, he could not make the Park House prof­itable. In May 1882, the Sher­iff auc­tioned the build­ing for $1,425. The Sig­nal stated that “al­though the build­ing is not a first class one” the sale was a “bar­gain” be­cause “the site is one of the pret­ti­est on the con­ti­nent.”

The Park House’s for­tunes im­proved greatly at the turn of the cen­tury. A foun­tain, pav­il­ion, and other “amuse­ments” were added to the park. In 1902, J. J. Wright re­turned as the Park House’s pro­pri­etor af­ter the Point Farm was sold. Wright “made con­sid­er­able im­prove­ments” at the Park House in­clud­ing the ad­di­tion of the front por­tico in 1903 and a tele­phone in 1904. The Park House had ac­com­mo­da­tion for thirty roomers dur­ing the sum­mer sea­son. Wright could serve up to fifty guests which he hoped would come from as far as Detroit and Chicago.

Al­though it had long aban­doned its “dry” prin­ci­ples, the Park House was con­sid­ered moral enough to host the Methodist Con­fer­ence’s Ep­worth League Sum­mer School in Au­gust 1905. It also ben­e­fit­ted from Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way’s open­ing in 1907. A walk­way and stairs to the beach were added for guests’ con­ve­nience. Wright, who was “known far and wide as a ge­nial and ca­pa­ble host,” op­er­ated the Park House un­til shortly be­fore his death in 1915.

Af­ter­wards, the Park Housewent through a se­ries of own­ers who ran it as a re­sort in the sum­mer and board­ing house in the winter. In 1928, the future of the Park House seemed gri­mas coun­cil de­bated tear­ing it down and sell­ing the prop­erty. For­tu­nately, in May 1928, a “wise” coun­cil chose tomain­tain the Park House “as one of the old land­marks in town.” The build­ing was fixed up so that it could con­tinue to op­er­ate as a sum­mer re­sort. Al­though the ar­rival and de­par­tures of guests were printed in the lo­cal pa­pers into the 1930s, the De­pres­sion hurt the Amer­i­can tourist trade. In 1932, the Sig­nal re­ported that the old build­ing had gone through ‘many vi­cis­si­tudes.’

On Sun­day, Dec. 9, 1945, one of the board­ers’ chil­dren put ashes from a fire grate into a card­board box. Theashes caught fire and nearly “gut­ted” the Park House. The fire se­verely dam­aged the up­per floor but the Park House was a re­silient old build­ing. Its heavy beams were deemed struc­turally sound. The town coun­cil un­der­took ama­jor re-con­struc­tion which sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered the Park House’s ex­te­rior but it was still the Park House nonethe­less.

When it re­opened on Sept. 15, 1947, un­der the man­age­ment of Bert Br­ere­ton, the his­toric land­mark was fully re­fur­nished and mod­ern­ized. “For com­fort and ser­vice,” the Sig­nal-Star claimed that “the Park House will rate high in On­tario.” In­deed, the leg­endary Park House con­tin­ues to “rate high” in the es­teem of all who know it as a tav­ern, din­ing roomand his­toric land­mark.

David Yates

The Park House, one of the most in­ter­est­ing build­ing in Canada, still stands to this very day in Goderich.

Photo Cour­tesy of the HCM

The Park House c. 1900.

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