Bringing back Ministers Island, N.B.
New Brunswick’s Ministers Island is being restored to its former glory
TWICE A DAY, as the Bay of Fundy’s massive tides withdraw, a kilometrelong causeway opens up across the ocean floor, giving fleeting access to Ministers Island near Saint Andrews in southern New Brunswick. The island is a national historic site best known as the former summer home of Sir William Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century, and the chance to visit his sprawling, mansion-like “cottage” called Covenhoven is what drew more than 26,000 people to the island last year. But there is more to the story of Ministers Island than just Van Horne. The 280-hectare island is part of the traditional territory of the Passamaquoddy people, who used it as an important summer fishing camp for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Loyalist settlers arrived in the late 18th century and the island took its current name from Reverend Samuel Andrews, the rector of Saint Andrews, who built a small house there in 1790, which still stands today. Van Horne bought most of t he island f rom Andrews’ descendants starting in the 1890s and turned it into a summer retreat and agricultural laboratory. Eventually, the Van Horne family lost interest in the island, and the province finally took control of it in the 1970s. This long and rich history is part of what makes the island such an inviting destination, says Brian Usher, executive director of The Van Horne Estate on Ministers Island, which administers the land on behalf of the province. “The story of the island is always changing,” he says. Usher’s group has spent the past several years slowly repairing and restoring Covenhoven and recovering Van Horne’s furniture and artifacts, many of which were sold off in the 1970s (luckily, a gigantic 3½-metre-long billiards table proved too awkward for its buyer to remove, and so remains on display). A $2-million renovation of the huge cedar-shingled barn (originally designed by the famed Canadian architect Edward Maxwell), where Van Horne bred his prize-winning Clydesdale horses and Dutch Belted cattle, is nearly complete and open to the public. Now, the plan is to expand the activities available to visitors. The barn hosts musical performances most Friday evenings throughout the summer, and a craft beer festival is in the works for September. A heritage farm education program, featuring demonstrations by carpenters and stonemasons, as well as hands-on experiences of everything from beekeeping to farm-to-table cooking, are being developed. Usher also wants to find ways to tell more of the Passamaquoddy story of the island. All that planned activity is not the only reason for a visit, however. For those who just want to immerse themselves in the tranquility of its quieter areas, the island is also criss-crossed with 26 kilometres of peaceful hiking and cycling trails, which are open year-round. Just make sure you check the tide schedule before you go to avoid an unexpectedly long stay.
Covenhoven ( left), a sprawling 50-room cottage, and the bathhouse ( top) are part of the Van Horne Estate on Ministers Island.