Loyalist Refuge

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A block from the Loyalist cemetery is the 1840 Charlotte County Courthouse, the oldest Canadian courthouse in continuous use. The building is Classical Revival in style—a more ponderous version of the neoclassical—and its pediment bears Victoria’s royal coat of arms, the lion and chained unicorn. Beside the courthouse, in austere contrast, squats the granite jail, built in 1832 and closed in 1979. From here, on occasion an inmate was led to the gibbet on the courthouse green.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, after sixty years of volatile economic activity, St. Andrews went bust, its prosperity swept away by the power of steam and the decision to establish its rival, St. John, as the region’s primary railway terminus. However, St. Andrews did not languish like other Maritime boom towns in the waning age of sail; it soon flowered anew, as a playground for the rich and powerful.

St. Andrews’s gilded age was shaped by an informal nineteenth-century alliance between the nation’s political power brokers—just then forging Canada’s first independent government—and the captains of industry, particularly the principals of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Between them, they parlayed the town’s natural beauty and remarkable past into an unprecedented commodity, the Maritime summer resort. Within a generation, solid St. Andrews, the Loyalist refuge and commercial wonder, would become chic St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, the “Newport of the North.” Before long, travelers would come from as far away as St. Louis, Washington, and New York, and the floating palaces of the Vanderbilts and Morgans would idle at anchor just offshore.

Promoters soon realized that a first-class resort required a first-class hotel and a convenient way to get to it. In 1871 two events conspired to secure the success of the fledgling summer colony. The first occurred in Bangor, Maine, when President Grant drove the last spike of the Maine and St. John Railway. The new line cut the trip to St. Andrews from Boston and Montreal, which had entailed a long trip by steamer for the last leg, to less than twenty-four hours. The second event was the commissioning of the Argyll Hotel, the first resort complex on Canada’s East Coast. The depression of the 1870s delayed completion for a decade, but the Argyll finally opened on May 24, 1881, Victoria’s birthday.

The Argyll prospered under the management of the New Brunswick and Canada Railway, and in 1889 another syndicate of steamship and railroad moguls, mostly from Boston and Bangor, built St. Andrews’s present-day grand hotel, the Algonquin. Fire, which had destroyed the Argyll in 1892, ravaged the Algonquin in 1914, but it was rebuilt in a single season. Today the 187-room hotel rises above the hill on Prince of Wales like a rambling old English manor house in Tudor style, an ivy-clad edifice of whitewashed walls with dark wood trim, green-trellised verandas, bannered turrets, and a sunbleached red-slate roof. The landscaping and architecture of the Algonquin weave a spell so reminiscent of the turn of the century that you almost expect to see couples whirling to Strauss behind the trellised windows. Even the staff participates in the illusion; kilted bellboys whisk away your baggage and at dusk lower the flags, both Canadian and American, to the thrilling wheeze of bagpipes.

At dusk kilted bellboys lower the flags, both Canadian and American, to the wheeze of bagpipes.
 

From the beginning St. Andrews’s history had been braided with ours, and this was no less true in the resort era than in any other. Because the Algonquin was an international enterprise, representatives of both nations, including the governor general of Canada and the governor of Maine, attended its opening. Some of the Algonquin’s Boston backers took up residence in town and went on to become naturalized and distinguished Canadian citizens. Without question, however, St. Andrews’s most prominent American-born resident at this time was Sir William Van Horne, the corpulent general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Lured to the CPR as much by an irresistible challenge as by the highest salary ever paid a Western railroad man—a scandalous fifteen thousand dollars a year—Van Horne was the genius behind Canada’s 1885 transcontinental railway, a vast and daunting enterprise confronting stern and variegated terrain. Ardent Canadian nationalists branded him a “Yankee Trojan horse,” but the only horse he ever gave a damn about was the iron horse. He completed the project in just four years. In 1894 Victoria raised him to the peerage, after Van Horne had twice declined the honor, and the scrappy kid from the Illinois Central’s railyards became “Sir William.”

The distinction did little to refine his Yankee earthiness. A man of prodigious appetites and childlike exuberance—“I eat all I can, I drink all I can, I smoke all I can, and I don’t give a damn for anything!” he once boomed—Van Horne brought a spark of genius and a talent for conspicuous consumption to the Grafting of Covenhoven, his Dutch-style manor house on five-hundred-acre Minister’s Island just off St. Andrews’s northern shore. Covenhoven, like a castle with a fickle moat, is accessible only twice daily, when the titan Fundy tides retreat to expose a subaquatic road to the island.