Monday, March 26, 2012

Osler Castle – Collingwood, Ontario

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In February, I ended up in Collingwood for a week’s vacation. My family and I went skiing and I’m proud to say that I safely skied the largest bunny hill, after a few falls. Back at the hotel, I asked the front desk staff if they knew of any cool abandoned places, explaining that I wrote a blog about such things. The man was super friendly and he told me about Osler Castle. Except, he didn’t call it that, he forgot the name, but he told me about the ruins where he had once thought he might store his canoe. He said it was technically private property but that no one cared if you went to see the castle, as long as your intentions were sound.

My partner and I had a bit of difficulty finding the castle, as it is set back about a 15 minute walk from the road. But, the path is wide and flat and the surrounding woods are nice. A subdivision sits to your right as you are heading towards the castle.

The castle itself is fenced off, as a local group is trying to preserve it. I appreciate attempts at historical preservation, so I did not go inside the fence although the photographer in me wanted to.

As for the history of the castle, I knew nothing about it until I got back home and googled it. I found an article written by Andrew Armitage for the The Sun Times that I have reprinted below with the link to the website I found it on.

As always, if anyone reading knows of any urban legends associated with Osler Castle, I would love to hear from you.

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Our History - by Andrew Armitage

Osler Castle an enchanting place briefly
Column appeared in The Sun Times, Friday, August 22, 2008

High among the Blue Mountains is a secluded spot of land. The view is spectacular from there with broad vistas of Georgian Bay. It is a perfect place for a summer cottage.

Britton Bath Osler agreed. In 1894, he built a handsome 15-room vacation home for his wife, Caroline. But Caroline Osler would never spend a summer in the “Castle,” as it became known. And Britton Bath Osler himself would know few happy moments in his sumptuous estate. Today, only a few crumbling walls of fieldstone remain as reminders of a romantic and yet tragic footnote in the history of Grey County.

Britton Bath Osler was a man of success from one of the most prominent families Ontario ever produced. He was born close to the wilderness in 1839, the son of Featherstone Lake Osler and Ellen Free Picton Osler of Bond Head Parsonage, Tecumseth Township, Upper Canada.

Featherstone Osler was from Cornwall. He had joined the Royal Navy but left the sea to attend theological college before answering the call of Canada and West Gwillimbury. The Oslers were to have many more children after Britton Bath. Each, in his own way, would become famous.

There was Featherstone Osler Jr., Justice of the Court of Appeals for Ontario. Then came Sir Edmund Boyd Osler, a financier, President of the Dominion Bank, Director of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and member of the boards of companies nearly too numerous to count. Finally, Britton Bath had another brother. His name was William Osler and before his death in 1919, he had become Sir William, Regium Professor of Medicine at Oxford, and probably the best-loved man in the world of medicine.

In a family of brilliant men, Britton Bath, Queen’s Counsel, was considered the brightest of the bright. As Crown Counsel in Canada, he was an outstanding lawyer, a great orator, and a man of charismatic personality. The Ontario government utilized Britton Bath as prosecuting attorney for many of its most important cases.

Osler had a close working relationship with the flamboyant Provincial Detective of Ontario, John Wilson Murray. Murray, one of the first “scientific” detectives, apprehended and Osler prosecuted. Britton Bath claimed he could tell the guilt or innocence of a defendant the minute he entered the courtroom.

He was described by contemporaries as a striking figure, a man with high cheek bones, deep dark eyes, and as a raconteur with great wit and a generous sense of humour. But others found B. B. Osler to be an austere, somber figure. By the time of his death in 1901, Osler was known as the foremost legal mind of his day.

His wife, Caroline Osler, was a member of the East India Company Smiths, a naval family famous in the days of Great Britain’s colonial empire. Unfortunately, she was also frail, a victim of chronic arthritis. In her later years, Caroline was confined to a wheelchair and in rapidly failing health.

B. B. Osler sought for his wife a summer home, one with a high elevation that might help relieve her arthritic suffering. His search led him to Grey County where, in 1893, he found the exact place he had been looking for – a hideaway with healthful air and a view unsurpassed anywhere in Ontario.

The choice Osler made was a parcel of land not many kilometres southwest of Collingwood in the Blue Mountains. Here, he found 330 acres of mountain top. Silver Creek has its source on the site before it flows down the hills into Georgian Bay. B. B. Osler bought his vacation property, well-treed, rustic and far removed from urban living. And he began to build.

The last decade of the 19th century in Ontario was a time of palatial summer estates. The wealthy, leaders of business, law, and medicine, had turned to rural, more inaccessible reaches of the province in Muskoka, the Haliburtons, and around Georgian Bay. There they built large rambling mansions that would today, dwarf the typical summer retreat.

Osler gathered a team of architects, contractors, decorators, stone masons, and other workmen from Toronto, Barrie and Collingwood. No expense would be spared in building the “Castle”. Before he was finished, several hundreds of thousand dollars had been invested. The “cottage” that emerged from the construction had 15 rooms within a stone shell of huge granite hard heads that had been gathered from the surrounding hills.

It was a fanciful structure of massive cut rock with turret-like chimneys, an arched entryway, and large bright windows. It was built to last an eternity. Constructing the mansion was a difficult task. Teams of horses were needed to haul the huge loads of building equipment up into the hills. Construction took over a year, stretching from 1893 to late in the following year.

The grand opening of the Osler’s mansion was held in September, 1894. Osler chartered a special parlour car from the Grand Trunk Railway and hosted a gala excursion of family, friends, and business confidants. It was a spectacular outing. The Blue Mountains were just turning to yellow and gold. The view of the valley below was breathtaking.

Caroline Osler fell in live with her new summer home, the natural beauty of the setting, and the prospect of happy summer days that lay ahead. She named the cottage Kionontio, a First Nations name meaning “Top of the Hill.”

And well pleased Caroline should have been. The many bedrooms of the Castle were richly furnished in mahogany, walnut, quarter cut oak (white and red), bird’s eye maple, and butternut. The huge living room, dining room, and parlour were similarly endowed with woodwork while stained glass graced the windows.

There was a large wine cellar, elevators to the upper floors designed to accommodate Mrs. Osler’s wheelchair, and massive fireplaces to take the chill off cool summer evenings. The furnishings were mostly from England as were the dishes, silverware and crystal. They had arrived, packed in large cases that had been shipped across the Atlantic and hauled up the narrow roadway.

Caroline Osler would never enjoy a summer at Kionontio. On May 3, 1895, she died in Toronto. Britton Bath Osler never recovered from the death of Caroline. While he would continue to visit his summer home over the next five years, much of the joy of Kionontio passed with his wife.

But visit he did. Local residents would often catch a glimpse of his four-in-hand carriage with a coachman suitably attired with plug hat and tails. He would wait at the train station to meet Mr. Osler and his friends and then convey them up the mountain.

The attraction in those late years of the century was fishing. Osler built two dams on his estate, stocking the water with speckled trout. He also partly enclosed his acreage with sturdy fences for the containment of a resident herd of white-tailed deer. Konontio came to be known as Deer Park by many who lived in the area. The estate was finally finished when a huge barn, a gatekeeper’s house, and caretaker’s resident were built.

And then it began to disintegrate. In the last year of his life, Britton Bath’s health kept him from taking a great interest in Kionontio. After his death in 1901, things began to fall apart. How rapidly the mansion ran down is a matter of conjecture. One report states that the estate was kept in good repair for some decades. Anther account claims that both nature’s elements and vandals struck hard and fast.

No matter. The property drifted into the hands of the township and through non-payment of taxes, was soon reduced from the original 330 acres to a baker’s dozen. Rumours, mysterious tales and dark legends began to circulate. The Castle was said to be haunted. Strange lights could be seen winking on and off while horrible noises were reported to be heard, emanating from the ruined mansion.

Like its counterpart north of Wiarton, both the Corran, built by Alexander McNeill, and Osler’s Kionontio were left with many of the original furnishings intact – until vandals arrived. One by one they vanished, the furniture, mirrors and small items reported to be “too numerous to mention.” The windows and doors were smashed. Even the large beams in the living room were removed by souvenir hunters.

Eventually, only a shell was left. The romantic days of Osler’s mansion were over. Only the rubble remained. Kiononto was, for a few brief summers, a place of enchantment. And then it was gone.

See: http://www.owensound.library.on.ca/page.php?PageID=222.

The above picture was copied from - http://www.ontarioabandonedplaces.com/osler/oslercastle.asp. I’m not sure if the man in the picture is Britton Bath Osler.

Map picture

Directions: You can either park on Northmount Crescent and there are entry ways into the woods (via small roads) where the castle lies at the end of the trail (past the lake to the West, across the land bridge, and east up the hill) or you can park at the beginning of the tractor trail on the North side of Mountain Road/Highway 19. The beginning of the trail is marked with a chain and small grassy area.

4 comments:

JLake said...

This reminded me a little of the ruins at Rockwood Conservation Area, of which several years ago I took some photographs which turned out quite well considering the dubious quality of my camera.

Seeing as it is a conservation area, Rockwood is probably a little less remote than the typical shooting site to which you're drawn, but thinking of Rockwood reminded me of some ruins along the walking path in Elora which borders the south side of the gorge.

I stopped there once on a backroad journey between Barrie and St. Thomas, with my wife and son, who was then 3 years old. He whined of having to go for a walk so, knowing of the ruins, I concocted a story about wanting to visit an old troll friend who lived in a crumbling cottage. I talked all about him on the way to the ruins, then arrived to find the troll not at home.

To continue the walk, I carried it further, saying that he must have gone to visit the cave goblin who lived down near the river. We pursued the path to a small cave I knew was near the river. Sadly, neither the troll nor the goblin were there.

I felt a little guilty setting Gregory up for disappointment, but the walk was enjoyed by all, and I believe I told him a sufficiently imaginative story about the troll, the goblin, and how they became friends, that Gregory felt quite like he knew the characters of the story without having to meet or see them.

If you've never been to Elora, it's easily a day trip from where you live, and worth the trip. To find the ruins -- if you're not familiar with them -- type Metcalfe St, Elora, ON into Google Maps. The pointer will land on the north side of the bridge. If I remember it correctly, travelling north along Metcalfe St, turn left immediately before crossing the bridge, and park in the adjacent lot. The trail head is clearly visible, and the ruins are only a short walk down the path.

Elora's charms are not limited to the gorge alone. Together with a swimming hole between Elora and Fergus for those who enjoy high dives, non-chlorinated water, and sun, there are also quite a few delightful shops in Elora proper, many constructed from limestone mined from the quarry down the road. In spring, the streets are awash in vibrant and fragrant lilac trees. Or are they cherry blossom trees? It's been so long since I've visited, I can't remember.

- Jesse.

Heather said...

Wonderful! I have been to Elora, but not in many years. If I remember correctly, I think I have an old picture (pre-digital) of me in front of one, although I don't remember clearly. I will definately be checking this out - thanks for the tip on a location Jesse!

JLake said...

It occurred to me that using the word "ruins" might have been a tad misleading. In the context of castle ruins, or ancient Mayan ruins, or ruins in the Roman forum, the "ruins" at Elora are not so grandiose as to earn the name. I don't know the building's history, but it looks like an old house.

I still think Elora is worth the drive, but I felt I had better intervene lest you run away with your imagination, then go up there and be disappointed!

Heather said...

In Ontario, a lone stone wall is exciting enough, lol. I know what you mean though - it's small, I remember now, but combined with the trails, still worth the drive :)