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Dundurn Castle – Hamilton’s own historic castle

September 2020

Of the many historic buildings in Hamilton, Ontario, Dundurn Castle is one of the best known. Dundurn Castle is an 18,000-square-foot, forty room Italianate-style villa, built over a three year period and completed in 1835, as the home of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, 1st Baronet.

MacNab was a lawyer, land owner, businessman, militia officer and politician, who would serve as the representative for Hamilton in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada (known as Canada West after 1841) from 1830 to 1857, including a term as Premier from 1854 to 1856.

He further served in the Legislative Council of the Province of Canada, the upper house of the United Canadas from 1860 until his death on 8 August 1862.

During his lifetime, McNab was also instrumental in improving the life of residents of the growing Town of Hamilton by helping to establish a railroad company, the Great Western Railway, of which he was president from 1845 to 1854, and the first bank in Hamilton.

McNab bought the land for Dundurn Castle from Richard Beasley, a fellow businessman and politician, in what was known as Burlington Heights. Dundurn Castle was built on the foundations of what had been Beasley’s brick home.

The land had previously been used as a fortified military encampment during the War of 1812. It was from this camp that British soldiers and Mohawk warriors, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Harvey, were dispatched to intercept American soldiers during the Battle of Stoney Creek. This was the pivotal battle of the war where LCol Harvey’s smaller force successfully held back a much larger American force and forced them to withdraw back across the Niagara River.

The “castle,” named Dundurn after the Gaelic worf for “strong fort.” It was known all over British North America not just for its luxurious appointments and grand social functions, with guests like Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII occasionally in attendance.

Dundurn Castle was also known for its gas lighting, plumbing, and an indoor toilet, something very progressive for the time, along with its gardens and many unusual outbuildings.

Military Service

While serving in the Upper Canada Legislature, MacNab was an opponent of William Lyon Mackenzie’s reform movement, a movement that led to the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837.

As a Colonel in the British militia in Upper Canada, MacNab took part in raids on the rebel headquarters at Montgomery’s Tavern in York (now Toronto), and on and sinking of Makenzie’s supply ship, the S.S. Caroline, at Navy Island in the Niagara River, an action that became known as the “Caroline Affair.”

When word came that rebel leader Charles Duncombe was leading a large group of rebels from London to York, to assist Mackenzie’s rebels, MacNab was dispatched to intercept Duncombe. Before Duncombe could reach Hamilton, he got word of Mackenzie’s defeat and that MacNab and his men were waiting for him. The rebels dispersed and Duncombe and fellow rebels like William Lyon Mackenzie and Eliakim Malcolm fled to the United States.

For his actions in crushing the rebellion, MacNab was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1838.

Duncombe was one of the central organizers of the Hunters’ Lodge, a Masonic-type secret society of around 40, 000 men, with lodges spread across the Great Lakes and St Lawrence area, and its Grand Lodge in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the Hunters’ Lodge that launched the Patriot War in 1838, a conflict fought along the Canada-U.S. border by rebels like Duncombe and Mackenzie against British North America, with the intent of establishing a Republic of Canada. The rebellion ended with a final battle on Navy Island near Niagara Falls.

Dundurn Castle after Sir Alan McNab

When McNab died in 1862, he was originally buried on the Dundurn estate grounds but in 1909, his body was exhumed and re-interred in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, in what was then known as East Flamborough Township (now a part of Burlington). Sadly, his grave was unmarked until the Canadian Club of Hamilton installed a grave marker and a memorial bench in 1967.

In the immediate years after MacNab’s death, the estate was used as an institution for deaf mutes. It was purchased by businessman and senator Donald McInnes in 1872, who owned it until selling it to the City of Hamilton in 1899, a year before his death.

Today, Dundurn Castle is open to the public as a museum, restored to represent daily life in 1850s Upper Canada. The grounds are now called Durdurn Park, and used for various community and private functions, along with occasional military parades and as an ideal location for formal photography, like weddings.

Many of the outbuildings have been converted for use by various functions:

The Coach House, built in the 1870s, is a gift shop and where you buy your admission tickets, with a meeting and reception facility upstairs in the former hayloft.

The Folly, a building constructed primarily for decoration, is now known as The Cockpit Theatre, a nod to a suspected use as a cockfighting ring, although there is no proof of this usage. The Folly is now used for outdoor events and theatrical performances. It’s past uses possibly included a laundry, a boat-house, a buttery, an office, and a chapel for Sir Allan’s Roman Catholic wife.

The Hamilton Military Museum, located in the former gate house, features displays on the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837, the Boer War, World War I and World War II. The gate house was built by Sir Allan MacNab in the late 1830s, atop a battery from the War of 1812, thus giving the building its name: Battery Lodge. The museum’s Patron is Her Royal Highness Camilla, The Duchess of Cornwall, who just happens to be the great, great, great granddaughter of Sir Allan MacNab.

The gatehouse had to be moved in the 1970s, when York Boulevard was widened.

The iron gates that once marked the front entrance of the property that originally welcomed MacNab’s guests, were transported to Upper Canada from England. The stone pillars on either side of the gate were cut from stone taken from the Niagara Escarpment in nearby Dundas. A portion of the gate were re-located to the Chedoke Golf Club in 1931.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dundurn_Castle, https://www.hamilton.ca/attractions/hamilton-civic-museums/dundurn-national-historic-site, https://theheartofontario.com/article/dundurn-castle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_MacNab, https://www.hamilton.ca/attractions/hamilton-civic-museums/hamilton-military-museum, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriot_War.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/dundurn-castle-hamiltons-own-historic-castle/

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