On July 1, 1901, a line of carriages with well groomed horses formed at the Wiarton train station, moved up the steep Division Street hill to Gould Street and then proceeded north a half mile, through bush, before turning right through magnificent stone gates. At the end of a long, well gravelled lane they found manicured lawns, flower gardens and a breath-taking view of Colpoy’s Bay along with a seventeen-room mansion on a property owned by Alexander McNeill. This exceptionally fine gentleman, who had been educated in England and Dublin to be a lawyer, was the long-time Liberal Conservative Member of Parliament for North Bruce; however, he had recently decided not to run again.
On this Dominion Day, McNeill and his wife Hester had invited wealthy political friends to a garden party. The first few hours were spent in polite conversation, with violin music wafting through the afternoon sunlight and the ladies daintily sipping lightly flavoured champagne. Then the guests were ushered into the manor house to tour one of the finest country mansions in Canada. The McNeills had the best of draperies, furniture, books, oriental carvings and other accoutrements; luxury that few of the guests could equal. Almost everything had been shipped across the sea from Ireland.
This was only one of the many days of entertainment staged by the proud owners of The Corran, the Irish name given to their colonial paradise.
Sir John McNeill, Alexander’s father, had sold his estate in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, to come to Canada with his wife and nephew, John. He was bent on developing his new land near Paisley into an estate patterned after his ancestral home overlooking the coastal cliffs of Antrim. Unfortunately, the younger John was crushed to death under a load of logs only a few months after their arrival. Then, Sir John sent for his son, Alexander, to come from his Dublin law practice. Alexander immediately obeyed, bringing his wife, Hester, with him in 1881.
Unsatisfied with the topography of the Paisley property, Alexander began looking for more suitable land on which he could build an estate worthy of a wealthy Irish gentleman—something more closely resembling home. After searching for some time he found exactly what he wanted; three hundred acres bordering on the escarpment just north of Wiarton. It was much like the ancestral home site in County Antrim. He purchased the land and immediately called it The Corran, which means ‘the land running into the sea’, though the waters below were fresh. Building what was to become a seventeen roomed mansion began almost immediately.
Hester died before her new home could be completed, but Alexander carried on. He became greatly interested in farming, especially stock breeding, and soon his cattle were the best in Bruce County. He spared no expense in importing Durham and Shorthorn breeding stock from England. He built barns made of local stone and finished them inside like a house with plastered walls and hand polished woodwork. He brought his boy-hood friend Alfred Lewis and his family from England to manage the estate. An outbuilding housed the Delco generator; this provided electrical power to the manor and barns and lit up the paths threading through his three acres of flower gardens. It was the first use of electricity in the Bruce Peninsula.
Other buildings on the estate included an ice-house, cottages for guests, horse-stables, a coach shed, several gazebos, and a modest home for Mr. Lewis.
Alexander McNeill held many musical parties both inside the manor and in the gardens with the finest bands he could find. The music would drift out across the waters of Georgian Bay to be heard by anyone who happened to be out in his canoe.
The manor house was built of cut-stone. The library was filled with mahogany bookcases holding the finest leather-bound books. The conservatory, drawing-rooms, dining-rooms, grand bedrooms, and powder-rooms added to the grandeur. Of course, they needed servants as well, and proper quarters for them were made in the basement. Windows were graced with stained glass and brocade curtains imported from Europe. Walls were covered with heavy decorative wall-paper and there were as many stone fireplaces as rooms.
In 1931 Alfred Lewis was killed in a rare hit and run accident. Alexander never recovered from his death.
The McNeills had one son, Malcolm, who lived all his life on the estate, except for a brief time when he held a commission in the Royal Irish Rifles; according to rumours, this was purchased by his wealthy father. After Alexander died in 1932, at the age of eighty-nine, Malcolm fell heir to the Corran. He had never worked a day in his life, and his interests never seemed to go far beyond lawn bowling and breeding game birds. Despite a considerable inheritance, he never owned a car and never married. He did, however, import an Irish house-keeper who stayed with him for two decades. Gradually, with no new income, the Corran started running down. A friend of his father, the poet William Wilfred Campbell, begged Malcolm to sell the estate, but he refused and wouldn’t leave. Finally, he sadly sold part of the land to pay back taxes.
Malcolm died destitute in 1956, leaving a crumbling estate to his faithful house-keeper, Sally. She could cope with neither the inheritance nor Malcolm’s outstanding debts. She closed off most of the rooms and lived in the kitchen. Finally, neighbours coaxed her into selling the Corran and moving into town.
The new Toronto owners never moved north. The Corran sat empty and unguarded.
By 1964 vandals had broken every stain-glass window, pulled books from the shelves and torn them to shreds, smashed the doors, ripped out the light-fixtures and shredded the drapes. The hand-carved circular stair-case was stolen and the panelling was pried off the walls by looters vainly seeking hidden money. Even the hand-cut stones used to build the walls were pried loose and taken as souvenirs. The flower gardens, orchards and trees grew wild. Vandals burned the barns and cottages and in the spring of 1976 someone torched the manor. Today, only charred walls remain.
Even though the condition of the Corran is well known, many summer wedding pictures are still taken in front of the shell or in the overgrown gardens where people of fame once walked on flag stone paths, surrounded by over five hundred blossoming rose-bushes.
However, I cannot visit these ruins without dreaming of the once fine country estate, so out of place, and now gone.