Hamilton is home to 15 National Historic Sites of Ontario’s total of 266. The celebrated Dundurn Castle and the Royal Botanical Gardens head the list. But a lesser known jewel is Whitehern, the home for over 100 years of the McQuesten family.
Your intrepid Historic Site adventurers spent a portion of one warm, late summer day exploring Whitehern. We used the time to soak in the history of the singular family who lived there.
If we’d arrived at night, we might have come body-to-body with the ghost who’s said to lurk around the walled estate. For you see, scandal and tragedy go hand in hand with the McQuestens.
So stick around for the story. You’ll be glad you did.
In the early 1830’s, with the young Queen Victoria about to ascend the British throne, Calvin McQuesten, a New York State medical doctor picked up stakes to move to the sleepy town of Hamilton in Upper Canada. Dr. McQuesten sought to make his fortune in industry, not in medicine.
With three partners, Dr. Calvin started a foundry business, churning out furnaces and the newly-invented threshing machines . Timely commodities in this northern land of ice, snow and wide-open spaces. Calvin and his partners soon were making money hand over fist.
But Upper Canada was a rambunctious place, with rebellions and intrigue around every corner. Calvin, two times a widower delayed bringing his two young sons, Calvin Jr. and Isaac to join him until the political situation calmed.
In 1853, the boys arrived. Now to find a mother for them. Enter school teacher Elizabeth Fuller. Promising to love, obey, and respect, Elizabeth married Calvin McQuesten in 1853. The same year, Calvin purchased the gracious Hamilton estate, Whitehern for his wife and family.
The newly installed Elizabeth McQuesten soon made it clear that motherhood did not fit into her long-range plans. She instructed her stepsons to call her “Mrs. McQuesten,” then sent them away to boarding school. Elizabeth planned her future around shopping and travelling first-class around the U.S. and Europe.
A serendipitous outcome for Whitehern, of Elizabeth McQuesten’s shopping addiction was the acquisition of many of the exceptional Victorian furnishings seen at the home today. Then as now, a woman’s shopping pasttimes bring blessings, as well as curses.
By 1857, Dr. Calvin retired from business, selling his share of the company to his nephews. He retired to Whitehern with a fortune of more than $500,000. No doubt, the free-spending Elizabeth rubbed her hands together with anticipatory shopping glee.
In time, McQuesten Ltd. was purchased by the Massey family who renamed it the Massey-Harris Company. Under this flagship the firm became one of the North American leaders in the manufacture of farming equipment.
Now with time (and money) on his hands, Dr. Calvin McQuesten threw himself into his favourite hobby—-financing and supervising the building of Presbyterian Churches in the Hamilton area. Four churches rose thanks to McQuesten money.
Committed to the education of women, Dr. Calvin McQuesten was also instrumental in the founding of Wesleyan Ladies College in Hamilton.
Time passed, and with McQuesten in ill-health, a pitched battle for control of his estate ensued between Isaac, Calvin Jr. and the spendthrift Elizabeth. In the end, blood won.
Before his death in 1885, Dr. Calvin drew up a will that named his two sons as heirs, noting that Elizabeth “has become more indifferent, intolerable and unkind . . . and has absented herself from house for a lengthened period recently without the consent and contrary to the wishes and directions of said Calvin McQuesten.”
Eventually Elizabeth was granted a small annuity and retired to the U.S. All furnishings that she had brought to Whitehern remained in the home.
Alas! the McQuesten business magic was not to endure long. Within three years of Dr. Calvin’s death, Isaac, now in charge of the family fortune was in a bad way. He’d squandered much of it—an estimated $900,000– through bad investments and an addiction to alcohol. Isaac McQuesten committed suicide with an overdose of barbituates and alcohol in 1888.
He left his wife Mary to care for the couple’s six children, ages 4 to 13.
Stories have persisted since Isaac McQuesten death of an unearthly apparition wandering nights through Whitehern. History records a maid’s report of her enounter:
She was violently shoved aside…so strong that she braced herself against the wall to stop herself from falling down the stairs. Regaining her footing, she saw a shadowy figure of a man, grey in colour, rush past her, down the stairs and out the front door.
Could this be the ghost of Isaac trying to escape the house?
Left virtually penniless, Mary McQuesten soldiered on, raising her family at Whitehern in “genteel poverty.” She died in 1934.
Curiously, none of the McQuesten children married. The most renowned of them, Thomas, became a Member of the Ontario Legislature, becoming Minister of Transportation. He was instrumental in the building of the QEW, the Skyway Bridge and Rainbow Bridge to the U.S. He was also a guiding light behind the formation of McMaster University and the Royal Botanical Gardens.
In 1959, the remaining McQuesten siblings agreed that on the death of the last, their illustrious home would be willed to City of Hamilton. In 1968, Whitehern passed to city ownership, and eventually opened as a museum.
A visit to Whitehern today is a step into the affluence and consumerism of the Victorian and Edwardian age.
The sturdy stone wall that separates the gracious home from the bustle of downtown Hamilton, and the elegant gardens that surround it, only hint at the grandeur within.
With an estimated 30,000 original artifacts, including furnishings, curios and collectibles; books, artwork, letters, diaries and documents, Whitehern has been described as a “time capsule to an age long past.” Museum staff has been assisted in their efforts to re-create Whitehern by the memories of an aged, but still cognizant former housemaid.
In recognition of its importance, Whitehern was designated as a National Historic Site in 1962.
41 Jackson Street West,