Kirkfield’s Mackenzie Mansion Saved from Demolition and Returned to Its Former Glory
November 4, 2023
Mackenzie Inn, Kirkfield
By Ross Duhaime
Originally Published in the Visitor, July 16, 1997
If the ghost of Sir William Mackenzie still roams his Kirkfield Estate, he is surely smiling. The lavish mansion with its lush and pastoral grounds is a centrepiece to the village of Kirkfield. It’s also an appropriate tribute to one of the country’s most important and uncelebrated historical figures.
A few short years ago, the Mackenzie mansion was on the fast track to a date with the wrecking ball. After more than two years of total neglect, the landmark building was quickly slipping into a state of disrepair that would very soon progress beyond the point of no return.
In the fall of 1993, fortune smiled on the mansion, just as it smiled so many times on Mackenzie himself. Joan and Paul Scott happened to be passing through the village with friends on their way to the Kirkfield liftlock. They couldn’t help but notice the stately building beyond the crumbling brick fence in the heart of town. And when they noticed the ‘For Sale’ sign, they were sold.
Two weeks later they were the owners of a mansion which was rich in heritage, but exceedingly poor in condition. Buying properties and fixing them up is somewhat of a hobby for the Scotts. This is our 32nd property,” Paul said with a grin. “We were ready for another challenge and that’s why we did it.”
Restoring this building certainly was a challenge. Everything of value had been carried off by previous owners or vandals. The light fixtures, plumbing, furnace and even the septic pump had been removed. Anything that worked was gone, said Paul.
Though enormous, the challenge was not insurmountable. By the following spring a new sign was hung by the front gate welcoming guests to the Sir William Mackenzie Inn. The mansion, now largely restored to its previous glory and furnished throughout with exquisite antiques had been transformed into one of the most luxurious bed and breakfasts anywhere.
The creation of an inn was meant to be a channel for the new retirees to focus their energies on. Little did Paul realize his vague knowledge of Mackenzie’s past would blossom into a passion to share this rich chapter of Canadian history with others.
With help from area residents, Rae Fleming in particular, Paul has become a Mackenzie aficionado (Dr. Fleming is the author of The Railway King of Canada, a fascinating biography of Sir William Mackenzie.) In addition to the customary tasks of an innkeeper, Paul also serves as a tour guide of the Inn. He freely shares his newfound knowledge of the railway baron with guests, groups from schools, historical societies and various tour groups. And it appears, he has no shortage of material with which to work. It seems Mackenzie has as much to do with the foundation of Canada as any man.
Born in 1849 in a log cabin in Kirkfield, William Mackenzie was the ninth of 10 children. He was educated to be a teacher, but soon tired of his posting in Eldon Township and set off to make his fortune building bridges and station houses for the railway. By the time he was 39, Mackenzie was one of the wealthiest men in Canada and decided to retire back to Kirkfield with his wife, Margaret. He built the three-storey, 40-room mansion in 1888 for the lofty sum of $18,000.
Retirement was not in the cards for this ambitious entrepreneur. Instead, he sought out other opportunities to expand his wealth, which led him to Toronto and away from his new mansion. In a nutshell, Sir William’s accomplishments include pioneering Canada’s railway system, urban transit systems and trans-Atlantic shipping. Mackenzie was responsible for the construction of large sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia and the development of the Canadian Northern Railway, which later became a large part of the Canadian National Railway. When you step aboard a streetcar in Toronto, remember it was Mackenzie who initially electrified his Toronto Street Railway. He was also involved in city transit projects in Montreal and Winnipeg and owned one of the fastest steamship fleets on the Atlantic. Later in his life, Mackenzie organized, and was chairman of the board for Brazilian Traction (now Brascan).
With all this on his plate, Sir William didn’t have a great deal of time to spend at his Kirkfield mansion. When he died in 1923, the house was left to the Sisters of St. Joseph, who ran it until 1969 as St. Margaret’s School for Young Ladies. From that point on, the mansion went through a succession of owners and failed ventures. Ultimately, it sat vacant for two years, its majestic brick gateway crumbling, until the Scotts’ fateful visit to Kirkfield. The Sir William Mackenzie Inn is open throughout the summer. It boasts seven large and elegant bedrooms, each with ensuite baths. The modest rates included a guided tour of the facility, which include 13 acres of lush gardens and lawns beneath the generous shade of century-old pines that were planted by Lady Mackenzie. The grounds also feature a fascinating collection of large wood sculptures, carved from the wood of some of Lady Mackenzie’s pines that were blown down in a 1995 wind storm.