The mansion on top of Burlington Heights

Up on Burlington Heights, off of York Boulevard, sits Dundurn Castle: a picturesque mansion from the 19th century, a steady top 10 TripAdvisor attraction for our city, and a must-visit for both Hamiltonians and visitors from far-and-wide.

The short history of Dundurn Castle

Let’s go back to the 1830s. On Burlington Heights lives Richard Beasley, one of the first Hamiltonians. His house sits in what is nowadays known as Dundurn Park, where just two decades beforehand a military encampment was established by the British.

Due to recent financial struggles, Beasley is forced to put up his land for sale. Along comes Sir Allan Napier MacNab, railway magnate and lawyer (and who would later become one of Canada’s first premiers). He purchases the land and commissions architect Robert Charles Wetherell to build Dundurn Castle on top of the foundations of the brick house currently on the grounds, making sure to incorporate some elements of the original military post into the new villa (such as an original gunpowder magazine from the war of 1812).

After three years and $175,000 spent, the mansion is completed in 1835. All 40 rooms are equipped with the latest conveniences, such as gas lighting and running water.

MacNab and his family would remain in the mansion – restoring and expanding it along the way – until his passing in 1862. All the while he enjoyed life to its fullest, making Dundurn Castle famous across the country for its great entertainment. It also boasted a stunning kitchen garden curated by gardener William Reid for over 25 years.

The City of Hamilton steps in

After MacNab passed away, the mansion was for a period used as an institution for the deaf before being sold to business man and politician Donald McInnes in 1872 — this would be the last time the house was used as a family home. In turn, McInnes sold Dundurn Castle to the City of Hamilton in 1899 for a rumoured price of $50,000.

Over time a lot of effort has been put into renovations, ensuring that the public gets the best possible experience. The biggest of these came in the late 1960s, as part of the Canadian Centennial, when the provincial and national governments matched municipality investments in such renovations dollar-for-dollar.

In 1984, the site and all its buildings received the designation National Historic Site of Canada, making it just one of the 15 Hamilton sites with such a label.

Dundurn Castle today

Nowadays, the Dundurn National Historic Site can be visited by the general public (Tue-Sun, noon-4pm). By yourself or with a costumed tour guide, you can experience the daily life of the pre-confederation 1850s, the period of MacNab’s peak wealth. You will see how the wealthy family lived their lives upstairs, whilst the servants stayed downstairs, out of sight most of the day.

The family’s legacy lives on today as the museum’s royal patron Camilla, Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall is the great, great, great granddaughter of Sir Allan MacNab. She famously visited Dundurn in 2009.

There is, however, much more to the site than just the mansion and its famous lineage.

On the grounds, you will also find the Hamilton Military Museum. Here you can see displays on the role of women in the military, as well as battles such as World War I, World War II and the War of 1812. Additionally, you will see one of only two remaining dovecotes in Ontario; the other residing at Auchmar estate on the mountain. Neighbouring the dovecote you will find both the Coach House and MacInnes Stable. The grounds also house the Cockpit, gardener’s cottage, and kitchen garden.

During the summer you can drop by for historic garden tours. Garden coordinator Victoria Bick sticks to the castle’s 19th century roots, using traditional gardening methods to curate plants that would have been available in Hamilton during that time period rather than simply planting today’s current trends. Furthermore, the garden hosts over 200 historic varieties of the same vegetables, fruits, and flowers instead of a massive crop of just a single variety. The vast majority of the home-grown produce stays on site, used to make recipes from the 1800s in Dundurn’s own Historic Kitchen.

These dishes, including pickled veggies and homemade jams, are served to tour-goers throughout the year. You can also snag a taste by attending a cooking class or social event at the castle. Any leftover crops from the garden are donated to foodbanks. As a fun partnership last year, the garden produced hops that were used in a traditional beer recipe brewed by Valentino’s Restaurant!

If you know you’ll be visiting Dundurn in advance, you can sign up for a pre-registered event such as Dundurn at Dusk (a sunset tour on July 19th that involves a view of the Bay through the rarely opened Cockpit building as well as a food sampling from Dundurn’s own gardens), historic cooking workshops (next one is July 21st), or even consider planning your own social gathering at the Coach House, built in 1870.

Want to know more about Dundurn Castle?

The tour guides at Dundurn Castle are very happy to welcome you and tell you all they can about the history of this beautiful site. Tours run about every 30 minutes and last approximately 1 hour.

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