Sir William Van Horne began his railway career as a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railway in 1857 and worked his way up from ticket agent to train dispatcher, then Superintendent of Telegraphs and finally to Division Superintendent. He was successful in rebuilding and consolidating several US based railways and in 1881 he was enticed to undertake the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In September 1885 Van Horne became CPR Vice-President. Within four years he was elevated to the position of President. He became Chairman of the CPR Board in 1899 and he resigned in 1910.
Sir William Van Horne was flamboyant, outspoken and multi-talented. His interests were legend as was his sophistication. He had a passion for art and he dabbled in architecture. Incredibly, while the CPR's contract with the government dictated completion of the road within a decade, Van Horne - through sheer determination - found ways to finish it in five. Even more remarkably, once Van Horne had completed the CPR, he operated it and, despite the economic malaise for most of the 1880s and 1890s, made it into a paying proposition. Surely, the Canadian Pacific's role as an instrument of Canadian nationalism would have followed a different course, had Van Horne not been at the helm.
Van Horne purchased part of Minister's Island in 1890. He continued to buy other parcels with the last piece being purchased by his daughter Addie after Sir William's death in 1915. He constructed a summer estate on the site which included Covenhoven - a 50-room summer home with walls constructed from sandstone cut from the shore, a windmill, leading edge gas plant, carriage house, garage, circular bath house and farm buildings. The centrepiece of the agricultural buildings is the livestock barn, a massive two-story timber structure with a hipped gable roof, which was home to Van Horne's thoroughbred horses and prized herd of Dutch belted cattle.
In its day, the Island and Van Horne's activities were a major tourist draw for St Andrews and played a major role in the economic development and support of the region. Indeed he was single-handedly responsible for attracting many of his wealthy friends who came and made St Andrews their summer homes and established St Andrews as Canada's first and oldest seaside resort. Van Horne's engagement of Edward Maxwell, the renowned Boston and Montreal Architect in the creation and design of Covenhoven and the large agricultural barn set the stage for Maxwell's shaping of many of the magnificent buildings in St Andrews that charm visitors and tourists today.
The centrepiece of Van Horne's agricultural buildings is the livestock barn, a massive two-story timber structure with a hipped gable roof, which was home to Van Horne's thoroughbred horses and prized herd of Dutch belted cattle. The historic barn was designed and constructed in 1899 by Edward Maxwell and Sir William Van Horne. The barn is an integral part of the Island summer estate and reflects the importance Van Horne attached to both architecture and agriculture.