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Thanksgiving Day, October 18, 1900, was a beautiful autumn day in the Ottawa area. The weather was sunny but cool, with a temperature about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The trees in the Gatineau Hills were ablaze in their autumn colours.

On that day the twenty-five year old Deputy Minister of Labour and editor of the federal government's new periodical, Labour Gazette, and his assistant cycled the four miles from Chelsea railway station to Kingsmere after a train ride out from Ottawa. The Deputy Minister and editor was William Lyon Mackenzie King and his assistant was Henry Albert Harper, a close friend since college days and colleague in the office of the Labour Gazette.

In a letter to his father written two days later, Mackenzie King has left us with this description of his first visit to Kingsmere:

Harper and I had a splendid day together. We left [Ottawa] at 6:30, had breakfast at 7:15 and left the station at 8 for Chelsea 15 miles away. Then we took our wheels and rode to Kingsmere, a beautiful lake at the foot of King’s Mountain, the highest point on the Laurentian group. There we had another breakfast about 9:45 and started after for a climb, thro’ the woods to the top. The view was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. There on a summit some 2000 feet above the mountain lake we saw reflecting in a semi circle about us the Ottawa River, the Parliament Buildings like small tents against the horizon to the east, and great stretches of meadow, forest land to the south and west. The trees were one mass of color, beautiful fall tints, they seemed to be full of music, it was like listening to a great world chorus to see the beautiful hues of color as it seemed to rise heavenward from there. We sat on a high rock, by the side of the large cross which has fallen toward the east and was once raised on the summit towards the sky. There we read for two hours from the little volume of "Essays on Nature and Culture" [by H.W. Mabie] the most beautiful little soul inspiring book that has ever come into my hands. I am reading it for the fourth or fifth time and enjoy it ever more and more. The writer has seen God in His universe and in man has with a master’s skill been able to reveal Him to us who are mostly clay. After having lunch of a roast chicken which we pulled limb from limb to the fashion of the natural man, we descended again thro’ the trees and taking another stroll by the lake—which legend or truth has to be fathomless—we mounted our wheels and rode back 15 miles in a little over an hour, the wind being with us and road most down hill. (1)

As there is no entry in King’s famous diary for this date, this appears to be the only detailed description of this visit to Kingsmere.(2) While he mentions Kingsmere frequently in his memoir of Harper published five years later, King does not describe the first visit there.(3) Also there is a gap in the diary at the time of his arrival at Kingsmere in the summer of 1901 when he might have described his visit there during the previous October.(4) A list of finances at the end of the 1900 diary contains the following details of expenditures incurred during the October 18th trip to Kingsmere: (5)

  • Ticket to Chelsea .30 cts.
  • Breakfast for 2 .50
  • On lunch .25

With this visit one of the most important chapters in King’s life had opened. It was to be an important part of his life for the next fifty years. King and Harper returned to Kingsmere in the summer of 1901.(6) The future Prime Minister was also joined by his mother and other friends. By September, 1901 King was considering the purchase of a lot at Kingsmere. Two years later he purchased about three acres of land. Later the same year he built a small cottage (Kingswood) on the property. Throughout the years King acquired five hundred acres of property at Kingsmere. Eventually the estate contained five houses and cottages. During the 1930s King erected most of his stone ruins on his estate. Many roads and trails were opened on the estate. Many world statesmen visited King at his estate during his long political career. King continued to spend some time at Kingsmere each summer for the remainder of his life and died there on July 22, 1950.

Why did the estate at Kingsmere mean so much to the man who dominated Canadian politics for half a century and was Prime Minister for twenty-one years? It provided him with a refuge away from the pressures of political life. Here he could come for weekends and for a few weeks in the summer to relax. There were the associations of visits by his family and friends such as Harper and there was the long association with his close friends, Godfroy and Joan Patteson, who rented a cottage from him for many years. His deep love of nature was satisfied by the beauty of the Gatineau Hills, for the “companionship of nature” was important to him.

He derived a great deal of pleasure, particularly in his earlier years, from the physical exercise involved with underbrushing and other operations around the estate. His estate provided him with space to go for walks with his friends and his beloved Irish terriers. He also relaxed by swimming and boating on Kingsmere Lake.

He enjoyed talking with workers on his estate as they went about the building projects and farm operations, and he found the planning of renovations and improvements to his property a pleasant experience. He enjoyed being able to give flowers and vegetables from his gardens to his friends. He also considered his property at Kingsmere an important financial investment.

King wrote all of his books at Kingsmere.(7) The natural beauty of the Gatineau Hills appealed very much to him. Of Kingsmere, he once wrote: “. . . a more beautiful spot than which there is not to be found along the range of the Laurentian hills.”(8) In short, it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Kingsmere estate in King’s life.

In February, 1950, only five months before his death, King prepared his will in which he bequeathed the property at Kingsmere to the people of Canada. In it he mentioned his first visit to Kingsmere and what his estate meant to him:

I came to Ottawa to reside in 1900, and on Thanksgiving Day of that year paid my first visit to Kingsmere. It is difficult for me to say how much Kingsmere has meant to me in meeting obligations of my public life. For nearly half a century Kingsmere has been my real home.(9)

End notes:

  1. National Archives of Canada (NAC), William Lyon Mackenzie King Papers. MG26, J7 Series, vol. 5, W.L.Mackenzie King to John King, October 20, 1900.
  2. Unfortunately the diary does not contain entries for the period from October 16 to October 18.
  3. W.L. Mackenzie King, The secret of heroism: a memoir of Henry Albert Harper (New York, Chicago, Toronto, London and Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1906).
  4. King was staying at Kingsmere by June 17, but there had been no entry in the diary from April 16 to June 17.
  5. NAC, WLMK Papers, Diary, 1900.
  6. Harper had been King's closest intimate friend since their days at the University of Toronto. It was to be the one and only summer they were able to spend together at Kingsmere. In December 1901 Harper drowned while attempting to rescue a young woman who had fallen through the ice on the Ottawa River.
  7. King was the author of five books: The Secret of Heroism (1906), Industry and Humanity (1918), The Message of the Carillon (1927), Canada at Britain's Side (1941) and Canada and the Fight for Freedom (1944).
  8. King, The Secret of Heroism, pp. 56-57.
  9. NAC, WLMK Papers, MG26, J17 Series, Box 1, Last will and testament of William Lyon Mackenzie King, February 28, 1950.