Dundurn Castle

An 18,000 sq. ft neoclassical mansion
built in 1835 by Canada's richest man



dundurn castle A magnificent 18,000 square foot mansion Dundurn Castle has for years been Hamilton’s premier visitor attraction and is today a designated National Historic Site of Canada. Built on a narrow stretch of land known as Burlington Heights separating Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbor) from Cootes Paradise its splendid location provides spectacular views over the surrounding landscape.

The “castle” is the former home of Sir Allan MacNab and when completed in 1835 it was the largest private residence in Canada. At the time MacNab, a soldier, lawyer, businessman and politician, was the richest man in Canada and he spared no expense on his home’s construction. His 13-hectare (32 acre) estate sits at the head of Lake Ontario and was designed to provide a statement as to his wealth and power.

The site has a long and storied history in the Hamilton area, as it was the former site of the home of Colonel Richard Beasley, one of the area’s earliest settlers and for whom an existing neighborhood in Hamilton is named. During the War of 1812 between Britain and the newly independent Untied States it was the site of a British military encampment and it was from this camp that the British after being warned by Billy Green “The Scout” began their march to nearby Stoney Creek to fight the famous Battle of Stoney Creek. Remnants of these British military earthworks are still to be found on the estate’s grounds.

MacNab purchased the property on 1833 and immediately hired well-respected local architect Robert Wetherell to design his home. Construction began the next year and the mansion he named: Dundurn (meaning: “strong fort” in Gaelic) and subsequently bestowed: “the castle” by admiring local inhabitants was completed in 1835. Construction costs were an astronomical (for the times) $175,000 but when completed the 72 room neoclassical mansion was larger and unlike anything ever seen in the burgeoning colony. It also featured the latest in technological conveniences including running water and gas lighting.

Upon completion of the main building MacNab continued to develop his estate’s grounds with gardens, undisturbed natural areas and beautiful out buildings. Subsequent owners continued to add other elements such as the classical portico of the main building and the stone stable. As the years progressed the huge costs associated with maintaining such a lavish building began to drain its owners pocketbooks and the mansion began a slow and steady deterioration.

The City of Hamilton purchased the estate in 1900 for $50,000 and has maintained it ever since. Over the years it has spent over $3 million renovating and maintaining the site and today 42 of the mansions 72 original rooms are open to the public. MacNab was at the height of his powers in 1855 when he was Prime Minister of the United Provinces of Canada and it is to this point that the rooms have been restored. Costumed guides dressed from this era today welcome visitors and the room’s furnishings provide a glimpse into this lavish lifestyle from the past.

Dundurn Castle however tells the story of both sides of its residents from its heyday. That of the rich MacNab family living upstairs and also illustrating the lifestyle of his servants living in the rooms below, a rare and unique glimpse into a bygone era from both perspectives.




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Location of the Dundurn Castle




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Getting to the Dundurn Castle:

From Downtown Toronto:
  • Take the Queen Elizabeth Way West towards Hamilton
  • In Burlington take Highway 403 West to Hamilton
  • Exit at York Boulevard and continue east to site

From Eastern Ontario:
  • Take Highway 401 West
  • Take Highway 427 South to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) Hamilton
  • Take the Queen Elizabeth Way West towards Hamilton
  • In Burlington take Highway 403 West to Hamilton
  • Exit at York Boulevard and continue east to site

From Northern Ontario:
  • Navigate to Highway 400 South
  • Highway 400 ends at Highway 401, take Highway 401 West
  • Take Highway 427 South to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) Hamilton
  • Take the Queen Elizabeth Way West towards Hamilton
  • In Burlington take Highway 403 West to Hamilton
  • Exit at York Boulevard and continue east to site

From Western Ontario:
  • Take Highway 401 East
  • At Woodstock take Highway 403 East to Hamilton
  • Exit at Highway #8 East (Main St. East)
  • Make an immediate left at Dundurn Street
  • Dundurn Street ends at York Boulevard, turn left onto York Boulevard and the mansion is on your immediate right

From Niagara Peninsula:
  • Take Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) East
  • In Burlington take Highway 403 West towards Hamilton
  • Exit at York Boulevard and continue east to site



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Dundurn Castle estate and grounds also has a number of interesting landmarks and buildings worth visiting:

Hamilton Military Museum

This small two-storied former outbuilding was re-located to its present site when street widening was undertaken on York Boulevard in the 1970’s. It contains artifacts such as weapons, uniforms, medals and photographs from:

  • War of 1812
  • Boer War
  • 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion
  • World War 1
  • World War II
  • Outside is a re-constructed WW1 trench and a few colonial era cannons


While not overly large the Museum should only take about 15 – 30 minutes to complete but does merit a visit for its historic artifacts. A small admission is charged but fees are waived for those who have paid for admission to Dundurn Castle.

Coach House

The owners of the mansion originally constructed this stone building in the 1870’s to house their horses and coaches and male servants were quartered on the second floor. Recently operated as the grounds restaurant it is no longer operating but its space can still be rented for corporate events.

At one time an attached aviary was also part of the building but has subsequently been removed. A building that hosed MacNab’s pigeons still remains.

Cockpit Theatre

One of Dundurn Castle’s favored buildings it is actually a folly as its true purpose will forever remain unknown. Most locals refer to it as housing MacNab’s cockfighting ring as he was an avid participant in this long since banned sport. Local lore has underground tunnels leading from it to the main mansion.

Other uses being designated to it include:
  • A Theatre
  • A boathouse
  • A laundry house
  • An Office
  • A chapel for his wife

What is true is that it has housed an occasional outdoor event it also provides a commanding and panoramic view over the surrounding watershed and remains a favorite location amongst local photographers.

Kitchen Garden

A recent addition to the Dundurn Park that surrounds the mansion is the reconstruction of his gardener’s William Reid kitchen garden. Gardeners in garb from the era attend to this Victorian garden and grow vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers that would have been readily grown at this time.

Visitors can stroll through the walled garden along pathways that would have been immediately recognizable to 1850’s inhabitants.


The surrounding grounds also include a 19th entrance entrance gate, an outdoor pavilion and military earthworks, remnants of the British military post from the War of 1812. There are also a number of cannons from this era placed in commanding views over the heights that were of prime strategic importance at this time.


Haunted Dundurn Castle

Another interesting aspect to visitors of Dundurn Castle is the fact that stories of its haunting have been mentioned in local lore for over a century.

There are many different aspects and reasons for these stories including:
  • In 1813 eleven men were hung for treason right across the street
  • In the earliest days of the settlement Cholera sheds were located across the street and subsequently many people died a grueling death within them
  • Aboriginal peoples have inhabited the site since prehistoric times and their spirits roam the lands
  • MacNab’s second wife was an alcoholic who wasted away inside the mansion and outside the room she occupied there is always a cold chill and unexplained breeze
  • Many visitors have commented on mysterious breezes and that fact they have heard music and singing, particularly a women’s voice
  • One of Sir Allan’s favorite pastimes was playing the bagpipes particularly on the roof of his castle overlooking the bay at night. Many people over the decades have reported hearing the eerie sound of bagpipes in the dead of night in the immediate area


Whatever the truth about its haunting, the stories just add to the charm of Dundurn Castle


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dundas castle cockpit theatre For visitors to Hamilton Ontario I highly recommend a visit to Dundurn Castle which was designated an National Historic Site in 1984.

The mansion and attached civic park have always been one the local inhabitants greatest source of pride. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours from your itinerary to see the entire grounds and all it has to offer. It also makes for a great addition if planning a visit to the nearby Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), which is just 5 minutes down the road.

While I do admit that the mansion does seem to be again a little on the tattered site and in need of some further sprucing up just the fact that you can glimpse into the lifestyle of an affluent family from this bygone era (1850’s) is worthy of a visit in itself. Many famous people have made the journey themselves including Sir John A. MacDonald Canada’s first and most famous Prime Minister, England’s King Edward VII and the present Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles, the wife of Prince Charles who is a direct descendant of Sir Allan MacNab being his great-great-great-grand daughter.

For more information as to opening times and admission fees visit:
www.hamilton.ca/dundurn-castle

Insider Tip: Sometimes you can get 2 admissions for the price of one visit:
www.attractionsontario.ca for more information.


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